Occupation: Insurance Company Attorney
Favorite Restaurant: Brown Sugar Kitchen
Reviewed Brown Sugar Kitchen: Multiple Visits in February 2010
Overall Summary: Delicious and innovative food that is exciting to anticipate and satisfying to eat. This restaurant has a commitment to serving you the best possible fare.
Details: There is one quick way of determining whether a breakfast restaurant cares about excellence: Does it serve real maple syrup? Shockingly, almost none do. But when you find one that does, you know you are onto something. You know that the proprietors take pride in the quality of their food, and don’t want to insult it with some kind of brown chemical goop with a long list of scientific ingredients. By just using the maple syrup test, you come up with a short list of good bets for a worthwhile breakfast / brunch / lunch dining experience. Then filter that list through the "fresh squeezed orange juice test," and you are down to the few and the proud.
Brown Sugar Kitchen breezes through these tests, and that is just the beginning. BSK’s waffles are something you really must try to experience while you tarry on this earth. They are a complete breed apart from the rest of the world’s waffles. They are delicate and sublime with a unique taste, and as you marvel with each bite, before you know it, you have eaten them all. The waffles are served either with real maple syrup, or with the house specialty, which is a reduced apple cider / brown sugar syrup. Wow. If you have experienced these waffles, and then later in life you wind up on death row, chances are these waffles will be a part of your last meal.
Now, the whole menu is interesting and delicious, but the waffles are simply profound and require their own separate discussion. The fried chicken has a unique and delicious flavor, and is a nice savory accompaniment to a waffle. The pork ribs have a wonderful smoky aura, topped with a little pineapple salsa. As you are about finishing up your second rib, you realize they have a wicked, little, spicy after-bite. The gumbo is surprisingly mild, and maybe my least adored menu item at BSK. I also felt that the shrimp in the gumbo were over-cooked.
Start out your experience with some beignets, served too hot to touch as little triangles dusted with powdered sugar and served with homemade jam. Very yummy. Sharing a sticky bun is also a fun way to get started. As you leave, pick up some apple cake, or maybe one of the chocolate chip cookies, garnished with just a little bit of sea salt!
My server once described the fare as, "New soul food with a California twist." Whatever that means, it results in a most enjoyable dining experience.
BSK is located in an otherwise industrial stretch of Mandela Parkway, and the interior décor is straight-up diner, with an open kitchen and a bustling atmosphere. Owner Tanya Holland can often be seen toiling alongside her employees in the kitchen. The area is safe, and parking isn’t a problem.
Occupation: Director of Juvenile Justice
Favorite Restaurant: Turk and Larkin Deli
Reviewed Brown Sugar Kitchen: Saturday February 13, 2010
I was very surprised when I walked into the restaurant. I expected a larger place with the fragrant smell of home cooking. It was early, so the place was not that crowded. I stood at the door for a minute or two before anyone seated me. I was escorted to a counter seat. I would have preferred to been given a choice of a counter or a table, given that the place was just not that crowded. I sat at the counter anyway and was not very comfortable. Then I got really upset when I overheard someone else being seated, and they were asked if they wanted the counter or a table.
I reviewed the menu quite thoroughly, as I looked around at the cooks, wait staff, and overall décor. The noise level was OK, the décor is nice and very mellow. I waited a long time after reviewing the menu to be asked what I was going to order. In fact, I had to stop someone to tell them I was ready to order.
There was a coffee bar that looked great and was staffed by a single person. There were three cooks. Two were men, and the other was a woman. She appeared to be the one in charge, because she was constantly looking around to make sure everything was running smoothly. I thought the prices were high for breakfast. Maybe I should say the prices were high for the amount of food you got.
When I think of a Southern restaurant, one of the first things that come to mind is the quantity of food you usually get. So, I was really surprised when I got a handful of potatoes and maybe two eggs. The eggs had spinach, broccoli, and onions in them. I thought, "Oh, no." I usually have a vegetable scramble, and it has mushrooms, cheese, onions, broccoli, peppers, and the like. I was pleasantly surprised that the food was very good, different, but good. I had already set myself up not to like the food based on the price and the service, so I was impressed when I tasted the eggs -- it made up for the bad service and the price.
The order did arrive in a timely fashion, and the coffee was fabulous. When I started out that morning, I went the wrong way and then got my bearings straight and had to head in the right direction. I know the neighborhood and was glad to see it revitalizing itself. Parking was easy, I parked right in front. I’m not sure if I would go there again, however, I would recommend it to friends.
Occupation: DJ and Budding Actor
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: 2223 Restaurant and Bar
Reviewed Brown Sugar Kitchen: Tuesday February 9, 2010
Although it has always been clear that Check, Please! Bay Area is a tremendous source for discovering wonderful restaurants to try, I hadn’t considered what the visceral experience of venturing out to one of the other guests' restaurant choices for the purpose of talking about it on the show would do to me. And what a thrill it was.
For the rest of its existence, the incredible Brown Sugar Kitchen, in their affectionately named neighborhood of "Sweet West Oakland," will eternally live blissfully in my memory as the place I went to "back in 2010" in preparation for the show. And at this point, I am very excited to meet the guest who brought this restaurant on to the program, and I can certainly understand why they consider it a favorite. Brown Sugar Kitchen is a high-concept restaurant serving what the chef/owner Tanya Holland calls "New Soul Cooking," and I call fabulous. In fact, I have a really hard time finding anything about which to complain. But I will, however, share an interesting negative anecdote that came to mind as I wiped my mouth with one of their thick paper napkins. When I was young, my mother told me about her one and only experience at McDonald’s. She was shocked to notice a ring of grease around her mouth after consuming a Quarter Pounder, and vowed never to return. Well, the ring of grease around my mouth after every bite of the heavenly food I savored at Brown Sugar Kitchen just served to glisten the outline of my ear-to-ear smile worn throughout this incredible meal. Eat your heart out fast food, this is one greasy meal worth eating, and I understand they use the "healthiest grease possible."
The beautiful smile, which welcomed us through the door, couldn’t have possibly predicted nor foretold the unique and special experience my dining companion Andy and I were about to receive. Offered a choice of two deuces or the counter, we opted for the front row seat to the open kitchen; always an amusing diversion while dining. From the 360-degree rotational stools, we could take in the atmosphere of the odd shaped, intimate diner. Although it is an extremely casual environment, a florist was replacing all of the centerpieces scattered across the counter and tables, and the ones she took away still looked fine themselves. The joint was packed, especially for 11:10am on a random Tuesday (the best time to get out and get things done without waiting very long for anything). The place had a very loud, buzzing vibe, and got busier and louder as the lunch hour crept up on us. We were also in a perfect position to notice the sparkling clean kitchen. Stainless steel has seldom shined so bright, which is a testament to their cleaning crew’s efforts and should not go unmentioned.
The service staff at Brown Sugar Kitchen has to get props for being some of the sweetest you’ll find. When we were seated, the hostess offered to take our drink order, but gladly accepted an order to start with a biscuit as well. After I ordered an OJ, she turned to Andy and asked, "And for the gentleman?" which, for some reason, sounded so eloquent to me. The drinks and biscuit showed up almost immediately, and although the room was packed, the service remained fast and attentive throughout. If I have to make any negative comment at all, just to prove my mother doesn’t own the place, it would be that it took a few minutes for Andy to get a coffee refill a time or two. But what they lacked in a flawless attention to every single detail that I would only expect in a five star restaurant anyway, they more than made up for in attitude. And although the server may take a few minutes to summon, she’ll spend all the time you want joking, discussing the menu, or whatever, proving that everyone gets their fair share of her attention. Everything was done cheerfully with a smile, too, including splitting things, so we could share and taste multiple dishes. We learned that our server’s name was Cerise at the very end, otherwise we would have loved to refer to her by name all along.
A very interesting thing happened regarding the timing of our visit and their hours of service. I had researched the restaurant through their website before going, and took note of the hours (7:00am - 3:00pm) and mention of "breakfast and lunch." However, since only a Saturday menu was posted on their web site, I was unsure if there was only one menu for the duration of their service, or if during the week it was broken into two separate menus. That caused me to wonder if there was perhaps a cut-off hour when they shift from one meal to the other. We happened to arrive at 11:10am, and noticed that the menu we were given was exclusively breakfast (although they serve fried chicken for breakfast!), but it was served until 11:30am. I immediately realized that we had the opportunity to have a unique experience for this review. Since I wanted to try as much of the food as possible, we ordered a few things from the breakfast menu, and then planned a secondary order from the lunch menu after 11:30. What a fun place to indulge in two whole meals in one sitting! And in her usual attentive way, Cerise delivered the lunch menus at 11:32, and we were on our way to the second round...
Saving the best (and most important) for last, the remainder of the review will be about the food. For my money, that’s why I go out to eat; to experience something I can’t make at home. Not only did everything we ate at Brown Sugar Kitchen satisfy that criteria, but there wasn’t a bite or sip of anything that didn’t completely blow me away.
Chronologically, I started with a homemade hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows. I quest for a gourmet cup of cocoa in my travels, and the assurance I was given when inquiring about their version convinced me I couldn’t lose here. This cup was a frothy, sweet, chocolaty dream with two gooey, sticky marshmallows floating on top that satisfied thoroughly. Even the organic, fresh-squeezed orange juice was a treat. It was thick and, I daresay, "creamy." I have had OJ just about every day of my life for decades, and have never had one like that, nor would I have ever used that word to describe it, but there it is.
Next came the flakey, savory cheddar, bacon, and scallion biscuit. I have never had a palm full of grease after eating a biscuit before, but that is in no way a complaint coming from me. In my opinion, there are three reasons to eat out: fat, salt, and sugar, and Brown Sugar Kitchen never disappoints on that score. Their signature cornmeal waffle, proudly displayed on the restaurant tee-shirts, is the lightest, crispiest, most delicate waffle I have ever encountered. How on earth they manage to make it greasy, yet crispy and light as a feather all at the same time is far beyond me, but it simply melts in your mouth. Furthermore, I had never even heard of brown sugar butter or apple cider syrup, and yet those adornments shot this already stellar dish straight to the cosmos.
A truly good macaroni and cheese is a lucky and surprisingly rare find. Somehow, by the time it was delivered, I was well confident that theirs would be very highly ranked among my favorites, and I’m pleased to report that my expectations were spot-on in that respect. It was cheesy, creamy, and delicious; and although I wouldn’t call it light, it wasn’t one of those chewy, glutinous messes you so often come across.
My first bite into the oyster po'boy sandwich revealed the most delicate and, for lack of a better word, perfect fried oysters, nestled in a web of tangy shredded greens resembling a slaw. It’s all served in the softest bun I’ve ever had, and was very easy to cut in two and split between us. All main dishes come with a choice of side, so for our ribs we opted for the smoked, mashed yams, which proved to be a smoky, buttery, yummy pile of deep orange goodness. The BBQ ribs that accompanied them were super smoky and tender with a sweet, flavorful pineapple glaze. I suppose the best words to describe them are, "Mmm-mmm good.…"
And a final well-conceived decision on our part led to a bonus indulgence later in the evening. Having no possible room to consume one of the delicious looking desserts enticing us at the front counter, we ordered a slice of their homemade pecan pie to go. Topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, the pie tied our whole dinner together with what we had experienced earlier in the day, and it was so fun to reminisce. The pie crust was crunchy and delicate at the same time, and I have no idea how they do it. It was simply one of the best pies I’ve ever had. In fact, I can say with confidence that most everything I ate at Brown Sugar Kitchen was the best version of that dish I’ve had.
I have often been accused of being a walking commercial for everything about which I speak. My policy for sharing is simple, and was established early in life when my father convinced me, "If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all." This experience of being a guest on Check, Please! Bay Area is a true test for me, because I have to give an honest report of all three restaurants, and if necessary will deliver some negative impressions and opinions of these places which are all new to me. Thank goodness I lucked out with Brown Sugar Kitchen for the first review. This is the kind of place I’d love to take everyone I like, and see the look of satisfaction and bliss on their faces as they savor the unique flavors of Tanya Holland’s "New Soul Cooking." MMM-MMM GOOD!!!