Here’s my dilemma. I grok Banyan14’s spirit, like what the contemporary Thai and Vietnamese cafe brings to its scuffed patch of downtown Oakland, dig sitting in its earnestly clunky dining loft. Its two early-thirties owners cite street food as inspiration. But at each of three lunches, I’ve found myself craving more from the six-week-old restaurant—specifically, that electrified fusion of salty, sweet, sour, and hot flavors, the Day-Glo juice that runs through street noshes like green mango slices dipped in chili jam. Damn near overwhelmingly fishy and fusty.
The thing about describing your menu as Southeast Asian street food is that you set up expectations that what you’re dishing up is going to be vivid, maybe a tad funky or painfully spicy. To dust off a trope: fierce. Instead, Banyan14’s Thai Red Curry is mild as minestrone. Tasty, don’t get me wrong—chunks of sweet potato and winter squash, red peppers and mung sprouts, in a gently unctuous, pale-brick-colored coconut broth. You can add beef (among other proteins), as I did—turned out to be ultrathin shavings of flank, I think, stiffened into softly textural nibs.
It’s a nourishing curry, well cooked, and the individual elements all sparkled. But the curry itself was so clipped it left me frustrated, like when a head cold locks up your sinuses, except without even that slight burr of chile capable of penetrating even deadened taste sensors. Kind of like eating a Thai curry with your tongue sheathed in a condom.
So maybe I’m being dickish, demanding street-food verisimilitude 8,000 miles form Bangkok’s Yaowarat Road market. But there is an essential conflict within otherwise likable little Banyan14, whose aspirations are at least somewhat at odds with the food its owners think the clientele will tolerate. You can’t blame Lejla Borovacs and Amy Torgerson for making so reasonable a calculation. The restaurant sits smack across Fourteenth Street from the Oakland Federal Building. Is it wise to expose hapless bureaucrats to fierceness? To mark them with the aromas of garlic, fried shallot, and shrimp paste, then send them back to open cubes in windowless offices?
“We’ve taken some of the ingredients that not everybody is used to,” Borovacs told me by phone, “basically cleaned up the flavors, and adjusted them to the Western palate. They have to be subtle.” Thai food, really? Maybe. Then again, maybe not.
Borovacs works the counter (it’s quick-serve: you order, find a table, wait for your food); Torgerson, who has experience in corporate catering, mans the range on the open kitchen line. This is a first venture for the partners, who have worked together in other restaurants (most recently at RNM in Lower Haight). A year and a half ago they trekked Thailand for inspiration, and last July they picked up the keys to the Fourteenth Street space (it’d been a chop suey place). Lacking a sizeable budget, Borovacs and Torgerson leaned on family and friends to help with the extensive buildout.
A whole lot of oriented strand board and VOC-free soy paints later, Banyan14 was born: kitchen and register corralled behind a pony wall clad in black pebbles, sneeze-guard scrim embedded with bamboolike grasses, and a dark, mod-looking dining loft with luminous pools of halogen. Borovacs and Torgerson source biodegradable takeout containers, say they use organic produce when possible, and buy only what they call “natural” meats and wild or responsibly farmed seafood.
Where dishes need to be exuberantly fresh, Torgerson shines. Though you might think JJ Market Lettuce Wraps are a reference to JJ Fish & Chicken (the wings-and-catfish joint three or so storefronts down), in fact the name pays homage to Bangkok’s mad Chatuchak Weekend Market, aka JJ. The make-your-own wraps are delicious—crisp leaves of butter lettuce, into which you bundle slices of cold grilled chicken, rice noodles, bean sprouts, and pickled carrots and radishes. The accompanying peanut sauce is just right: fluid, not Jif gunky, and with nicely restrained sweetness.
Likewise, Banyan14’s Mango Avocado Salad is cold and crunchy, playful in a way that seems to draw inspiration, not from Asia, but from California’s hippie heritage. Big squares of fruit, peppers and carrots, and a greens mix composed from scratch, its ginger-lime dressing punched up via toasted sesame oil and sugar.
Sesame Noodle Salad is sweet, too: Fine strands of soba in sweetened wasabi dressing, layered casually with baby spinach leaves and apple slices (on the day I tasted it they were Fujis, not the Granny Smiths of the menu description; but hey, what do you want from a place still finding its legs?). The kitchen had forgotten to toss in squares of grilled marinated tofu, another rookie error; when I told the food runner, she bounded downstairs, returning with a plate of the stuff, which was delicious. No harm, no foul—except with strands of house-candied ginger, which somehow clumped together in the tossing, yielding distracting sugary clusters.
The Vietnamese Sandwich, Banyan14’s take on banh mi, seems pointless—in nearby Chinatown, you can get a more satisfying version for a quarter of the price (though, granted, it’ll have been made from cheaper materials). You choose your filling from the specials board; the chicken version brings slices from a grilled breast on an authentic Viet roll, only its been smeared with basil-cashew pesto and sambal aioli. The results are hoagie-like: neither textural, vinegary, nor spicy enough to pack that refreshing little shimmer you get from a bite of proper banh mi.
I like Torgerson’s Pad Thai (with optional deep-fried tofu)—tangy tamarind-laced noodles, tossed with what happened to be the house vegetables of the day, a mix of bok choy and broccoli cooked long enough to coax out the latter’s cabbage-y richness.
In the same way, the kitchen handled the Grilled Fish of the Day (it happened to be mahi-mahi) with something like the mixture of confidence and balls-out blast of garlic and ginger reminiscent of, well, street food. Bathed in soy and lime juice, garnished with avocado slices and cilantro, the fish arrived with deep black grill marks—they made it taste, I don’t know, like something cooked on a little brazier in a market stall.
And here’s maybe the best part: I found myself burping up the garlicky memory of its marinade for the rest of the afternoon. “Damn,” my husband said when I got home, waving his hands as if he were swatting flies, escaping to the far side of the kitchen. “What do you want?” I said. “I had Thai food.”
Keep making people stinky, Banyan14—you just might pull it off. —John Birdsall
Banyan14. 57 Fourteenth St. (near Jefferson St.), Oakland. 510-251-2753; www.banyan14.com
In February (March some years), bundles of asparagus in fake-turf-lined bins at Safeway invaded my mother’s vegetable consciousness. Few things had the power to pull Barb from her freezer or canned food pantry, with its precise rows of Mexi-corn and LeSeur petits pois. But asparagus had something mesmerizing—the irresistible force of tradition, memories of spring lust, whatever. And at exactly the time when the subtle shift from a California winter to a California spring registers as an inner urge, a condition unaffected by weather alone.
The first Delta asparagus—one of the few foods whose lofty price Barb never questioned—left no doubt about what season it was. Peeled, boiled stalks steaming on the plate, next to a lump of Best Foods straight from the jar. For luck, my brother and I would make a wish before chomping the first spear, which bobbed lazily when you picked it up. And while I’m pretty sure first asparagus always tastes sweet, I swear a measure of sucrose accrued in the cellular structure of those stalks from anticipation, in some complex alchemy of want. —John Birdsall
On Valentine’s Day my father cooked. Just for my mother, that is, and, since he couldn’t technically cook (unless you count steaks and burgers) he heated up: frozen Australian lobster tails, twice-baked potatoes, creamed spinach. He was a Safeway clerk and had dream access to the freezer aisle. I imagine him days before February 14, combing the luxury end of the freezer bin, weighing the likely effects of frozen chateaubriand or lobster Newburgh. Hopeful that the sheer physical beauty of factory-extruded potato, cheese, and guar gum could work a kind of magic on my mother’s heart.
On the big day I set the table, and helped with the heating up. In the neon orange glow of the electric broiler the lobsters swelled, white flesh miraculously puffing up through slits in their arched shells. Stuffed potatoes browned at the edges, shrinking away from the rolled-foil rims. Orange cheese melted, while flecks of paprika bled tiny vermilion stars into the delicious-looking surface.
As I set out cupcakes spackled with pink icing, stuck with plastic charms (a gold-edged rose, cupid with a blurry face) painted, I imagined, by hairnetted Chinese women who couldn’t possibly know about Valentine’s Day. I thought that love must be something complicated and baroque. Gilded with yellow cheese.
I once asked food writer Laxmi Hiremath (author of The Dance of Spices) what Valentine’s Day was like in southwest India, where she grew up. Valentine’s? It’s become a fever in only the last ten years or so—she noticed it on a trip to India one February, when university flower beds had been picked clean by students intent on giving filched blossoms to their squeezes. But it’s in India’s elaborate wedding preparations where love turns all baroque, Hiremath said. Especially through food.
Food is a vector of touching, a surreptitious way for couples to begin to explore each other’s bodies. With fingers dipped in turmeric paste, fiances paint each other’s faces, literally gilding one another with fragrance. Or plunge their hands into a huge mound of raw rice or lentils, feeling for a concealed ring—a way to touch your betrothed’s hands, semi-concealed from family’s unending gaze.
Husbands give their wives gifts in February, India’s romance month even before the shiny new Valentine’s import. Wives score jewelry and sarees; in return, they make elaborate sweets for their husbands: thin pancakes stuffed with pastes of lentils and jaggery laced with cardamom and nutmeg, and delicate vermicelli puddings.
Hiremath’s parents had an arranged marriage, best guarantee for a long, loving relationship. Or so she swears. “As couples grow older, they grow very close,” she said. Maybe. Certainly my seventysomething parents—whose marriage in the 1950s was arranged, I suppose, by a little bit of lust and a whole lot of family pressure—are inseparable, caught up in a shared life of bickering and tenderness.
Me, I like the idea of Hiremath’s India. In February, the month when Lord Shiva’s wife did penance to win his affections, and Indian classical music is full of melodies that mimic the trickling of honey, and the sounds of cuckoos feeding on mango shoots, women are cooking intricate recipes to win their husbands’ affections, gradually. Over time.
Call love a work in progress, on Valentine’s and most other days. Who knows? Maybe Stouffer’s creamed spinach—or the coffee I’ve made for my own husband nearly every day for the past 17 years—really does have transformative powers on the heart. —John Birdsall
The name’s a composite of character names in the 1970s Brit TV comedy Are You Being Served?, the lovably swishy Mr. Humphries and the imperiously blue-haired Mrs. Slocombe. But the ice creams at this spare Mission District shop have pristine ingredients, fine textures, and meticulously balanced flavors. Still, owner Jake Godby—a pastry chef who’s toiled in some of the finest restaurant kitchens in town—has a wicked sense of humor to go along with his mad skills. Secret Breakfast combines a heady slug of bourbon with clusters of corn flakes. Even flavors without overtly jokey names taste as if they were conceived by an ice cream maker with an arch palate, like the tart-sweet subversiveness that suffuses Balsamic Caramel, or the more or less fruity mindfuck that is Olive Oil. If ice creams had catchphrases, the stuff here would probably proclaim—like Mr. Humphries in the old sitcom—“I’m free!” —John Birdsall
Humphry Slocombe Ice Cream. 2790A Harrison St., San Francisco. 415 550 6971;
http://www.humphryslocombe.com/ Tue-Sun, noon-8:00pm
Maybe Imperial Tea Court couldn’t exist anywhere but here. Open since 2006, the North Berkeley teashop represents a perfect convergence of East Bay tastes, an authentically Asian experience with a Slow Food soul.
Tucked away at the back of Epicurious Garden—a Gourmet Ghetto food court that’s proved a tough sell—Imperial is worldly and disheveled, with skinny, brainy counter guys who are, like, Chinese majors or something: a perfect fit for Berkeley. And yet, its mostly northern-style steamer snacks and stir-fries can seem startlingly good for a place that seems to crouch way out of sight, like, well, I hate to say it, but here it is: like some inscrutable genius or somethng. What the hell?
In 1993, Hong Kong native Roy Fong was importing teas for restaurants. He opened his first retail shop at the edge of San Francisco’s Chinatown (it closed in December 2007). His second, in 2003, was in the Ferry Building Marketplace. Fong and his wife, Grace, offered some dim sum dishes there, but code restrictions prevented cooking over open flames, ruling out wok cooking. The Berkeley shop offers two columns of dishes on its regular menu, and half a dozen chalkboard specials. The space opens onto Epicurious Garden’s sweet little upper terrace (you can sit outside if you want), with rosewood tables, a concrete floor stained the color of old jade and, on one side, a long open kitchen.
While Roy Fong is immersed in the importing business — he has an 18,000-square-foot warehouse in Oakland where he sorts and finishes tea leaves, including roasting—Grace oversees the San Francisco and Berkeley shops.
That means influencing the menu, which tilts in the direction of Beijing, where Grace was born. Northern-style food may be unfamiliar to Americans more familiar with hybrid Cantonese or the kung-pao fireworks of Sichuan. The dishes here center around wheat-flour preparations: pot stickers, scallion pancakes and noodles. Some contain tea, or organic tea-seed oil Fong imports from China. Sometimes even the leaves themselves.
That’s the case with Dim Sum Shrimp Dumplings, one of only a couple of dishes that extends the menu southward. “I only asked for one Hong Kong dish,” Roy Fong told me by phone. “If a dim sum place can’t do shrimp dumplings well, they shouldn’t be open.” Imperial Tea Court’s are delicious: semitransparent wrappers filled with a mixture of chopped wild-caught shrimp and whole leaves of jasmine tea. The jasmine adds only a very subtle fragrance—really, it’s the shrimp’s freshness and the delicacy of the wheat-starch wrappers that puts these over the top.
Sturdier house-made wheat-flour wrappers enclose Dragon Well Dumplings. The pork-shoulder filling has a nubbly texture, and shares the wrapper with a liquid shot of dragon well green tea. It’s a moisture thing, sauce for the meaty filling rather than flavoring, though the taste is subtly flowery and ever so slightly tannic. They’re tasty, especially dipped in a slurry of soy sauce, black vinegar, and chunky chile oil spiked with star anise. They have a homemade quality that’s rare in Chinese restaurants.
Rare, too, is the Fongs’ commitment to organic and sustainably raised ingredients. All the flour’s organic, milled at Giusto’s in South San Francisco, and the pork and beef have the imprimatur of Niman Ranch. Because they buy in small volume, the Fongs find themselves making daily shopping runs to Berkeley Bowl or Trader Joe’s for organic vegetables, tofu and other ingredients.
Of course, organics are little used in strictly cost-conscious Asian restaurant kitchens. But, as tea importers, the Fongs’ focus on sources spills over into food ingredients. “We did our food this way because of tea,” Roy Fong said. Frustrated with the inconsistent quality of leaves from Chinese brokers, Fong began developing relationships directly with growers 20 years ago, paying them to grow and harvest tea the way he wanted it.
In the Berkeley shop, tea infuses in a gaiwan, the covered, dish-like cup that nestles snugly in its saucer. The leaves stay in the cup—you push back the lid slightly so you can sip without harvesting a mouthful of leaves.
If you’re uncertain about what leaves to order, ask the server for his top picks. Superior Green Oolong has a vegetal richness reminiscent of Swiss chard; reddish-black leaves of Aged Puerh give up a delicious whiff of garden compost tinged with camphor.
Either would be perfect with vegetarian Fresh Steamed Buns, nicely chewy bao stuffed with minced black mushrooms and shredded mustard greens. I wanted my Green Onion Pancake to be flakier. As it was, the scallion-flecked cake was a tad doughy in the center, ringed with blisters.
Entrée-size Tea Oil Chicken tasted bright and tangy. Shredded against the grain before being tossed in a hot wok, the meant managed to be both tender and chewy. Its heavily vinegar-laced pan sauce—an emulsion with tea oil—was a homey version of steamtable sweet and sour. It came with a heap of organic brown rice.
There’s no doubt about Imperial Tea Court’s homiest dish. House-made Hand-Pulled Noodles were thick and chewy, and showed up in a charming variety of widths. The meatless version came with a scant broth, a little cap of steamed cabbage and red chard and a spoonful of solids fished from the chile oil. If you’ve ever wondered what Beijing-style mom cooking was like, well, this is it. —John Birdsall
Imperial Tea Court. 1511 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley (in the Epicurious Garden food court). 510-540-8888; imperialtea.com
The open-air former burger stand feels like an urban approximation of a seafood cocktel palapa on the Jalisco/Nayarit coast. Forget the crash of waves: Lunch here is likely to be accompanied by the sound of subwoofer-jacked bass tracks rattling license plates in the perpetually jammed parking lot. Tostada de ceviche camaron y pulpo—a rustic mess of shrimp and chewy octopus on a crisp fried tortilla—is just as lively. Those purple tentacles are everywhere: in the spiced-up, thinned-down tomato juice cocktail (topped with avocado and a raw oyster) called agua chile, and in Campechana, a slurpable cocktel with raw shrimp and a blast of lime and oregano. Take a pass on anything containing crab. Like the bootleg DVDs hawked by the guy bussing tables, it’s fake. —John Birdsall
Mariscos La Costa. 3625 International Blvd. (at 36th Ave.), Oakland. 510-533-9566.
You won’t get a more concentrated hit of Fruitvale than among the sprawling aisles of this supermarket, a local chain. Sunday is family day: young guys in suffocating suits and stiff fauxhawks, out-of-control kids snagging handfuls of free-sample chicharrones, grannies in lacy headscarves and mid-calf nylons—even the odd Romeo in lace-up pirate shirt. And while you’ll find ingredients to cater to diverse Central American constituencies—Salvadoran crema, quail for Michoacanos, and the quintessentially DF herb papalo—cooked foods at the Deli Mex counter skew Jalisco. Don’t expect fine cooking (everything’s calibrated for steam-table survival) but Jaliscense faves like chicken in red mole and the Lenten specialty tortitas de camaron (spongy shrimp cakes stewed with cactus) are rich and saucy, and the in-store panaderia’s capirotada (bread pudding) is fantastic. —John Birdsall
Mi Pueblo Food Center. 1630 High St. (at E. 17th St.), Oakland. 510-532-2654.
In his pueblito 60 miles from Guadalajara, Luis Abundis learned the art of nieve de garafa: ice cream churned via elbow grease alone, working a handheld paddle in a garafa (“carafe”) sunk in ice and salt. It’s an heirloom treat scarce even in Mexico, but Abundis is still wielding his artisan paddle in a corner of Fruitvale’s Transit Village, churning out seasonal flavors that conjure another world. That’s the case with beautifully unctuous avocado, ricotta-like queso, fresh corn with the sweetness of scraped cobs, and changos zamoranos, made with whey (and the odd curd) leftover from cheese making. The off-menu Jalisco drink tejuino is a puckery brew of lime, coarse salt, and fermented corn masa with a limon sorbet float. In summer, ask for tepache, a fermented pineapple cooler. —John Birdsall
Nieves Cinco de Mayo. 3340 E. 12th St., #2 (in the Fruitvale Public Market), Oakland. 510-533-6296.
Ever notice how hard it is to taste something, really taste it? If you don’t get it on the first or second bite, well — it’s like trying to catch up to a paper napkin on a windy sidewalk. Impossible.
Take coffee, the first thing you taste every day. There’s only a brief moment when you can actually taste it, taste it with focused attention, I mean. After the Krups machine has let out its final wheeze, and the last spurt of water has settled onto the black slurry of grounds. After that, when the coffee’s in your mug, and you’re alone in the kitchen, there’s a second when you get the aroma: malty, caramel-sweet, with a whiff of tar from the roaster.
In that first sip the taste is as clear as the tinkling of wind chimes: bark-like richness, near-metallic acidity, bitterness as reviving as the smell of morning out the front door. With your nose in the mug, hands wrapped around it for warmth, you get it.
But by the third sip it’s gone. You’re still drinking hot liquid, but the taste is now muddy. Maybe you’re distracted by thoughts of checking on your husband, that he hasn’t fallen back asleep to the hum of NPR on snooze. Or discovering that the cat’s been sick on the carpet. Maybe you’ve started to look at the paper. You’re still sipping from the mug, but the coffee’s taste is now as vague as your reflection in a fogged mirror. It’s just bitter.
Pour yourself a fresh cup but it’s hopeless: No amount of concentration can help you squeegee away the desensitizing fog. Any nuance, all subtlety — they’re just gone.
That phenomenon — the way the sense of taste becomes numb after a brief moment of attention — that phenomenon is something that people who write about wine know only too well. “During the first moments of tasting a wine, you will form distinct impressions about its taste and bouquet,” observes food writer Richard Olney. “But these impressions are bound to be transitory, and even a wine expert may find it difficult to remember them for long.” Thus the usefulness of tasting logs, notebooks where you can jot down associations after the first or second sips from your glass, in comments as spontaneous and unfiltered as the observations of a Zen roshi. Supple. Nutty. Moldy. Flabby
Harold McGee, who writes about the science of food, hints at the intricate choreography of sensations that even a tiny sip of something sets off. Taste buds clock salts, sugars, acids, savory amino acids and bitter alkaloids, but it’s the sense of smell that allows for subtlety. “Nearly all food aromas are composites of many different molecules,” McGee writes. “In the case of vegetables, herbs and spices, the number may be a dozen or two, while fruits typically emit several hundred volatile molecules. Usually just a handful create the dominant element of an aroma, while the others supply background, supporting, enriching notes.”
Reading McGee, you get the feeling that the act of tasting, of sorting through those volatile molecules, requires so much attention, such an extraordinary effort of focus, that it’s impossible to sustain it after an initial spurt of energy. Your senses simply can’t maintain the effort.
That inevitable fading of focused attention has its own poignancy. It was the elusiveness of taste that sparked a literary and esthetic revolution last century. Marcel Proust used taste as a turnstile into his six-novel epic of memory exploration, Remembrance of Things Past. The narrator slurps bit of cake crumbled into a spoonful of herb tea. The first taste conjures the house he knew as a child springing up about him, and sparks over 2,000 pages of reflection. The late cookbook author James Beard used Proust’s famous moment with cake and tea as inspiration for his own 1964 memoir, Delights and Prejudices. “When Proust recollected the precise taste sensation of the little scalloped madeleine cakes served at tea by his aunt,” Beard wrote, “it led him into his monumental remembrance of things past. When I recollect the taste sensations of my childhood, they lead me to more cakes, more tastes.”
Well, Beard cast a huge shadow—literally.
But that so-called Proustian moment: it’s the feeling you get standing in Safeway, when “Billy Jean” kicks on over the PA. Suddenly you’re no longer squinting to read the cost-per-ounce of Special K Red Berries. Suddenly you’re in the dark, on the bench seat of a Chevy Nova, lost in the aroma of Herbal Essence shampoo in the hair of a girl you used to date. When you used to date girls.
Pure magic, but fragile. “I drink a second mouthful,” Proust writes, “in which I find nothing more than in the first, a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing its magic.” Taste is a balloon you can’t tie closed: The more you handle it the quicker it collapses. But in the collapsing, there’s the possibility of poetry.
Imagine that, in the murky light just past dawn, when the newspaper guy’s battered car is stop-starting down the street, and there’s the thwack of newspapers on front steps. When the Krups machine is pulsing its trickle of coffee into the carafe, and the cat is moving sinuously against your calf, your senses are all converging into something with more or less the charge of poetry.
Drink it in — you won’t be able to make it last. —John Birdsall
Thousands of miles from Piggly Wiggly markets, Waffle Houses, and discussions about side meat, Southern cooking shows up through one of two restaurant filters. First, as African American nostalgia food—plenty of home-cooked earnestness without much culinary finesse. And second, as exaggerated vernacular—a corny repertoire of oversized, y’all-come-back-now set pieces with cartoon names: hoppin’ john, red-eye gravy, burgoo. An approach to the down-home table typical of Food Network star Paula Deen, where canned fruit, enough sugar to trigger type 2 diabetes, and Marshmallow Whip coalesce into monumentally scary dishes like Ambrosia.
But a place in West Oakland is managing something rare: a fusion of African American home-style and Southern regional, with the skill of an experienced chef with serious chops and an obvious eye. It makes you think of Bette’s Ocean View Diner on Fourth Street in Berkeley. Already, just over two months after it opened, it’s not hard to imagine Brown Sugar Kitchen (“BSK” from here on out) inspiring the stiff loyalty Bette’s enjoys. Chef and owner Tanya Holland calls the restaurant’s style “new-style down home.”
The restaurant is currently open for breakfast and lunch only—the owner says she wants to perfect those meals first. Holland hopes to begin offering regular supper club nights as a way of easing into dinner service.
Holland puts the lie to any fantasy you might harbor about sapping your 401(k) to launch that little dream bistro. The chef trained in France, cooked at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in Manhattan, and designed a French and Creole fusion menu at Le Theater in downtown Berkeley. In 2003 she published a cookbook, New Soul Cooking, and bolstered it with TV appearances on Food Network. The idea for BSK took root when she drifted away from Le Theater in 2004.
“The day I left, one of my colleagues said I’ll invest in whatever you do,” Holland told me by phone recently. She put together a business plan and scoured locations, doing catering I the meantime. It wasn’t until last summer that the space on Mandela Parkway materialized as a real possibility. “It’s been a long journey,” Holland said.
Funny thing is, Holland ended up in a location not far from where she lives. Island Café was a jerk chicken joint at the industrial end of West Oakland, on a broad stretch where a portion of the Cypress freeway structure collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. But Island Café never seemed to be open, and after the business officially folded, Holland inquired about the squat space on the triangular lot. It’s near a forklift showroom and mod-looking new condo developments; inside, it was an all-but-untouched diner, complete with pots, a smoker out back, and a 15-seat counter with bolt-down stools. “Pretty much the only thing I’ve done is paint and buy two waffle makers.”
That last purchase was an inspired one: Holland’s cornmeal waffle and buttermilk fried chicken is simply the best version of the Harlem classic you’re likely to taste. Credit the waffle. Lacy and ethereal, if offers texture without hotcake bulk, like a proper crepe or dosa in a fat, multi-indented configuration—a very impressive achievement indeed. The fried chicken (a wing and thigh, when I tasted it) gets your attention for something other than its craggy breading. The flesh underneath is steeped in a marinade that perfumes it with herbs and blackening spices, and seems to keep the flesh lush and moist.
There’s a plug of brown sugar butter softening onto the waffle, and a side of apple cider, spiced and reduced to slightly tangy syrup (for an extra buck, you can upgrade to pure maple). It’s a dish that reveals Holland’s experience like a resume: an African American dish pulled off with an attention to flavor and technique that’s strictly French. A dish worthy of the late Southern chef and cookbook author Edna Lewis.
Other dishes show similar restraint, the kind of discipline many Southern cooks abandon in favor of regional caricature. BSK’s smoked chicken gumbo ignores fireworks for flavor. The delicately viscous broth balances the earthy burr of brown roux, with the subtly smoky taste of the chicken, and a stock I suspect began with shrimp and crab shells. It contains a hefty flotsam of picked chicken meat, thin okra slices, and a single large shrimp, dipped in cornmeal batter and deep-fried. This is a very grown up gumbo, miles from some spiced-up, showboatin’ New Orleans version.
Cajun meatloaf, a lunch special one day, was more about beef than any blast of bayou seasoning. The big slab of slightly coarse-textured meat actually seeped juices. And although a glaze of spicy ketchup established its Louisiana pedigree, its accompaniments were marvels of restraint: sauteed zucchini, and barely sweetened mashed yams—more like a satiny puree, as if it had been worked through a tamis, a fine French sieve.
A half rack of baby back ribs from the smoker out back were pinkish, plush, and only moderately smoky. The came scattered with a pineapple salsa whose elements had been meticulously diced. A po-boy sandwich of cornmeal-battered shrimp was tasty. With entrees, you get to pick a side. Black-eyed pea salad was remarkable for its legumes, which were thoroughly cooked but without the ubiquitous breakage. Cast-iron skillet cornbread was nicely unctuous.
Of course, the down side of Holland’s light touch is that some dishes seem, well, boring, despite—perhaps because of—their carefully controlled elements. A breakfast sandwich, a thin, flat omelet, cheddar, and either ham or bacon on a soft, whole-wheat bun, was in dire need of a spark. Red-skinned home fries seemed so engineered to avoid the pitfalls of short-order versions (greasiness, and the lingering funk from a crusty griddle), that they came off a tad sterile, despite caramelized onions and a drift of Cajun spices.
But hey, with French press coffee from Blue Bottle roasting company, perfect buttermilk biscuits, and fantastic baked goods from pastry chef Tinna Manansala, breakfast offers plenty of delights. In fact, Manansala alone should put BSK on the map. Her apple cake is a large-crumbed, cinnamon-scented monument to traditional American baking. And just as I was ready for dessert after lunch one day, a baked-that-morning sweet potato pie was deemed cool enough to cut. Its sweetness and spicing didn’t obscure the taste of its yams, and the crust was browned and crumbly even underneath the filling.
Without the slightest risk of inducing sugar shock, it was a slice of pie that could restore anyone’s faith in the Southern kitchen. —John Birdsall
Brown Sugar Kitchen. 2534 Mandela Parkway, Oakland, Calif. 510-839-SOUL (7685); brownsugarkitchen.com. Hours: Tue–Sun, 7:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m.