Is Brown Sugar Kitchen in the Ferry Building Worth the Hype?
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Worth the Hype? is a column by longtime food and drink writer Geri Koeppel, who will check out bars and restaurants (some new, others popular or exceptional in some way) on her own dime and tell you whether she thinks they’re worth the hype or not. The deciding factor: Whether she’d go back and spend money again. She might not be exactly broke-ass, but she’s definitely cheap-ass and doesn’t put up with a rip-off.
Where is it?: Brown Sugar Kitchen is at the north end of the Ferry Building nearest the Bay side in the former Il Cane Rosso space. As with the previous occupant, it’s mostly counter service with a few small tables up against the wall in the corridor.
What is it?: An outpost of chef Tanya Holland’s soul food restaurant, which closed its doors after a decade in West Oakland in August 2018 but reopened recently in Uptown Oakland. She’s long been known for her fried chicken and waffles, and the abbreviated Ferry Building menu includes those along with a few breakfast items (granola, cheese grits with poached egg) and smattering of sandwiches and salads.
How much is it?: The signature buttermilk fried chicken with cornmeal waffle is $18, but almost all other meals are $12–14. Biscuits, cornbread and sides are $4–6.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, but I was told they’ll be extended soon.
Worth the hype?: No.
Why not? I was so excited about this opening, but basically, it sucked. I’m sorry; I realize this is a beloved brand that Holland envisions as a prototype with big hopes for expansion, but based on my experience, she has a lot of quality control work ahead of her.
I do hope she takes my report to heart and digs into what went wrong. Altruistically, I wish her the best, and selfishly, I want this place to be good because I spend a ton of time at the Ferry Building, I’ve waited nearly three years for something great to go into this spot, and I’m a huge connoisseur of soul food (living 10 years in and around downtown Detroit gives me a deep background on this matter).
So what did go awry? The space is open and inviting. The counter worker was welcoming and answered my questions pleasantly. The menu looked enticing.
It all fell apart with the first bite. I wasn’t in the mood to try the waffle, so I went for the buttermilk fried chicken salad ($14) with mixed greens and Little Gems, pickled onions, and a fried thigh sliced for easier logistics. The lettuce was fine—crisp and cold—but the dressing was way too sour.
Most disturbing, the breading on the chicken was soggy, not crispy in the least, and a weird herb blend overpowered any other flavor. It was as if someone opened every jar of dried herbs in the pantry and just went nuts without regard for how they tasted together. The chicken was rubbery, too, and the combination of that and the soggy breading just got worse the longer I ate. I’m almost always a proud member of the “clean plate club,” but sadly, I threw more than half of this bad boy away.
In addition to fried chicken, another litmus test for me for soul food is collard greens, but oddly, they don’t sell them—at least when I was there. What?!? No collard greens at a soul food place? The counter employee told me the menu is constantly changing, so maybe they’ll eventually make an appearance. But based on my first impression of the other items I tried, I can’t imagine they’ll even remotely meet my expectations.
In lieu of collard greens I ordered macaroni and cheese ($6), and it, too, failed miserably. Mac and cheese is much like pizza: It has to be incredibly bad for me to turn up my nose. I had two bites and gave up. It had hardly any color or discernible cheese flavor, but the chalky flour taste was front and center, along with a strange, faint sweetness. It needed black pepper and actual cheese, please.
My lunch partner ordered two pieces of white meat on their own ($12; dark meat is $10), and oddly, the breading had none of the herb explosion that mine did. In fact, it had virtually no flavor at all. The meat was dry, too, and while it’s hard to keep white meat juicy, it can be done. I’m thinking of Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement in Emeryville’s Public Market. Their rosemary chicken, braised greens and mac and cheese are all excellent examples of the genre.
We ended with a berry turnover ($5), which had all of the personality of a Pop-Tart. I assure you, don’t be fooled by its gleam in the pastry case: it over-promises and under-delivers.
It gives me no pleasure to tear down a business, especially not a business with a woman of color at the helm who gives opportunities to other people of color. Her goal is noble and her concept adds a welcome diversity to the downtown dining scene. I hope this was just a bump in the road or a really, really off day. Despite the terrible first impression, I’ll probably return at least to try the BBQ pulled pork sandwich. And those elusive greens—the sooner, the better.