Oakland’s typically bumpin’ Cal-Italian restaurant Sister has been quiet lately — a normal state of being for restaurants during the pandemic. But the storied space is now entering yet another new chapter: a new chef, who has none of the ties to its controversial previous incarnation, Charlie Hallowell’s Boot & Shoe Service.
Owners Jen Cremer and Richard Clark have brought on Melissa Perfit, who was the chef at short-lived Union Square seafood restaurant Ayala but might be best known for her years at elegant raw bar-focused Bar Crudo, as well as her stint on “Top Chef” in 2017.
Expect Perfit’s expertise in seafood to carry over to Sister as she slowly makes the menu her own, though she’s such a fan of Sister — especially its naturally leavened, wood-fired pizzas — that she isn’t planning any radical changes.
Her dishes have just started hitting Sister’s menu, including handmade tortelloni stuffed with ricotta and covered with an electric orange sauce made of roasted heirloom tomatoes, and a celebration of summer in salad form, featuring heirloom tomatoes, peaches and lemon cucumbers.
Her arrival comes around the same time Cremer and Clark hope to transition Sister away from a takeout-only operation to one that emphasizes outdoor dining. The restaurant already has a lovely back patio and space for sidewalk tables, and construction on a new parklet should wrap up in October. Clark said he hopes outdoor dining will allow Sister to hire back more staff.
In the future, Perfit envisions bringing oysters and some favorites from Ayala, like the crunchy, fried whole snapper perched on a thin pool of pho-inspired lobster broth. But she also wants to show off more than what some might expect given her seafood-centric resume. She plans to experiment with Sister’s wood-burning oven for more than pizza and add a steak, showing off the skills she picked up while working as chef de cuisine at Niku Steakhouse before the pandemic hit.
“The amount of time I spent at Bar Crudo put me in this seafood chef category — people kept saying that,” she said. “I don’t want to be labeled like that’s the only thing I can do.”
Perfit’s arrival also has some symbolic significance as Sister moves further and further away from Boot & Shoe Service, where former owner Hallowell was widely accused of sexual harassment.
Cremer and Clark bought Boot & Shoe in 2018, a few months after The Chronicle published its first investigation, and gradually made changes to the restaurant. But some community members wondered why they didn’t change the name when it carried so much stigma and questioned the restaurant’s ties to Hallowell’s regime — Cremer and prior executive chef Martin Salata previously worked for Hallowell at his restaurant Pizzaiolo.
In 2019, Cremer and Clark changed the name to Sister, unveiling their desire to build a positive restaurant culture with a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment. Now, the restaurant has an executive chef in Perfit with zero connection to Hallowell.
Ultimately, Cremer and Clark’s vision resonated strongly with Perfit. “I never responded well to a militant kitchen,” she said. “It’s not the way I lead cooks. Everyone should respect each other.”
Sister. 4-7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. 3308 Grand Ave., Oakland. 510-763-2668 or sisteroakland.com
Janelle Bitker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @janellebitker