Oakland food report: Hibiscus on San Pablo
After hearing a lot of hype about Hibiscus being the new place for creole and Caribbean food in the Bay Area, I was really excited to try it. In fact, I love Caribbean food so much that I was prepared to accept quite a lot and still love this place. I am extremely disappointed to have to leave such an ambivalent-to-negative review for a place I was so predisposed to like.
The main problem with the food at Hibiscus is that it suffers from attempting to do too much and therefore crash landing hard. It sells itself as eclectic fine dining, but unfortunately fails to deliver.
Simply, the food is mediocre at best and flavourless and poorly prepared at worst. The amusebouche, two croutons covered with avocado spread, were clearly old. The bread had gone soggy and the spread was cold and unpleasant to the palate. It had no other flavour or texture.
The meals highlight, and what got Hibiscus its three stars, was the crab and grits starter. The grits were heavy and cheesy and drowned out the crab, but the few bites that had more crab than grits were delicious. A solid four star dish.
Sadly, the entrées were extremely disappointing. I had the escoveitch, which is a simple white fish. Unfortunately, that is all that can be said about it. The fish's texture was unpleasantly chewy. The menu's description of the fish was vague, and it turns out that it is just the fish with a small sample of pickled vegetables on top. That is it. There is absolutely no flavour at all. I had to drown the fish with the hot sauce the waitress provided to get any taste from the meal at all. The rice and peas tasted stale.
My dining partner had the fried chicken. I have heard people rave that this is the best fried chicken in the Bay Area. I think they are mildly deranged.
The chicken was extremely heavily breaded, which smothered any of the meat's natural savouriness. All that we could taste was the seasoning, and nothing of the meat. The potato salad on the side also tasted old, and the potatoes had lost their texture after sitting in their dressing for too long.
The service as well was highly disappointing and impersonal. After being asked at least five times what we wanted to drink, the servers disappeared for at least twenty minutes before returning to take our meal orders. From then on, it was a further hour before we were given our food.
What a disappointing way to spend the evening.
1745 San Pablo Ave, Oakland, CA 94612
I had a fantastic meal at Hibiscus about 6 weeks ago, though we ordered different things than you did.
The split free fritters were perfectly fried, and the spicy/tangy sauce it came with made for some excellent dipping.
Jerk quail was truly remarkable - extremely tender and juicy, great depth of flavor.
The pepperpot - which includes oxtail, pigs feet, duck legs, and short rib - was a lot of fun to eat. Each component was perfectly braised and presented in a way that you could appreciate the flavors of each cut, and the cassareep reduction provided a nice sweet contrast to the spicy peppers.
Didn't love the chicken liver pate. The dish was fine, but not remarkable. If we had ordered more dishes like this, I probably would have been disappointed.
I found the flavors of the dishes to be really enjoyable. It wasn't spicy for the sake of being spicy, nor was it so hot that it scorched the palate and made it difficult to detect the flavors of the dishes. Rather, the spiciness was deep and complex, so that it developed on your tongue, slowly creeping up on you. Each dish had a unique spice blend that complemented the meat or vegetables natural flavors quite well.
Service was solid in terms of pacing, attentiveness, and friendliness.
I think what I liked most is that they're embracing the farm to table movement but applying it to a cuisine that is not normally associated with organics. It was a refreshing change of pace from the cal-med and new American scene.
re: Morton the Mousse
I am have to question your description of Caribbean food as not based on organics. Many, if not most, people in the Caribbean grow their own food and cook it, particularly their herbs and their vegetables. I don't think Hibiscus is a trendsetter in this regard at all, if only so much as they are applying what is commonly done in their "home region's" cuisine, every day.
My wife and I had dinner at Hibiscus earlier this week, and we enjoyed it, though we weren't by any means blown away. I did think the fried chicken was a highlight -- I found the meat to be plenty flavorful, and didn't think the breading was too much. It is a different style of crust than what they serve at, say, Pican, though -- much darker, with an interesting texture. (I read somewhere that Front Porch used a cornmeal-based crust -- don't know if that's true, or if that's the case here as well.) It's a contender for best in the East Bay, but I wouldn't say it was a home run. The breast was a tad bit dry. The two sides were generously portioned and appropriately summery (something with corn, some kind of potato), but were otherwise unmemorable. Unlike the OP, however, I didn't find that anything tasted "old" or "stale".
There was no amuse bouche the night we went, just some warm rolls, which were great.
My wife's pork chop entree was a nice thick specimen, executed very well, but nothing about the dish struck me as particularly Caribbean. The seasoning was pretty mild, and I felt like it was exactly the kind of thing you might be served at, say, any number of Cal-Italian or just plain "American" restaurants. It was tasty enough, but I guess I was expecting something different. The best part of her dish was the side of mac and cheese (an extremely rich and creamy rendition), though there was a service snafu where they gave my wife's portion to another table, and as a result hers didn't come until she was 2/3 of the way done with her pork chop.
We, too, doctored a lot of the food with the house-made scotch bonnet pepper sauce, which was very good. My ginger limeade was too sweet. But the cherry and peach skillet cake that we had for dessert was quite good.
I don't know much about Caribbean food, but overall, it seemed to me that some of the food felt a bit watered down, maybe as a result of it having been gussied up and California-fied. Maybe I prefer my Caribbean food to be more "down home"? For example, we also ordered the ackee and salt cod appetizer, which was lovely enough a plate, but I found that I much prefer Flavah Island Cafe's version (in all its greasy, gut-busting glory).
On the other hand, I don't have this issue with a place like Pican (which, granted, is Cal-Southern food, not Caribbean), where I think the food is at a higher caliber across the board -- though, as I mentioned in another thread, I'll have to try Pican's fried chicken again to see if Hibiscus's tops it. But the Pican pork chop (including the amazing sides) >>> the Hibiscus pork chop.
Again, it wasn't a bad meal, but I don't think there was anything that'll have us rushing back either.
The Front Porch
65 29th St, San Francisco, CA 94110
2295 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94612
Flavah Island Cafe
2057 San Pablo Ave, Berkeley, CA 94702