With Hibiscus, the latest restaurant-cum-rendezvous to brighten Oakland's burgeoning dining scene, chef Sarah Kirnon has entered the 21st-century-hipster Oaktown-pan-American/post-Panisse-organic/sustainable sweepstakes. A Barbados native (her grandmother was head cook at a sugar plantation), Kirnon took turns at Emmy's Spaghetti Shack and the Front Porch in the Mission that earned her a devoted local following. At her new venue, she has the chance to explore the rich, spicy flavors of her homeland with a hint of farm-fresh California cuisine thrown in.
Just around the corner from the New Parish and up the street from the Fox Theater, the Uptown Nightclub, and other neoteric hotspots, Hibiscus is a handy place to kick off an evening's revels. Make your way through the ticket-holders snaking out of the New Parish and enter the restaurant's moody lounge, an atmosphere-rich West Indies enclave in worn wood; handblown glass; ambient reggae; slate floors; and bookcases lined with elixirs and extracts, a world globe, a tennis racket, a pair of sunglasses, vintage 45s, and other bric-a-brac: the ideal setting for a relaxing island cocktail. The Pirate Jenny was a potent, spicy concoction of top-shelf Bulleit bourbon, cointreau, and St. Elizabeth's Allspice Dram; a more refreshing option was La Pampera: Pampero Aniversario rum, fresh lime, and house-made cardamom syrup in a tart, sweet, cool package.
The meal began in the cedar-and-wicker, okra-green dining room with an amuse-bouche of tiny salt-cod fritters, crisp from the fryer, mild in flavor, and surprisingly light in texture. They paved the way for Jamaica's national dish, salt fish and ackee. This mishmash of sweet red pepper, flakes of salty codfish, and diced ackee (a sweet, mild West African fruit popular throughout the Caribbean) could've used some spice or extra codfish to amp up the flavor, but the fried plantains that dominated the platter were perfectly tasty. Jerk, another West Indian specialty in which meat is dry-rubbed with peppers and spices, then smoked or grilled, got a more successful interpretation: The meat (a plump Cornish game hen) was tender and juicy on the inside, with a crisp, blackened skin fragrant with smoke and herbs. (Its bed of "coconut-braised" sea-island peas tasted more like cloves than coconut, though, and didn't add much to the proceedings.) Our favorite appetizer (also available as a main dish) was the spicy crab and grits, a luscious platter of ultra-creamy maize snarked up with spring garlic and generously ribboned with spicy, smoky, juicy Dungeness crabmeat at the height of its season.
One of the more impressive entrées is the fish of the day prepared escoveitch-style, a Caribbean preparation in which the fish is marinated in a vinegary sauce, then poached or fried and served for breakfast. In Hibiscus' version the fish (in our case a foot-long dorada, or sea bream) was served head, tail, bones, and all, its skin a burnished gold and its flesh moist, meaty, and rich in flavor. It came with rice and black-eyed peas, a subtly spiced accompaniment that was substantial without being heavy or overwhelming. The pepperpot stew, on the other hand, was both heavy and underwhelming, a cauldron of short ribs, oxtail, and black-eyed peas cooked until dry and chewy, its bland flavor unredeemed by the red mustard and cassava syrup trumpeted on the menu. Happily there's always Miss Ollie's Fried Chicken, a recipe handed down from Kirnon's grandmother. The perfectly battered skin was light and crunchy, the flesh moist and almost creamy, and it was served with luscious, puréed sweet potato and shaved, nutty-buttery Brussels sprouts: a marvelous combination of flavors and textures. Side dishes include Haitian pickliz, an unexciting array of marinated carrots, cabbage, and string beans; and callaloo, a succulent bowl of stewed okra and taro leaf.
The most traditional item on the dessert menu, shrub, comes from Martinique, where the classic meal-closer is a snifter of rum with a few dates and almonds. Here the rum (Appleton's light, silky white) was infused with a slice of orange peel and made a nice floral accompaniment to the crunchy nuts and succulent dates. The lemon pound cake is based on a recipe by legendary Southern chef Edna Lewis, but the result was mostly dry in texture, its lemon flavor barely discernible. The buttermilk panna cotta, on the other hand, was absolutely luscious, an exceptionally creamy example of the genre drizzled with a sweet-tart guava coulis. Thompson golden raisins, poached with bay leaf until plump and fragrant, accented things nicely.
The restaurant offers a vegan-friendly plat du jour daily, which is good news for vegetarians confronted with the menu's preponderance of animal flesh. Vegetarian starters include a treviso-radish salad, roasted beets with arugula, baked ricotta with thyme and preserved tomatoes, and chickpea curry with mango and griddle bread. There are also side dishes of fried plantain as well as the callaloo and the Haitian pickliz.
The 31-item wine list offers a nice mix of primarily French, Spanish, and Wine Country vintages with several red varietals and a few boutique Germans and Italians thrown in. (The Clos Roche Blanche sauvignon blanc makes a nice, crisp foil for the fried chicken.) Most are in the $30 to $50 price range; eleven are available by the glass. Beers include Red Stripe (natch) plus Japan's peerless Hitachino White Ale and two delectable beers from Ft. Bragg's North Coast Brewery, Blue Star Wheat and Old Rasputin Stout. Among the menu's nonalcoholic options are cane sugar Coca-Cola from Mexico; Jamaica's Ting Grapefruit Soda; England's peppery, refreshing Fever Tree Ginger Beer; and our favorite, a sweet, effervescent house-made ginger limeade with a hint of pizzazz — all in all, a pretty fair description of Hibiscus itself.