Around the Bay

Saltfish and ackee, Jamaica's national dish, at Miss Ollie's in Old Oakland

ISLAND BREEZES: Searching for Caribbean

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Though not an island girl, I crave sorrel, that cinnamon-spiced, rosy-purple juice made from the petals of a sorrel plant, or multi-colored Scotch bonnet peppers, both common in the Caribbean and ideal together, sorrel cooling off the pepper’s scorching heat. One of my closest friends is Jamaican and we’ve been exploring local Caribbean food for years, though lacking in abundant options.

A Caribbean staple: sweet, grilled plantains

Saddened to lose Penny’s Caribbean Cafe – a tiny Berkeley dive with excellent Trinidadian home cooking – when Penny moved back to Trinidad a few years ago, I’ve trekked to San Leandro for festivals (Jamaican cornbread fritters) and curry goat at Sweet Fingers, savored the sunny patio though more Americanized food at Primo Patio Cafe tucked away in SF’s SoMa, dined at now defunct pop-up Kingston 11 in Berkeley, and appreciated Sarah Kirnon’s inventive Caribbean fusion (Jerk Cornish hen!) from her days as chef at Oakland’s Hibiscus.

Caribbean foods can also be found at Oakland grocers like Minto Jamaican Market and Man Must Wak where you can stock up on authentic ginger beers and Ting (beloved Jamaican grapefruit soda), to name a few items, and I’m curious about San Francisco-based caterer Lehi Cooks Jamaica. Thanks to my dear friend and her family who get their Jamaican food fix at this tiny haven, I’ve found my favorite Caribbean outpost in the most surprising of locales: Menlo Park.

BACK A YARD, 1189 Willow Road, Menlo Park, 650-323-4244 (also San Jose)

Drinking Ting with Friday's escovetich special

With squeaky front porch door and perpetual line out the door, closet-sized Back A Yard is clearly a locals’ favorite in suburban Menlo Park. The term “back a yard” refers to the way things are done “back home”, appropriate to this humble, comforting spot. Chef Robert Simpson began his cooking career in Jamaica, gained European perspective in Belgium, then cooked at various Caribbean resorts before coming to the Bay Area.

For vegetarians, Back A Yard's jerk tofu retains a meaty, grilled quality to silky tofu

Under fluorescent lighting, crammed into a handful of tables, I down a Ting which cools off the Thursday-Saturday tender curry goat special ($12.75). Generous platters come with sides of sweet plantains, green salad, and coconut-laced rice ‘n beans, different from New Orleans’ version but equally heartwarming and moist. Another top side are warm, honey-sweet festivals, like a doughnut meets cornbread. Jerk chicken ($9.50) appropriately shines, though jerk tofu ($8.95) likewise exhibits meaty, grilled tones amidst silky texture. Friday’s special is escoveitch: it was snapper on a Friday I visited. Choose a grilled filet ($12.75) or whole fish (market price), head and eyeballs intact, not so much an immaculate fish dish as Caribbean comfort food, recalling days I’d polish off a whole grilled fish in the countryside of Vietnam.

Thu-Sat special: tender curry goat

Jamaica’s national dish, saltfish and ackee, is a must, served here only on Saturdays ($14.50). Salty cod is sautéed with Scotch bonnet peppers and subtly sweet, soft ackee, a fruit related to the lychee. This version shines compared to others I’ve had, confirmed by my friend as authentically reminiscent of saltfish and ackee she grew up with in Jamaica. Dessert ($3.25) is the one letdown, whether a blandly cold sweet potato pudding or a sliver of key lime pie lacking the tart oomph I crave in what is one of my favorite pies. Nonetheless, this hole-in-the-wall is a treasure bringing heartfelt Caribbean cooking to South Bay folk… and worth a trek for hardcore foodies.

MISS OLLIE’S, 901 Washington Street at Ninth St., Oakland, 510-285-6188

Pull up to Miss Ollie's bar for chicory coffee & Creole doughnuts (call for availability)

Chef Sarah Kirnon (formerly of the aforementioned Hibiscus) just opened Miss Ollie’s at the beginning of December, currently only during Tuesday-Friday lunch in a corner location of Swan’s Market in Old Oakland. Visiting opening week, lines were already long and waits for food even longer (30 minutes), not ideal for a low-key, eat-in or take-out lunch. Despite opening kinks, Oakland is clearly craving quality Caribbean, packing communal wooden tables in a spacious, spare dining room.

Named after, and in tribute to, Kirnon’s grandmother, the food is decidedly more casual than in her Hibiscus days, modeled after the Caribbean one-stop shops she grew up with: affordable (under $10) daily changing dishes from curry goat to her popular fried chicken – grandma’s recipe.

Sorrel & Creole ham salad

Initially, dishes were uneven, whether flavorless, cold Creole ham and sweet potato salad ($7.50), or a two-note (salty and HOT) saltfish and ackee ($8), begging for more plantains and ackee to contrast Scotch bonnet peppers and uber-salty cod. But Miss Ollie’s sorrel is a superior, refreshing rendition, while lamb patties ($7) in a puff pastry evoke an Indian-Caribbean empanada, redolent of cardamom and allspice.

Daily specials are announced via Facebook, like fresh loaves of Jamaican hard dough bread or chicory coffee sweetened by condensed milk with Creole doughnuts. Miss Ollie’s fills a needed void and is certainly one to watch.


Around the Bay

A glass of Patrick-Bottex Vin de Bugey Cerdon Rose at Commis

COMMIS, OaklandCommis is Oakland’s shining star of culinary excellence and experimentation since James Syhabout put it on the map with multiple awards as Best New Chef in Food & Wine magazine, among countless other accolades since it opened in Summer 2009. There isn’t much new I could add to the din, other than to share dinner highlights on my last visit.

Farm Egg perfection

The three course prix fixe, at $59 per person, seems like a good deal for fine dining-quality food, with a very reasonable wine pairing of four wines for $29, but the bill adds up quickly. The understated, compact dining room runs like a tight ship in the hands of skilled staff. Certainly food is the star, as it should be, but I sometimes wish higher prices secured a memorable or at least spacious, comfortable surroundings (Commis is tiny, packed, minimalist) alongside excellent food.

All that aside, the pinnacle of the meal was actually the amuse bouche: a delicate Farm Egg over Medjool dates with malt and onion cream. This malty, creamy mini-dish (more than just a bite) was savory with a whisper of sweet. Downright perfection. Paired with a Brut French Sidre, it’s enough to convert one to Syhabout’s cooking immediately.

Zucchini Tartare

First course included New Alliums (in the onion family). This dish highlighted the succulence of onions, both melt-in-your-mouth fried and fresh onions, with slices of albacore tuna. The dish reached perfection with warm white bean mousse and seawater with espelette pepper. Zucchini Tartare was artistically rolled up with Shasta porcinis, sweet basil puree and smoked country ham emulsion. Paired with a stand-out 2009 Slovenian Verus Furmint Stajerska, the wine’s floral, crisp notes brought out the Summer freshness in both dishes.

New Alliums & Albacore Tuna

Mains consisted of Roasted Sonoma County Duck accented by caramelized fennel bulghur, peach, green peppercorn, and Slow-cooked Heritage Duroc Pork melded with cauliflower, toasted cranberry beans, sea lettuce and lemon pork jus. Though both dishes were expertly executed and in every respect very good, neither held the excitement or promise of the first two and the amuse.

Commis' window & wine corner

A welcome palate cleanser of Blueberry Soda with rose geranium was tart and refreshing… another highlight in a meal that seemed perfected in its accents and surprises more so than in the main dishes.

"Things We Lost in a Fire", an earthy, sweet dream of a dessert

Dessert unexpectedly raised the bar again, first with a rose-hued, nearly violet Patrick Bottex NV Vin de Bugey-Cerdon sparkling rose. It’s lightly sweet, tart, gentle effervescence shone alongside “Things We Lost In the Fire” Chocolate Brioche. Though the combo of strawberries and chocolate is ho-hum, these strawberries are roasted in rescoldo/mesquite embers. It’s accented by mint, salt, chartreuse chantilly and burnt vanilla ice cream. A dream dessert for me of salt, earth and sweetness. How could the bright, fresh but comparatively bland Chilled Cream of White Peach with caneberries, sorbet and lemon verbena snow keep up? The brioche stole the final scene.

SWEET FINGERS, San LeandroI’ve been attempting a trek out to San Leandro for a couple years to try Sweet Fingers, a Jamaican restaurant with the spirit of a Caribbean dive bar.

Sweet Fingers' comfortable interior

Without much in the way of authentic Jamaican food around, it’s exciting to find a place run by Jamaicans, especially one that serves what are rarities here but national dishes in Jamaica, like Saltfish and Ackee (also at Hibiscus in Oakland), and excellent drinks like tart Sorrel Juice ($5) or an intense House Ginger Beer ($4)… next time I want to order “Ja Clive” ($10) a cocktail of overproof rum, sorrel juice, ginger beer, lime.

Chef Clive himself is a friendly, engaging guy with a history in NY and the West Coast, and passion for cooking his native country’s foods. Jamaican flags, bright reds, yellows and greens, and plenty of Bob Marley imagery and music, make the otherwise dingy place festive.

Heartwarming Jamaican spread at Sweet Fingers

No particular dish stood out in a culinary sense but it all made for an engaging Jamaican feast as a whole, with ideal sizing options so you can try more. They weren’t making Saltfish & Ackee this visit, but next time I’ll call ahead and order. I sopped up everything with bland Cornbread ($2) and a plain but  surprisingly tasty Festivals (Jamaican cornbread fritters) ($2), just right dipped in Curry Goat sauce ($10 half order, $16 full order). The goat was fatty and messy, but rich with flavor. Jerk Chicken ($6/$10/$16) is a signature dish and a fine version. Spanish Town Scotch Bonnet Shrimp ($10/$16) exhibit heat from Scotch Bonnet peppers, smoothed out with coconut milk and veggies.

“Every little thing is gonna be alright,” or at least so it feels here as you settle into the chilled out, Jamaican vibe, sipping soothing Sorrel Juice to cool of the hot sauce heat.

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