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Jan 14, 2010 07:51 AM

Hibiscus - Trinidadian / Caribbean in Oakland

Hibiscus opened last night. The principals are chef Sarah Kirnon, formerly of Front Porch, and wine guy / floor manager Omar White, who did the wine list at Pizzaiolo for the first year or so, and then at Tinderbox in SF.

1745 San Pablo Ave, Oakland, CA 94612

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  1. The space is really nice. I was never in Sweet Jimmie's so I can't compare. Service was surprisingly smooth considering it was literally their first service (the waiter said they'd had no private previews). There was some problem with the computer so the drink orders weren't showing up at the bar, which they got sorted out, and I had to send the bill back because they forgot our wine, but otherwise everything was fine.


    I had an Hibiscus Royale, like a kir royale but instead of cassis they use housemade hibiscus syrup. This was light, dry, aromatic, and refreshing--very nice. I had a taste of a Pirate Jenny, bourbon, Cointreau, lemon, and St. Elizabeth's Allspice Dram, which was also pretty dry and had a complex spicy aftertaste.


    Chickpea curry, baras bread, mango pickle, tamarind sauce ($6.75): this was a refined variation on channa masala, nice spices but you could taste the chickpeas. Bara are a Trinidadian variation on parathas. I guess the mango pickle and tamarind sauce were mixed together. Anyway, I love channa masala and parathas, and this is the best I've had. Good portion for two to share though you could split four ways. Or a great light quick meal for one.

    Spicy crab and grits with lobster butter, sweet red carrots, chives ($9/16): this was a shallow bowl of fabulous grits topped with a great spicy crab sauce. We got the small size, and it was twice as much as we really needed.

    Pigeon pea soup, eddoes [taro], christophine [chayote], heirloom squash, cassava, house-cured salt beef ($7.50): ironically, given the list of ingredients, this was the lightest of the three dishes. It was a huge bowl of delicious broth with lots of pigeon peas (similar to crowder or black-eyed peas) and a relatively modest amount of vegetables. This was one of the best light minestrone-type soups I've had ever, reminded me of Acquacotta's eponymous soup. Good portion for two or four to share, though again, would make a great light meal for one.


    Unfortunately, at this point, we already had carbo overload, so we weren't properly prepared to appreciate the main dishes. We took about half home.

    Miss Ollies Fried Chicken - boniato sweet potato mash, giblet gravy ($17.50): this is the style where a thickish breading / batter insulates the meat so it stays scalding hot. Meat was juicy, coating was nicely seasoned. If I'd known how long the meat would stay hot I'd have sliced it off the bone and let it cool a bit. The mash with gravy was awesome.

    Slow-cooked Berkshire pork, banana leaf wrapped with garlic yam cubes, chocolate red beans ($21 - the most expensive item on the menu): this was subtle but really nicely seasoned. The darkly browned yam cubes made up for the steamed pork not having any crunchy bits. The red beans were a bit underseasoned but were great once we added a little salt and some of Kirnon's amazing Scotch Bonnet pepper sauce.


    All four of the desserts were starchy, so we just couldn't face it. Some friends at another table gave us a spare pets de nonne, aka beignets soufflès, which was mostly air. Nice.


    The list is short but, as expected, contains mostly bottles you don't often see elsewhere. We had a bottle of 2005 Brezza Freisa ($38), which was like a light Dolcetto--earthy, tannic, very food-friendly. Due to its age it had lost the characteristic strawberry nose.


    Reasonable prices, great food, nice atmosphere, friendly service. I'll try to order more lightly next time. I'm planning to go back soon to try the salt fish and ackee, which our friends said was great, the escaveitch fish, and the vegetable side dishes.

    Note that on their Web page the Opentable link is on Search rather than Make a Reservation.

    1745 San Pablo Ave, Oakland, CA 94612

    3 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      I'll have to try. Have not had Trinidadian food since Penny's closed. I thought the food there was terrific, even with zero the atmosphere, slow service...This sounds upscale.

      1. re: roster

        It's upscale compared with your usual Oakland hole-in-the-wall Caribbean dive but not compared with, say, Picán. More at the level of Flora as far as decor, but with significantly lower prices. White tablecloths covered with butcher paper, nice lighting, paintings of hibiscus flowers.

        You have to walk through the bar to get to the host station. When we walked in, a guy sitting at the bar gave us a big grin, said "Hi!" and shook my hand, putting me in a panic because I thought he knew me and I had no idea who he was. Turned out we'd never met, he was the contractor, just a laid-back and outgoing Southerner.

      2. re: Robert Lauriston

        I had some of the leftover fried chicken for lunch. It was awesome. Even still had some crunch despite being in the fridge overnight.

      3. Went here recently for an early Valentine's Day meal with the spouse. Am not sorry we tried it but overall was disappointed and am not inclined to go back - which sounds harsh but needed service and food to be better to justify the price (which is not exorbitant but there are only so many $75 meals - 1 app, 2 mains, 2 drinks, includes tax - that we can justify). The space is really nice - warm and angled. We were off to a bad start when we were seated for an unusually long time before anyone came over to bring water or menus. The place was mostly full but far from packed - there were a few open tables. Our waitress was friendly and knowledgeable but did not manage to get back to us until after our mains were removed which was a little bit annoying because when she asked us how our food was and we pointed out that the short ribs (part of the pepperpot stew) were tough and dry she said "you should have told me so that I could have taken them back" when we hadn't had the opportunity to tell her until long after we had finished the rest of our food. On to the food (and drink) - wine list looks ok, but we opted for other beverages. I had a nice cocktail (homemade ginger limeade with rum) and husband had one of the beers. For food, to start we had the salt cod with ackee which I thought was really tasty. Bread came at the same time - rolls - and the plain one seemed appropriate (slightly sweet) but the olive seemed like an odd choice. For mains we had the crab with grits which was really delicious. The pepperpot stew was a little disappointing - the oxtail was tender and the greens and beans were nice - but the short ribs were stringy, dry, and overcooked. We weren't that interested in dessert but probably could have been swayed by something that sounded amazing - but to be honest the selection wasn't that awe-inspiring. Overall - I think more attentive, rather than just friendly, service could have saved it. But the combo of inattentive service and disappointing pepperpot stew were a little bit too much.

        1745 San Pablo Ave, Oakland, CA 94612