The quality that sets apart Southern cuisine — and the Caribbean cuisine with which it shares much more than fritters — "is all the love that's put in there," says Reign Free, who cooks both as the chef at Old Oakland's new Kuwa Restaurant. "A lot of those dishes are very time-consuming because it takes layers upon layers of labor to create those flavors. This is not food that can be quickly stir-fried. I have to use four different pots just to make one pot of gumbo. When I see people enjoying it, I think, Okay, that was totally worth it." But until then, it's all chopping, all slicing, all boiling, all frying, all the time.
At Kuwa, which opened this summer, you can watch her do it. Most of the restaurant's north wall comprises a narrow open kitchen, where Free and four line cooks dart and glide, stirring mango-scented sauces, wielding ribs and jerk drumettes, frying fish and chicken and sweet-potato strips amid gleaming stainless steel. A sprawling ceiling mirror, visible from nearly every shiny wooden table in the long and lofty space, doubles the view. Tall and forthright, Free — and yes, that's the name she was born with — assembles artful servings that resemble jaunty hats and magic mountains.
Our shrimp jambalaya and grits evoked a red-roofed village curved around a frozen lake, except that this "lake" was soft and savory and warm, the generous helping of gently salted stone-ground South Carolina grits tasting like polenta. It's part of chef Free's campaign, as she later told me resolutely, "to prove that grits aren't just for breakfast anymore." The jambalaya was spunky if not spectacular, spangled with bacon, spicy andouille, mango, green pepper, and chunks of tomato that we thought tasted canned. A vegetarian version features big blocks of extra-firm tofu. Ben found his catfish sliders tender, the batter crisp and neither too thick nor too thin. While Kuwa has an extensive wine list, we offset the hotness with sweet iced sorrel, the ruby-red Jamaican "Christmas drink" made from Hibiscus sabdariffa.
Each entrée comes with specified side dishes, but we mixed and matched the sides once our server assured us we could, and ordered some small plates as well. A tossed salad proved one of that night's surprise delights, with an interesting variety of tender baby greens in a silky sweetish black-peppery dressing. The pecan slaw was spring-hillside pretty, but could have used more nuts. Served in firm golden wedges, the cornbread wore an irresistible caramelized crown. Coconut rice (which sounds meatless but isn't: bone alert) had the heartiness of dishes not just splashed but saturated with coconutty richness. It came in a cup. We would have liked more — which is a compliment and a complaint.
Making the most of meals here means playing memorize-the-portion-size, because no two small plates weigh quite alike. While one serving of sumptuous soft-inside-crispy-outside sweet-potato fries was big enough for two, our macaroni-and-cheese was barely enough for one: "An insult," sulked hungry Tuffy. On a second visit, we ordered both again, to check. Again: a heap of fries complete with dill dressing and ketchup, and a ladleful or so of mac. And it's exactly the sort of velvety-Cheddary dish, made with supersized elbows, of which you want an enormous bowl.
The mashed potatoes were only semi-mashed, with firm walnut-size hunks basking in the chivey, creamy stuff as if to chime, Don't forget how potatoes taste. Southern and Caribbean food might get complex, but shining through the best of it are pure, clear earthy flavors. Kuwa's Blue Lake green beans sing. Cut into engagingly random sizes, the almost-red of Baltic amber, hauntingly fragrant sweet-potato fries neither feel nor taste deep-fried. Free uses organic produce whenever possible — and from African-American farmers whenever possible as well, she says. The way she prepares it, produce speaks for itself, cooked just enough but not a millisecond more.
This reverence for strong natural tones carries over into the restaurant's decor, in long straight lines and earth colors: one wall mustard-gold, another chestnut-red, trendy black ceiling, and black aprons on the staff; soft sofas in a low-slung lounge. (Kuwa features Friday-night live jazz.) Along a rail spanning the southern wall runs an array of bare branches, standing upright like little leafless trees. Like most of the decor, this was Free's idea. Calling it "my family tree," she plans to hang photographs from the twigs.
This is her first gig as a restaurant chef, but Free has helmed an Oakland catering company, The Red Door, for several years. Raised in the American Midwest by vegetarian Jamaican Seventh-Day Adventist parents, she began cooking in earnest as a Dillard University student in New Orleans, where she was head cook at her sorority. Before being offered the Kuwa job, she was running The Red Door, teaching at the San Francisco Academy of Art, and working with a charity that distributed food to the poor.
In their free bags of groceries, the food-pantry recipients "were getting great produce, but we would see them going around the corner and throwing it away," Free laments. "We saw them throwing out artichokes! When we asked why, they told us they didn't know what some of the produce was or how to eat it — and they didn't know the health benefits." So she created a series of free cooking classes, "showing them how with just three simple ingredients — kosher salt, coarse black pepper, and olive oil — they could make so many different things. The community was learning. Even the children were interested."
Kuwa's menu exudes her wry wit: Small plates are called small plates; entrées are called "not-so-small plates." Her mac-and-cheese is called "The Mac the Cheese." The dessert menu is titled "The Love Affair." Our server forgot to offer us this during our first visit; back again, we asked — and wound up with the best chocolate mousse we'd ever tasted. Take-no-prisoners bittersweet, studded with chips, as big as a double-scoop ice-cream cone, it wore a scarf of fresh strawberry slices and a pert pancake beret. As she says: It's the love.