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David DeMordaunt
Name: David
Occupation: Insurance Company Attorney
Location: Clayton
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.

Denise Coleman
Name: Denise
Occupation: Director of Juvenile Justice
Location: Pinole
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.

Evan Hirsh
Name: Evan
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!!!

Brown Sugar Kitchen: Reviews 10 May,2010Wendy Goodfriend

  • Jones New York

    Brown Sugar Kitchen is the best place I know of in Oaktown. Now that I have been there I think about it every morning. Cereal will never look the same or as appealing as it once was. Thankful for Tanya’s food and Phil’s vibe. We love you guys and what you have created and share with us.

  • Stan G

    I found Brown Sugar to be an interesting place however it was a bit expensive and while the chicken was good, it apparently was fried in the same oil as the oysters as it had a strong oyster taste. The waffles were excellent however because parking was a problem I doubt I would include this place on my next visit to Oakland

  • Jay

    Taking the time to provide this report might be the only way to help others avoid a big mistake.

    A visit this Saturday the 22nd of May 2010, at 11:55am included: A two hour and five minute wait for seating for a party of four, Bad attitude from the answering hostess when calling in from waiting outside (yes waiting outside for notice to seating after signing up as walk-in for seating), Cashiers bad attitude when asked for a receipt upon buying coffee and danish during the two hour wait, Cold food sent back for heating and returned cold (at which point the remaining order was canceled ), The witness of carry-out orders being given priority over customers waiting to be seated, The witness of others being served fried chicken raw at the bone (meet bleeding at the bone), The un-lawful and un safe over crowding of facilities (max occupancy of 49 yet counting over 76 including employees).

    Unless you are a pain junkie save your self some grief and avoid this place.

  • Ted

    It is sad to say the Jay is telling it like it is. I too was there on the 22nd of May and was appalled at how bad (and unsafe) things were. The wait was more than an hour and a half. The restaurant refused to take reservations. Many couples left when they heard how long the wait was.

    Around 1:15pm I saw an elderly man with walker. He was sitting by the fire exit and his walker was blocking the emergency fire door exit. There were more than twenty other people by that emergency exit and four deep directly in front of it with the walker blocking them! (Think about it; scary very scary.) The waiting staff was over worked and very poorly managed.

    I saw Jay ask to have his waffles warmed up enough to melt the butter served with them. They took them from him and delivered them back and butter still did not melt on the waffles. They even looked cold to me. I don’t blame him for sending the order back.

    I also noticed the cooking staff failed to reset meat thermometers after checking chicken. They (more than a few time ) just slipped the thermometer under the skin of the chicken. They moved from piece to piece in rapid succession without deep insertion. Given that practice, it is obvious to see how they could be serving under cooked chicken.

    The food was fair (at best). Portions were fair (not hardy). Given the ordeal to get it one might question the sanity of returning. By my bet you could go to Nation’s in Berkly and get a huge (hot) breakfast in a much more family safe environment for a better price.

    On the other hand Brown Sugar Kitchen may be able to fix many problems by just using a reservation system. They could tell patrons reservation will not be held for longer than five minutes and they could partial double book. Such a process relives the trend to cut corners on safety and on cooking quality. Further they could process take-out orders through the back door/service area of the establishment. Doing so might free the space by the fire exit and keep a healthy and safe dining area.

    For now, if you have a family or party of two or more go some other place. If you are a party of one and feel like being treated like cattle (including feed lot food) go to Brown Sugar Kitchen.

  • Dawn

    I was so excited to check this place out after seeing it on the show as I live in Oakland and am always looking for cool places in the East Bay as I miss the city very much after living there for so many years.

    Although the overall experience was fair and I would go back to give it another chance, it certainly didn’t live up to my expectations. One of the cooks was off duty and eating breakfast. He was very freiendly and enthusiastic, giving us many recommendations on the menu. However, our server barely greeted us and seemed unhappy and put-out.

    I was very disappointed in the waffles. They had a very strange and “not good” taste to them. Their texture was weird. The fried chicken was good enough, but nothing to write home about.

    I’m from New Orleans, and those were not beignets! They were too hard and flat. They are supposed to be like little fluffy, chewy, three dimensional pillows of dough.

    The only great thing we tried was the cheese grits. They were incredible, coming from someone who is from the south and has eaten alot of grits. They were very, very creamy and soft, with melted cheese and butter and herbs: so decedent and rich.

    The sweet potatoe pie was okay, at best. As the empty dishes sat on the table, piled up, the server just ignored them. I ate my pie with two stacks of dirty plates on the table in front of me. Not very appetizing . However, I will give this place another try because I like the concept, loved the grits and I think there are probbaly some great things on the menu. But service definitely needs work.

  • Alex

    Decided to go on a Friday, to hopefully avoid a long wait. We were seated after 20 minutes, which isn’t terribly bad for a popular restaurant. However, it took 30 minutes to get served after we placed our order. I overheard the waitress telling someone that is was due to the chicken and waffles. Would have been nice to have been warned.

    It was good, waffle was extremely light and crispy, so if you prefer something a little denser, this is not for you. The oyster po boy was good, too.

  • Dan

    Brown Sugar Kitchen is great for lunch or a late breakfast. The best thing on the breakfast menu is the cheese grits and eggs, although I will often also order a biscuit with jam to bring a little sweet in to my meal (the hardy beignets are also fantastic, when available). Plus their waffles are cornmeal, light, and almost crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, and are a great break from the ubiquitous mediocre Belgian waffles most places serve, that are often simply a vehicle for toppings and have to real character of their own.

    The lunch menu is often even better. The po’boy is not traditional, but the complexity of texture gets me every time, from the silky oyster, to the crunch of its breading, to the crispness of the slaw, and finally a soft yet properly crusty roll.
    On the down side, unless you go on off-hours on a weekday you are going to wait, and likely wait outside. When they are packed, service can be awesome or lacking, I have experienced both. Similarly, on one occasion I could tell the kitchen was in the weeds and the food did not all come out at the same time. They should not support carry out on weekends. Still, when I eat out I am doing it for the food quality; quantity, convenience, and service come second.

    All this said, I couldn’t disagree more with some of the other comments. Parking is street parking, but there is plenty of it since the area is mostly industrial, so even when the place is packed at most you walk a block. I have never seen raw chicken served, but I do admit I believe that most meat, chicken and fish included, is murdered by overcooking in the name of food safety. Finally, if you want a traditional scrambled-eggs-folded-over-and-called-an-omelet breakfast, Brown Sugar Kitchen is not the place for you. However, if you want a southern-style brunch experience, you wont be disappointed.

  • Lyndsey

    I looked forward to eating at this restaurant for months. After a write up in Sunset and overall good reviews by yelp and check please. Only one word can sum up our groups experience and that is disappointment. The rice in my sisters dish wash completely undercooked, and we would have tried to send it back but our waitress never returned to check on our meal. My husband ordered the fried chicken which was nothing special. I personally had the pulled pork sandwich it was boring and dry, the coleslaw may have been the best thing on the table. We also ordered macaroni and cheese for the table to share since it’s a favorite and it had to be some of the worst any of us had ever had, all bread crumbs, undercooked pasta and hardly any cheese. The waitstaff seemed so put out to be there that any and all special or not so special requests were either ignored or greeted with huffs and puffs and done begrudgingly. We were sat pretty quickly since it was a week day but then waited at least ten minutes to be greeted and another ten just for drinks that they never offered to be refilled. I wish I had something nice to say about the restaurant but when you charge those prices for down to earth soul food you should at least pull it off and if you cant do that at least be friendly, if we wanted hipster snobbery with our meal we would have eaten in the Mission.

  • Sandra Stark

    LettDear Brown Sugar Kitchen Owner/ Manager;
    After great anticipation, my friend and I went to your restaurant today. I wish I could say it was the wonderful experience I had expected…it was not.
    I have a service animal, a small dog. I told the hostess before signing up on the waiting list and showed her the dog’s medallion. She said that was fine and could I carry the dog in? I said “No problem”. We proceeded to wait for an hour to be called for our table. I carried my dog in, as requested, and was asked if the dog could sit on my lap…again I said, “No problem”. We sat, with the dog on my lap, and quickly gave our order. Then the hostess came over and asked if I could put my dog on the ground….”No problem”, I said again and placed him on the floor between my legs.
    Not too long after that, I was told by the hostess that we would have to leave, that customers had complained, that one customer said my dog had peed and the owner was upset. I told her in no uncertain terms that my dog had not peed in my arms, on my lap or on the floor! Someone was lying! She said that she had put a rush on our order that we could take to go.
    I went outside with my dog and my friend stayed to wait for the food. After almost another hour she came out with the food (some rush!). Needless to say, the food was a poor representation of your restaurant as it was soggy and cool by the time we ate it.
    I have no words to describe how humiliating this was. As for other customers, the people sitting right around us, dog owners themselves, verified that my dog had not peed, and they could not believe how we were treated after I had complied with all the hostess’ requests, and especially in view of the fact that I have a medallion for my dog.
    I think it would behoove you to review the policies for service animals with your staff to prevent any more awkward and humiliating situations for customers.

    er to Brown Sugar re my experience,,,

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