Brown Sugar Kitchen Does Down-Home Cooking Right
In terms of dining and development, Oakland is still a frontier town. That’s especially true for the permeable border area that restaurateur Tanya Holland calls “sweet West Oakland” and that many us of know, if at all, as the middle of nowhere.
Holland is in the advance guard of pioneering entrepreneurs, risking a major investment and expanding the boundaries of our known urban universe. Wedged into an irregularly shaped island in a soon-to-be-postindustrial sector, Holland’s spiffy Brown Sugar Kitchen cuts a modest profile and doesn’t exactly stick out like a sore thumb on a broad, pristinely maintained stretch of Mandela Parkway that replaced the fallen Cypress freeway. But with a junkyard as a next-door neighbor and the nearest signs of modern life—stylish new condos—a mile or so away to the north and south, the upscale soul food restaurant, open since January, does lack a coherent neighborhood around it.
A comforting sense of place swept over me, however, the first time I stepped inside the chocolate-brown, orange-trimmed, wood-sided building on a crisp, sunny Friday morning in February. Warm winter light streamed in through the room’s five windows (three facing the wide mini-park median on the parkway), heightening the gleam of glass, granite, chrome and stainless steel that accent the earthy color scheme (orange-brown floor, brown wainscoting, bright olive-green walls) of the large, obliquely angled room. Fond memories of snazzy New Orleans diners like the legendary Camellia Grill were triggered by the bustling but focused presence of several cooks in double-breasted white jackets in the open kitchen that is separated from a long, 14-stool counter by an eye-level partition of rippled glass. I fell into a Crescent City reverie the moment I took my first bite of a beignet (delivered gratis either by accident or as a lagniappe, the server didn’t say)—perhaps the lightest fried dough I’ve ever tasted. Elegantly folded into a square, it was generously dusted with powdered sugar and served with a small ramekin of berry jam. Dark, full-bodied drip-brewed Blue Bottle coffee ($2, but, alas, no free refills) was the perfect accompaniment.
The author of New Soul Cooking: Updating a Cuisine Rich in Flavor and Tradition (Melting Pot/Harry N. Abrams, 2003) and a sometime TV chef, Holland advertises her Brown Sugar Kitchen approach as “new style down home.” She brings that motto to life by applying meticulous French-schooled techniques, sustainable California-cuisine values and artistic presentation aesthetics to such soul food breakfast and lunch staples as grits (stone-ground, topped with poached eggs and grated cheese, $6), barbecued chicken (wood-smoked, jerk-spiced, $10 for a quarter chicken, $14 for a half), baby back ribs (wood-smoked, sugar-pineapple glazed, $16) and such sides as cast iron skillet cornbread ($3), black-eye pea salad ($3.50), macaroni and cheese, sweet potato gratin and baked beans (all $4).
On my first visit, as I eyed other diners’ egg sandwiches (with cheese and Niman Ranch ham or bacon, $7) and baked egg-and-vegetable tarts ($5), I warmed my spirit with the simultaneously creamy and chewy grits, perfectly poached eggs and a quintessential buttermilk biscuit ($2)—brown and crunchy on top, light and flaky within. At my second breakfast, the magically dissolving lightness of a deep-pocketed cornmeal waffle ($6) left me astonished by the delicate flavor but still hungry (despite indulging in the brown sugar butter and maple syrup) and wondering if I should next time take the leap and have it paired with fried chicken ($11).
Two Oakland editors and our art director rounded out my weekday lunchtime scouting expedition. Noon-hour reservations turned out to be a good idea, since the 32 table seats fill up quickly for lunch. A swoonfest ensued. Debbi led the way, audibly gasping at the beautiful way her seared snapper was decorated with painterly strokes of mango and roasted beet salsa and plated with mashed potatoes and dark green sautéed kale ($15). As other orders arrived (at unfortunately lagging intervals), the expressions of awe continued and amplified as we discovered that the savory tastes actually eclipsed the visual delights.
A vibrant, finely diced pineapple salsa virtually danced over the deep-brown skin of pleasingly cantilevered plump pieces of my jerk chicken, but it was the complex bite of spices and the smoke-infused moist meat that rekindled my long-dead affection for the all-too-often abused fowl. Succulent shreds of pulled pork, tangy with tomato and a whisper of vinegar, spilled out of
the barbecue sandwich of the day ($7.50) that Dan ordered and quite wisely shared in very small allotments. Our resident Southerner, Judy, who had recently visited New Orleans, ordered and endorsed the Creole barbecue shrimp ($14); rather muddy looking in a reddish-brown mélange of sauce and rice, it was the only dish that lacked immediate eye-appeal, but the ample, toothsome prawns literally popped with wow-factor flavors.
Tardy-to-the-table cheese grit fritters ($3) won their way into our good graces thanks largely to the kitchen’s impeccable touch with the deep fryer. Somehow, we also managed to polish off a granola-topped apple crisp with Madagascar vanilla ice cream ($6.50), just to make sure Holland handles desserts with the same aplomb as other areas of the menu. She does.
Saturdays already draw overflow crowds: Once I arrived with five friends and endured an hour-and-45-minute wait only to be told by a harried server that the fried chicken, grits and veggie scramble had been wiped-out. Another time, though, I called ahead for a take-out order of ribs and was rewarded with a large slab of juicy meat (with little residual fat) that had absorbed a distinct but balanced smokiness from its time in the on-site smoker, achieving a heavenly melt-in-your-mouth tenderness.
Although untested on my visits, Brown Sugar Kitchen’s small but interesting international wine list offers three reds and three whites by the glass ($6.50–$8.50), three more of each by the bottle ($23–$52), plus Italian and Spanish sparkling wines. The selections, including a Kent Rasmussen “Esoterica” Pinot Noir, bode well for suppers promised in the future: Customers are invited to sign up for e-mail notices of forthcoming wine-pairing dinners. It may be a while before this outpost succeeds in attracting a nighttime crowd to the barren frontier, but it has all the requisite easy elegance needed to become a hugely popular destination, and Oakland can always find room for more soul.
BROWN SUGAR KITCHEN. Soul food. Serves breakfast and lunch 7 a.m.–3 p.m. Tue.–Sat., 2534 Mandela Parkway, (510) 839-7685,
www.brownsugarkitchen.com. Credit cards accepted, beer ans wine, reservations (5 or more, weekdays only), wheelchair accessible, $-$$.
—By Derk Richardson
—Photography by Lori Eanes
—Photography by Lori Eanes