Singapore Meets Southern Classics
at Chef Nora Dunning’s West Oakland Drip Line
By Alix Wall
Chef Nora Dunning’s culinary viewpoint shifted one day over a bowl of shrimp and grits.
It happened last winter as Dunning was cooking grits for her husband John, a Californian whose family has roots in the American South. Dunning’s palate was developed in her native Singapore, and like many residents of that Southeast Asian island nation, she is ethnically mixed. Her father is Indonesian and her mother is half Indonesian, half Indian.
As she started making the grits, Dunning gave in to a hankering to cook them in the style of nasi lemak, a popular Southeast Asian rice dish flavored with coconut milk and pandan, a fragrant herb described as like vanilla. Dunning then topped the bowl with shrimp simmered in sambal (chile sauce with other aromatics). It was nothing like any shrimp and grits her husband had ever tasted, but she heard no complaints, and the bowl came back clean.
“He still got his shrimp and grits,” says Dunning, “but I had the flavors of nasi lemak that I wanted, and the grits with coconut milk were so good. I immediately wondered who else was doing that.”
A year later, Dunning’s Singaporean-style shrimp and grits are a staple on the weekend menu at Drip Line, a breakfast and lunch spot in West Oakland. Since it opened last February, the tiny eatery has attracted a steady following for Dunning’s unique twists on Southern dishes, including her chicken and waffles, which gets its Asian flair from drizzling kecap manis, a sweet soy sauce, over the fried chicken.
From food to designer shoes and back
Dunning began her career as a shoe designer in Lucca, Italy. As much as she enjoyed the fashion industry, she heard a voice in her head repeating, “I am in Italy to eat.” The thought arrived with her first morning espresso, lingered through the languorous lunches, and hovered over late-night meals with colleagues.
“The grandmas and aunties I met would invite me into their kitchens, and somehow, I learned Italian cooking, even as a shoe designer.”
After returning home to Singapore, Dunning found herself frequently inclined to hang out with her mom in the kitchen, all the while quietly pondering a career change into cooking. But she had seen her mother work so hard in catering without proper compensation.
“People loved her cooking, but she wouldn’t charge what it was worth,” says Dunning. “She could have made much more money, and she advised me to stay away from this work. But in the end, I couldn’t stay away.”
Still in Singapore, her mother hasn’t yet visited Drip Line, but Dunning regularly consults with her via WhatsApp.
“My mom is the Drip Line spirit, and even though she hasn’t been here, she’s been the core inspiration for
A rocky ride through the Great Recession . . .
Dunning, a mother of three, attended the San Francisco Baking Institute and first made her name in the Bay Area food scene as a baker at Crema, a line of South Bay cafés that her husband owned. “At Crema I was doing French pastries, always pushing a little Asian here and there, but I had to be safe,” said Dunning.
She found freedom as the chef at Monkey Forest Road, a Balinese-themed café in Oakland where she went to work after the economy tanked in 2008 and John Dunning decided to let his cafés go.
“The owner said ‘go for it,’ so I began pushing the Asian influences further.” That lasted until Monkey Forest Road was bought out.
Dunning then took up invitations to cook at events in Singapore, and these provided an infusion of inspiration. On returning, she worked for a while at Farley’s and then took a job at Blue Bottle, which was going through a period of growth.
“They were opening in Palo Alto and had just opened in Japan, but before I knew it, they told me they were merging with Tartine,” says Dunning, whose husband had introduced her to Chad Robertson and Liz Prueitt of Tartine years earlier, when Nora had no idea how influential the baker duo would become. Now she became Prueitt’s right-hand woman, communicating between Japan, New York, Los Angeles, and Oakland.
“Logistically it was great. I learned so much, as this was on a huge scale,” she says. But six months later, Blue Bottle and Tartine parted ways.
. . . with a smooth landing on a blank canvas
Dunning stayed on at Blue Bottle, overseeing the restructuring of their food program, and she would have continued had it not been for a call from Josh Larson and Carrie Shores of Larson Shores Architecture and Interiors, who had known Dunning from her time at Monkey Forest Road. They had set up shop in a West Oakland industrial area where there was no coffee to be had for blocks around. Might she be interested in taking over the former cookie factory that was adjoining their space?
“It was this empty, blank canvas,” Dunning says. It was an easy yes. “I wanted to do what I was really passionate about, which was my food. I wanted to package it in a way that people will be familiar with the items . . . a taste from my home in Singapore, but with California ingredients.” Larsen and Shores gave her carte blanche.
The café’s name is from an architectural term that refers to a path water travels through the built environment. Dunning likes to describe her Drip Line as an “unexpected path, touching the people, businesses, and neighborhoods of West Oakland.”
Just don’t ask for maple syrup
Must-try dishes at Drip Line include the aforementioned shrimp and grits and the chicken and waffles, but it’s hard to go wrong with anything on the menu. Dunning came up with a burger that’s a 60/40 beef-to-mushroom concoction first created to satisfy a James Beard Foundation–sponsored contest that centered on using less beef. The burger was so popular that she kept it on the menu.
The sourdough for her waffles is yet another novelty within an established genre. “I wanted to do a waffle that was special, and without question, it had to be sourdough. It’s nice and crispy on the outside, but a little bready and lightly fermented,” says Dunning. It’s served savory as part of the chicken dish, but not to be missed in its sweet presentation with a scoop of kaya—a kind of coconut jam made with eggs, butter, coconut milk, sea salt, and pandan—which wafts off the waffle like a coconut cloud, transporting the eater to another realm. And here’s a piece of advice: Don’t ask for maple syrup. Dunning is kind and unflappable when someone asks, but she prefers you try the dish as she intends it.
As much fun as it is to enjoy a full meal at Drip Line, there’s every reason to stop in for coffee or a matcha latte to accompany Dunning’s baked goods. Don’t miss the items made with Dunning’s sourdough starter, which she began last October before Drip Line was a reality. She talks about the starter as if it were a baby: It’s a boy, and his name is Drip Line.
“We didn’t buy it and we didn’t get it from Tartine: It’s our own Drip Line starter and he’s still alive,” she says. “We feed him every 12 hours and put him in our croissants, breads, and waffles.”
Ready for Secret Funky Friday?
Dunning enjoys the perception that she represents the face of Singaporean cuisine in the East Bay: A company recently asked her to cater a meal to welcome numerous employees they were bringing over from her homeland. But she has been careful not to offer too much too soon in terms of Southeast Asia’s funkier flavor palate, catering as much to broader tastes and paying heed to the interests of local vegans. Nevertheless, those familiar with Singaporean food (and some food critics) have encouraged her to turn up the funk, and she’s done so with a special Friday menu, when those not afraid of shrimp paste or fish sauce come to partake.
“It’s for a small demographic,” she says. “We call it ‘Secret Funky Friday.’”
With Drip Line, Dunning has gained the respect and adoration of other chefs. San Francisco Rising Star Chef Tu David Phu (profiled in Edible East Bay’s Fall 2017 issue) did a pop-up with Dunning this past summer and says he goes weekly to Drip Line to get his fix.
“Her flavors are nostalgic,” says the chef known for his modern spin on Vietnamese cuisine. “The best food I’ve ever eaten was food cooked in hawker centers in Asia. A trip to Drip Line is a much more manageable option than buying a plane ticket.” ♦
Chef Nora Dunning’s Drip Line Shrimp and Grits
Make the sambal ahead. You’ll have enough for multiple servings of this dish, which is a favorite among Drip Line customers.
For the sambal
3 large shallots, roughly chopped
3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
6 Fresno peppers, roughly chopped
3 chile de árbol, soaked in hot water, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon belacan (shrimp paste), optional
3 tablespoons cooking oil
1 teaspoon tamarind paste
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon sugar
Blend shallots, garlic, ginger, peppers, and belacan (if using) in an electric blender to paste consistency. Heat cooking oil over medium-low to medium heat and sauté chile paste until fragrant, stirring constantly. Add tamarind paste, salt, and sugar to taste. Cook, stirring constantly, until paste has turned a darker red, 15–20 minutes. (Oil may separate, and that’s OK.) Set aside to cool.
For the coconut grits
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup coarse yellow or white grits
1 cup coconut milk
¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
Bring water and salt to a boil in a heavy saucepan. Add grits gradually and begin stirring. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring frequently until all the water has absorbed and grits have thickened. Slowly stir ½ cup coconut milk into the grits and continue stirring so grits don’t stick to the bottom of the pan. Stir in remaining ½ cup of coconut milk and ground white pepper and cook until all the liquid is absorbed and grits have thickened. About 10–15 minutes.
16 shelled shrimp, seasoned with salt and pepper
Sambal, to taste (about 1–4 tablespoons)
½ cup coconut milk
Fried egg (optional)
Heat a small amount of cooking oil in a skillet over medium heat. Sauté shrimp for about 1 minute. Stir in sambal and coconut milk. Continue cooking until shrimp are bright pink and opaque, about another 1 minute.
Serve sambal shrimp over hot grits. Add a fried egg, if you like, and garnish with microgreens.
A contributing editor of j. weekly, Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer and personal chef. She is also the founder of The Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called The Lonely Child (lonelychildmovie.com). Find her at theorganicepicure.com or on twitter @WallAlix.