Soul food has been around for so long, stroking the palate and sating the stomach as it evolved from disrespected slave cookery to cherished institution, it was only a matter of time before it would reinvent itself. For at least a decade, the cuisine known as nouvelle soul has been making its presence known at restaurants like Wendell's Grille in Memphis, B. Smith's in Washington, DC, and the Sugar Bar in New York, where smothered pork chops, fried chicken, collard greens, and peach cobbler are transformed into lighter, brighter dishes in keeping with today's well-traveled, health-conscious diners.
One of the pioneers in the nouvelle-soul movement is Tanya Holland. Born into a food-loving family in upstate New York, she studied at Burgundy's La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine and worked at restaurants in New York, Boston, and Martha's Vineyard, developing her culinary outlook and fusing her love of Southern cooking with elements from Africa, the Caribbean, and other complementary traditions. The result was a cookbook, New Soul Cooking, a cross-country move to Oakland, and the opening of a restaurant where she could showcase her unique cuisine.
Holland's Brown Sugar Kitchen is located in a barren stretch of industrial West Oakland dominated by artists' lofts, warehouses, and sidetracked boxcars, and although the out-of-the-way locale isn't particularly ideal for a neighborhood eatery, it's also a fecund milieu for reinvention and new possibilities. The restaurant's nouvelle-soul sensibility extends to the venue's look and overall ambience. The big, light-filled dining room is dominated by a gleaming deco-moderne counter in chrome and leatherette, the walls are Jetsons lime with hints of maroon, fresh flowers and original artwork accent the decor, and the kitchen crew and waitstaff are polished and affable in an earnest, CCA sort of way. What we have here, in other words, isn't your regulation railyard-diner experience.
The point is driven home with the arrival of our first, pre-breakfast nibble, a warm buttermilk biscuit — a remarkably crumbly, tender, light-as-air biscuit that melts in the mouth and salves the soul. It's served with sweet butter and spicy apple butter from Blue Chair Fruit, one of many local mainstays on the menu.
Breakfast proper begins with that soul-food standby, chicken and waffles, a usually over-ample combination of starch and grease transformed here into a surprisingly light yet comforting snack. The waffle is feathery, cornmeal-crisp, and drizzled with brown sugar-laced butter, while the chicken — pan-fried with an herb-limned buttermilk coating till hot and crunchy on the outside, moist and tender within — makes a wonderfully satisfying complement. It's served with a pitcher of warm apple cider syrup, a sharp, sweet orchard-blossom of an accent. Another breakfast triumph is the baked egg and vegetable tart, a creamy, delicate, custard-like concoction ribboned with shards of sweet roasted tomato and set into a buttery crust. Avoid the accompanying and oddly seasoned fried potatoes — served, incidentally, without catsup — and opt instead for a side of the house's plush hominy grits topped with grated sharp cheddar.
Lunch gets off to a choppy start with what's advertised as gumbo but doesn't resemble that mood-enhancing brew in any substantive way. Instead of the spicy, smoky glory of Louisiana cooking, we get a bowl of tepid broth unencumbered by oomph or any particular flavor: a few token chunks of overcooked crab, shrimp, and chicken; no okra or rice; and a film of coagulated oil floating above it all. Another bayou-based dish, Creole barbecued shrimp, is burdened with a gloppy, unimaginative sweet-and-sour sauce and is overcooked to boot. Happily, the barbecued baby back ribs (prepared in the kitchen's own smoker) are next on the agenda, and they're delectable: tender and meaty with hints of spice and woodsmoke, they're glazed with a tangy pineapple-pepper relish that doesn't overwhelm. And that New Orleans standby, the fried oyster po' boy, gets a terrific rendition here, cramming four big, briny, cornmeal-crusted bivalves into a tender, toasted torpedo roll with a tangle of lime-edged cabbage slaw and a drizzle of cayenne-fueled aioli.
The aforementioned slaw — a bright, tangy, kimchee-like confluence of cilantro, mustard, onion, and citrus — is also available as one of Brown Sugar's nouvelle-soul side dishes. Another is the black-eyed pea salad, a brisk update of the classic dish with sweet peppers, parsley, and a mild vinaigrette. Cornbread served hot from the cast-iron skillet is rich, substantial, and altogether memorable, but even better is a gratin of sliced sweet potatoes and melted gruyere; the sweet, earthy essence of the vegetable and the sweet, nutty flavor of the cheese add up to a particularly silky example of comfort food.
Vegetarians (if not vegans) can drop by Brown Sugar Kitchen and enjoy a fine breakfast of yogurt and granola, that marvelous egg and vegetable tart, the waffle (hold the chicken), and whatever muffins have emerged from the oven that day. At lunchtime a creditable meal can be assembled from the side-dish menu: the sweet potato-gruyere gratin, the black-eyed pea salad, cabbage slaw, baked beans, mac and cheese, vegetables in season.
The brief wine list offers eclectic yet well-chosen options out of France and Spain as well as a few small-vineyard locals (Steele's rich, fruity Mendocino Zinfandel is particularly tasty with the barbecued ribs). The equally impressive beer list features Lagunitas' Dogtown Pale Ale, Eel River Brewing's Organic Amber, Bear Republic's Racer 5 IPA, Red Stripe, and Anchor, and (why not?) Guinness. The dessert menu's just a rumor, at least to me; every time I've stopped by the place, the cakes and crisps and cookies and pies had been gobbled up soon after leaving the oven. Luckily, Brown Sugar Kitchen knows more than one way to fill a belly and soothe a soul.