Oakland’s vibrant Sister signals shift in restaurant culture – San Francisco Chronicle

Restaurant News

From the outside, the restaurant Sister looks so warm. Through windows glistening with raindrops, the interior is a blur of dark wood and yellow lights that dance in the retina. By the door is the logo, a soft mauve blob wherein the letters of the restaurant’s name float like the round wax lumps of a lava lamp. The logo looks harmless and cute.

“What is this place?” someone asks a friend as they stroll by clinging paper signs, having detached themselves from the pro-impeachment demonstration outside Grand Lake Theater. “It looks fancy.”

It seems that what was, until last year, the restaurant Boot & Shoe Service is already receding from memory. Its replacement, Sister, is more than just a wonderful restaurant; it’s proof that life goes on.

As The Chronicle reported in 2018, Boot & Shoe was one of three restaurants where the proprietor, Charlie Hallowell, was accused of grinding down the morale of female employees with “constant banter about his erotic fantasies,” nonconsensual touching and persistent sexual advances. (Hallowell acknowledged that some of his behavior was inappropriate.)

What followed was a series of dramatic gestures — the resignation en masse of all the top managers and chefs at Boot & Shoe Service; a letter wherein Hallowell promised to sit atop a public dunk tank in repentance; the inevitable NPR feature about the chef’s rehabilitation. When I started at The Chronicle about a year after the story broke, I was confronted with questions from readers about whether I’d go to Hallowell’s restaurants. (In short, no.)

In the summer of 2018, Jen Cremer, a former manager at Hallowell’s Pizzaiolo, and her husband, Richard Clark took the restaurant off Hallowell’s hands. Since then, it’s gone through a series of transformations: the logo and name, yes, but most of the old staff have left and the straight Cal-Italian menu has gotten more loopy, with an expanded pantry of Asian ingredients and an emphasis on naturally leavened sourdough in its bread and pizza offerings. There’s plenty of space for culinary weirdness on the menu, which is divided into sections: small bites, first (salads, hearty appetizers), second (pasta, meat entrees) and pizza.

What has ensued feels like a collective rolling of the shoulders, a psychic loosening-up after the tension of the past two years.

From left Executive chef Martin Salata and pizza cook Madeline Kenney makes pizzas at Sister on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019, in Oakland, Calif. The restaurant is located at 3308 Grand Ave.

Under chef Martin Salata, who studied fine art for a decade before diving into the edible arts (including under Hallowell), the menu is heavily referential and visually exciting. Grilled steak with roasted sweet potato and black sesame salsa negra ($28) is an homage to San Francisco’s Cala, with tidily arranged accoutrements that riff on chef Gabriela Cámara’s unforgettable burnt sweet potato dish.

Cross your eyes to see the reference in his celery plate ($12), wherein the flavors of “ants on a log” transposed into something like Thai larb with brunoised celery stalks mixed with crushed spicy peanuts, sultanas, dried shrimp powder, shredded mint and rice vinegar. A salad of Little Gems ($14) looks as if the lettuce wedges just arrived from a New Year’s Eve party, with streamers of sorrel and sunflower seed furikake confetti exploded all over them.

This is the self-consciousness that defines Sister. Every choice feels like a purposeful, though tentative, step away from the restaurant that was.

From left: Jaren Wilkinson, Blair Cardigan Smith and Justin Wright at Sister in Oakland.

Rather than the predecessor’s Neapolitan-style pizzas, the round oven at the center of the dining room spits out 12-inch sourdough-crust pizzas, Cheeseboard Collective-style. The crust is tangy and complex, giving off a soft snap when bent. For toppings, Salata’s Cal-Italian approach is consistently more Cal than Ital: Fiscalini Cheddar from Modesto, Littleneck clams, wild nettles and winter savory are some of the more interesting features.

The kitchen is generous with the clam pizza ($24), though that same generosity can bite them in the rear if the clams are gritty, as they were when I had them. But a pie with Cheddar, crumbled fennel sausage and jalapeño ($22) was perfect, with a rounded level of spice from the peppers that complemented the earthiness of the English-style cheese. Overall, the pizzas are bold and well-composed; sometimes they’re dropped at the table accompanied by a ramekin of table salt, but I found that wholly unnecessary.

Customers at Sister in Oakland.

In fact, the service model here leans into abundance: plates and utensils are consistently replaced, water glasses kept filled and tables always wiped down between courses. Cremer is often out on the floor, doing those very things. One drawback to this is that the dining room tables are so packed together that every time someone comes by to do one of those tasks they have to squeeze by and apologize. You end up feeling like part of an obstacle course.

Still, or perhaps because of that, the servers are open-handed with diminutives — sweetheart, dear, friend. They’re likely to punctuate your ordering with superlatives, like “Yes!” “This is the best thing on the menu,” or “Oh my god, I love that one.” Somehow, it never feels forced. The name Sister, with its suggestion of close connections and familial love, is indeed the restaurant’s mantra.

Now’s my turn for superlatives.

The ricotta agnolotti plate at Sister in Oakland.

Ricotta agnolotti ($22) nestled in green garlic broth and blessed with a handful of crisp maitake mushrooms: stupendous, like a trek through the redwoods. The best pasta dish I’ve had all year.

Lamb ribs ($17) tossed in XO sauce and honey: #succulent, the finest protein on the menu. The best rendition of XO sauce outside of a Chinese restaurant I’ve had yet.

The bread at Sister in Oakland.

And finally, the bread ($4 for two slices). I adore this rectangular, seed-packed levain, which has a tapioca-like texture that expands and contracts between the fingers with an accordion motion . Currently, the kitchen sends it out with organic butter and fermented mushroom salt, but it’s equally good as a mop for green garlic broth, sabayon and furikake. Sister’s smart new bread shelf, where the loaves wait like eager puppies at a shelter, is a tempting sight as one leaves the restaurant. Buy the bread.

That said, it would be easy and narratively neat to hold up Salata, Cremer and Clark as saviors of this place, as wielders of the answer to the painful ethical questions that introduced so much complication to the otherwise ordinary act of eating. Choosing the righteous path is so much easier when that choice brings us so much deliciousness and pleasure. But to hold them up in that way, as heroes, would be to perpetuate the value system that convinced people like Hallowell, his business partner, Richard Weinstein, and others that they could do whatever they wanted to the people who worked for them as long as they put out good food. That we don’t have to hold onto toxic things out of fear that we’d be missing out on something irreplaceable.

House-made bread with butter and salt at Sister in Oakland.

Let’s hope that Sister is a fresh start: Not just for the restaurant space itself, but for the whole idea that we owe the bulk of our cultural treasures to virtuosos. Instead, let’s celebrate the collective effort it took to get here.


3308 Grand Ave., Oakland. 510-763-2668 or www.sisteroakland.com

Hours: 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5:30-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 5:30-9:30 p.m. Sunday.

Accessibility: Tight squeeze between tables; furniture in restrooms. Gender neutral restrooms.

Noise level: Conversation difficult; not for difficult conversations.

Meal for two, sans drinks: $65-$85

What to order: Lamb ribs, Little Gems salad, sausage pizza, agnolotti, bread and butter, celery

Meat-free options: Plenty of options; pizzas easily customizable.

Drinks: Full bar.

Transportation: On the 12 AC Transit line. Street parking available; free on weekends.

Best practices: Reservations via Resy. The high top tables in the front room tend to be quieter.

Source: Thanks https://www.sfchronicle.com/restaurants/article/Oakland-s-vibrant-Sister-signals-shift-in-14930187.php