By Virginia Miller
Since her days at Oakland’s Hibiscus, and even further back at Front Porch in San Francisco, chef Sarah Kirnon has infused the Caribbean flavors of her youth into creative dishes exhibiting the heart of soul food with a modern vision. Kirnon’s fried chicken, a recipe she learned from her grandmother while growing up in Barbados, is a bit of a cult classic that follows her around from restaurant to restaurant.
Once Kirnon left Hibiscus, she put her efforts into opening Miss Ollie’s, which made its debut on Dec. 4. Named after, and in tribute to, her grandmother the restaurant occupies a roomy, corner location of Swan’s Market in Old Oakland. There a friendly crew serves lunch only, Tuesdays-Fridays, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Only one week in, and lines were long when we visited, with downtown Oakland’s workday crowd and Swan’s Market shoppers queuing up for Caribbean comfort food. Just like the Caribbean one-stop shops Kirnon grew up with, the main dish change every day, ingredients are market driven, and prices stay low, generally under $10. In keeping with tradition, daily specials are the mainstay of the menu, like Wednesday’s heartwarming curry goat, or, on Tuesday, that beloved fried chicken.
After ordering at the counter and grabbing a number, diners congregate around communal tables or on bar stools in a sparse, modern but welcoming space with a few splashes of color from Caribbean artwork and signs, including a wood board painted with the mouthwatering words: “Creole doughnuts.”
Miss Ollie’s purple-hued sorrel is an excellent version of the traditional Caribbean juice made from sorrel leaves, ginger, and cloves, to name a few ingredients. A tub of sorrel sits behind the register. Sorrel’s brightly spiced, floral freshness cools spicy dishes like Jamaican saltfish and ackee (ackee being Jamaica’s national fruit), with burning scotch bonnet peppers mellowed by sweet plantains.
The fluidity of Miss Ollie’s casual format is already apparent. One day they might be pulling out a fresh loaf of Jamaican hard dough bread from the oven. Another day they’re selling their house pepper sauce for gifts. Chicory coffee sweetened by condensed milk and accompanying Creole doughnuts is an irresistible special. Last minute treats are announced via Facebook, often the day of.
In the first two openings weeks, teething problems meant waits could be long for food once ordered, sometimes up to 30 minutes, and there were days when food had sold out well before the posted 2:30 p.m. closing time. Those on their lunch break, or coming later, will want to call ahead to assess average wait times, or ensure they haven’t sold out for the day… at least until food pacing and volume settle in.
Though a launch date for dinner hours has yet to be announced, the lunch crowds testify to a craving for gourmet Caribbean food. There may be a number of Caribbean outposts in the East Bay, but Kirnon’s approach fuses various island specialties with forward-thinking cooking sensibilities: an intriguing prospect for casual, to-go or eat-in island food.
Miss Ollie’s, 901 Washington Street at Ninth St., Oakland, 510-285-6188.
Virginia Miller is a freelance food writer for SF Bay Guardian, Zagat, PureWow and Blackboard Eats, among others, and the voice behind The Perfect Spot.