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.