Hibiscus, a new Caribbean restaurant in Oakland, has a fine pedigree thanks to chef Sarah Kirnon, formerly of The Front Porch, and wine guy/floor manager Omar White, who did the wine list at Pizzaiolo and at the now-closed Tinderbox in SF.
Robert Lauriston checked it out on its very first night and was knocked out by the inventive cocktails and flavorful dishes, some of which are new favorites.
A hibiscus royale sounds like a good way to start the evening. It's basically a kir royale with housemade hibiscus syrup instead of cassis, and it's light, dry, aromatic and refreshing, Robert says. Pirate Jenny is a sterner blend of bourbon, Cointreau, lemon, and St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram. "Also pretty dry and had a complex spicy aftertaste," Robert says. The wine list is short but interesting, containing mostly bottles you don't often see elsewhere.
A chickpea curry starter with baras bread (a Trinidadian version of paratha), mango pickle, and tamarind sauce shows Trinidad's Indian heritage. It's like a refined variation on channa masala. "I love channa masala and parathas, and this is the best I've had," says Robert, noting that the spicing still allowed the chickpea flavor to shine through. Another starter, pigeon pea soup with taro, chayote, heirloom squash, cassava, and house-cured salt beef is worth raving about, with delicious broth dominated by pigeon peas. There are also fabulous grits combined with spicy crab and lobster butter, sweet red carrots, and chives.
For mains, Miss Ollie's fried chicken has a thickish coating, keeping the meat juicy and hot long after it reached the table. Slow-cooked Berkshire pork in a banana leaf with garlic yam cubes and chocolate red beans is subtle but nicely seasoned. For a little kick, add a little bit of Kirnon's amazing Scotch bonnet pepper sauce.
Hibiscus is not your typical Oakland Caribbean dive, Robert warns, but it's not super-upscale, either: "White tablecloths covered with butcher paper, nice lighting, paintings of hibiscus flowers." Prices are around $7 to $9 for starters and mostly under $20 for mains, with the exception of the $21 slow-cooked pork. And portions are great for sharing. Service is incredibly warm: A guy who greeted him on the way in was so friendly, Robert panicked briefly "because I thought he knew me and I had no idea who he was."
Hibiscus [East Bay]
1745 San Pablo Avenue, Oakland