Brown Sugar Kitchen Satisfies Soul Food Cravings

The new Brown Sugar Kitchen skillfully renders chef Tanya Holland’s most iconic dishes, including her fried chicken and waffles.


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Photos by Lance Yamamoto

Standing at the bus stop at Broadway and Grand, waiting for the 51A after my morning workout classes at the Oakland YMCA, I was able to keep an eye on the build-out progress across the street, where chef Tanya Holland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen was scheduled to open. Holland had closed her original “Sweet West Oakland” location in August, but word had been out for more than a year that she planned to move uptown, literally, into the building vacated by Ozumo and Picán. So I watched and waited, and watched and waited.

A lot of other people were watching and waiting, too, and they all showed up as soon as Holland opened the doors on Feb. 20. The next morning, I slipped in at about quarter past 11 and secured one of the tall, comfy chairs at the bar, just before the line at the greeter’s podium grew to a dozen or so people deep. On my second visit a week or so later, I again slid past a crowd and was seated immediately at the bar, where I watched a TV crew finalizing its setup for a shoot with Holland. Given the media demands on a chef of her celebrity — she competed on season 15 of Top Chef and has appeared on countless network and cable shows — and the logistical pull of running two restaurants (the BSK counter-service Ferry Building location also opened in February) and preparing for expansion into Oakland International Airport and Chase Center, I wondered how Holland could possibly sustain her focus. She does, as evidenced in the quality and precision of the food, the professionalism and warm hospitality of the service, and the simple, sophisticated interior design of her new flagship operation.

The 85-seat restaurant was laid out to take best advantage of the 4,000 square feet carved out from the oversize space that proved unsustainable for Picán. The black granite bar wraps around a mostly hidden, white-tile-walled L-shaped kitchen where cooks, including Holland, work their magic with waffle irons and fryers. More staff members are busy in a capacious refrigeration, storage, and prep room tucked deeper in the back. Matte-finish blue-green wainscoting rises to a band of white wall below a slate-gray, noise-cancelling, suspended ceiling that is part of the exquisitely efficient Meyer audio installation, which allows you to carry on an unstrained conversation and listen to Aretha, Al Green, the Supremes, and contemporary R&B at the same time. Seating includes two spans of leather-backed banquettes and pale wood-topped tables with black, leather-cushioned chairs spaced comfortably in the airy room. A mix of cantilevered sconces, small ceiling spots, and simple hanging lamps — the ones above the bar look like interlocking triangle dinner bells — provide the lighting. And waitlist customers (some who’ve signed up via a Yelp app) have ample space to hang out to the left of the entrance.

Servers, several of whom worked at the Mandela Parkway location, maintain a pleasant demeanor as they do their best to keep up during peak hours, slowed only by the kitchen’s occasional difficulties getting dishes out in timely fashion. The menu advises, “On busy days and with large parties, our waffles may take 30 minutes or more.” Once, we had to ask twice about our side of spicy slaw, which finally came as we were finishing the rest of our lunch. And a server told me that the wait for weekend brunch at 10 a.m. can be at least 90 minutes.

The new BSK is a sleek, mostly smooth-running, and pricy vehicle for a select few of Holland’s recipes, which are gathered in the cookbooks Brown Sugar Kitchen and New Soul Cooking. When dinner service launches in a few months, the menu is likely to expand. For now, there are few surprises, but there are plenty of ways to satisfy your soul food breakfast and lunch cravings, the most popular probably being Holland’s iconic buttermilk fried chicken (two pieces) and cornmeal waffle ($21, or $10 for either alone). Marinated in buttermilk, spices, and herbs, the chicken comes out of the fryer crunchy and juicy. Mine — which I had with sides of macaroni and cheese ($6) and collard greens ($5) instead of the light, crisp, deep-pocketed waffle that I already knew and loved from past experience — was virtually greaseless, with a lovely scent of tarragon.

On six visits in February and March, I also sampled two breakfast dishes (available until 11:30 a.m.): fantastic smoked pork hash with poached eggs ($15), and dreamy cheese grits with poached eggs ($12) — the glowing eggs luxuriantly nestled into the smooth grits and dusted with white cheddar — plus a side of Daily’s applewood smoked bacon ($5). During a couple of lunchtimes, which start at 11:30, I put away two sandwiches: an awe-inspiring, briny fried oyster po-boy ($17) and vinegary-sweet, Carolina-style pulled BBQ pork ($15). Both came on soft torpedo rolls, with spicy cabbage slaw tucked inside, and a choice of sides. Like the macaroni and cheese, the black-eyed pea salad, despite its vivid crispness, was a bit bland, but a splash of Crystal hot sauce (set on the tables and counters along with Tabasco) woke it up for me. I’d be happy to be buried alive in the smoked mashed yams, drenched in butter, and al dente collard greens rewarded chewing with pucker-inducing tanginess.

Robin relished the lean, pulled white meat, the crisp okra, and the complexity of flavors in the smoked chicken and shrimp gumbo ($12, add $2 for basmati rice), a dish I had nearly ordered on fragrance alone after it was delivered to a woman seated next to me at the bar a few days earlier. On my last lunch, from the “Available All Day” section of the menu, I indulged in BBQ shrimp and grits ($21), with a bacon-cheddar-scallion biscuit ($5). The creole gravy that turned the grits into a soupy fantasia sent my taste buds into a chile-pepper tweaked tizzy, and the dense yet flaky biscuit was perfect for mopping the bowl.

Although I resisted the allure of beignets ($7), I did succumb, on “Pi Day” (3/14), to one of BSK’s rotating desserts — a piece of sweet potato pie, smooth, surprisingly light, and spiced like pumpkin pie, in a fine crust. You might want to try chocolate-pecan, like I might next time, even though I did gain two pounds in the course of my reporting.

I don’t usually do booze at lunch, but I can drink only so much agave-sweetened iced tea, house-made lemonade, and strong coffee, so after watching many mimosas, Bloody Mary’s, draft beers, and glasses of wine being mixed and poured, I tested one of the bar’s few craft cocktails, a B-Side (bourbon, mezcal, bitters, and vanilla, $12), and was convinced that BSK can become as much an Uptown watering hole as it is already Oakland’s premier upscale soul food destination.

 

Brown Sugar Kitchen

Soul food. 2295 Broadway, Oakland, 510-839-7685. Serves breakfast and lunch Wed.-Sat. 7 a.m.-2 p.m., Sun. 8 a.m.-2 p.m. BrownSugarKitchen.com, $$–$$$$

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