San Francisco has always been a city of culinary innovation, but never before has eating in the Bay Area felt quite so expansive. In every stratum of the dining scene, ambitious restaurants are opening, led by unbound chefs who look to their own lineage as inspiration for interpreting Northern California’s bounty. The trend is most thrilling when seen as a shift in perspective, a move away from the European vantage (particularly Italian) that has held sway for decades. It turns out there’s plenty of room for Asian, Latin, and African nuances among the Alice Waters produce perfectionism, the luxe Thomas Keller witticisms, and the Daniel Patterson modernism.
Previously, some forward-thinking chefs who already operated California-focused flagships expanded their brands with casual offshoots that spotlight more personal cuisine. Traci Des Jardin pioneered the way when she launched Mijita Cocina Mexicana in 2004 as a sibling to her Cal-Ital star Jardiniere; her new Arguello in the Presidio follows suit with a similar menu of tacos and albondigas soup. In Oakland, James Syhabout serves New American tasting menus at his acclaimed Commis, but he also throws down with in-your-face Thai street food at his two locations of Hawker Fare (including a new cavernous outpost in San Francisco's Mission neighborhood).
In the last six months, though, three restaurants in particular have appeared that further the changing conversation through cooking that blurs borders. At each place the chefs’ background provides seasoning for the menu rather than a strict definition. The results are fresh and approachable and slyly subversive.
LIHOLIHO YACHT CLUB
Despite dishes like tuna poke on nori crackers, a house-made take on Spam, and a recurring use of pineapple, Ravi Kapur likes to be clear: What he cooks at his always-packed new lodestone in San Francisco's Tendernob neighborhood isn’t Hawaiian. "People keep coming up to me and telling me the food reminds them of Hawaii," says Kapur. "And I’m like, ‘Where exactly?’ Because there’s a lot of bad food served in restaurants on the islands."
Kapur cooked at San Francisco’s New American standard-bearer Boulevard and its sibling, Prospect, before taking a few years of hiatus from the restaurant business in 2011. He jumped back in by partnering on Liholiho with Allyson Jossel and Jeff Hanak, the couple behind community staple Nopa. "It’s really nice not to have to look to the West anymore," says Kapur of his cooking. A picture of his mother as a young woman spans the wall behind the restaurant’s bar. The carefree exhilaration in her face serves as an emblem for the staff’s brand of hospitality — what Kapur calls the "aloha spirit." (Look down as you enter the restaurant and you’ll see Hawaii’s famous slogan spelled out in tile.)
Kapur’s exuberant food may pull in several straight-up allusions to his Hawaiian upbringing, but plenty of his creations also defy finger-pointing categorization. "Asparagus Caesar" is a lilting composed salad, the stalks tumbled among snow peas and hunks of avocado and then showered with bonito flakes and grated parmesan for a double umami thwack. Julienned watermelon radishes pop pink atop crackly lamb ribs, which receive a sweet-and-sour boost from black vinegar and dates. Indian influences from his father’s side of the family show up as clams in coconut curry with fresh turmeric and garlic naan. (Gritty clams marred the sultry flavors; it was the meal’s only glaring disappointment.) The pops of pineapple here and there — pickled atop duck liver toast, a tropical top note among crisp hunks of pork belly with chilies and Thai basil — culminate stunningly in ice cream form as the centerpiece of a cheeky "baked Hawaii" dessert.
A meal at Liholiho feels energizing. The intuitive combinations have heart. It’s a restaurant where ultimately you trust an experienced chef to follow his strange and wonderful amalgam of a muse.
Questions can lurk behind dinner at Val Cantu’s 32-seat restaurant in the Mission. Questions like: Where does California’s Mexican history fit into its modern food culture? Or: How do the familiar flavors and comforts of Mexican-American cooking successfully translate into an eleven-course tasting menu? (Spoiler: In Cantu’s hands, they transform elegantly.) It’s entirely possible to sink into the pleasures at Californios without pondering these kinds of things too hard, but the restaurant brings them up by their very existence: This is a city (and a country, with rare exceptions like Chicago’s Topolobampo and New York’s Cosme) that has been largely resistant to upscale Mexican cuisine.
And aside from the name, a term for Californians of colonial Spanish and Mexican descent, little about Californios initially divulges any explicit influences. The boxy gray building with shaded windows reveals no kinship with the kinetic taquerias in the surrounding Mission district. Nor does the interior, a clubhouse of tufted banquettes, art deco chandeliers, and studded leather bar stools along the chef’s counter.
Then a chip arrives. Its texture is similar to a prawn cracker, and it cradles trout roe and splotches of three different sauces in its nooks. It looks like a typical first bite to kick off any protracted modern American tasting menu. But its taste unexpectedly recalls a tamale. The chip is made from corn that underwent nixtamalization, the process for creating masa dough. The sauces relay crema and black beans and chilies. Mexican food, says the brain. Is it too much of a stretch to say that the neon orange of the trout starts to call to mind Doritos?
The meal unfolds as a revelation of two cuisines melded in intuitive, novel ways
Regardless, the meal unfolds as a revelation of two cuisines melded in intuitive, novel ways. Cantu grew up in Texas where his Mexican father ran a restaurant serving tostadas and enchiladas. Now he runs his own kitchen in a famously lush region. His past and present meet in the cooking. A palate cleanser of sangria granita riffs off of a California-Mexican recipe (the name translated as "bloody ice") from the 1930s that Cantu found during research. Two bright moats surround a steamed new potato: one made of chipotle and the other dill. A mole verde over halibut bright from garlic chives and shishito pepper trills with springtime freshness, a sharp departure from the dusky depths of many classic versions.
By the time a dessert of spiced horchata ice cream and just-in-season strawberries lands in front of me, the message beneath the superb meal is clear and convincing: Entrenched notions can’t pigeonhole this place. Obviously the food reaches beyond home-based immigrant cooking. And Cantu isn’t trying to emulate fine-dining touchstones like Pujol in Mexico City. His kitchen expresses sense of place and pride in heritage in ways that feel intimate rather than forced or affected.
Viewed entirely on its own, Mourad stands out as one of the season’s glitteriest newcomers. It opened in January in SoMa’s refurbished PacBell building, a sweeping space where sturdy red brick meets hypnotic Moorish tile and polished servers deliver edible sculptures like cubes of boneless chicken wing dotted with pureed rhubarb and green harissa. But the restaurant may be most compelling when seen in context with its older sibling, Aziza. Together, the two present a study in the degrees with which chef Mourad Lahlou merges the techniques and ingredients of his motherland and his adopted home.
A native of Marrakesh, Lahlou came to the Bay Area as a student in the mid-1990s and soon started Kasbah, where he cooked tradition-minded Moroccan recipes with his brother in Marin County. Five years later he brought his percolating ideas to San Francisco with Aziza in the Richmond District. He took an updated vantage to the menu, slowly replacing, say, mixed-meat brochettes with quail glazed in cumin and orange and incorporating of-the-moment vegetables in his menu. Aziza’s current style — with dishes like duck confit basteeya, local squid with preserved lemon and ginger, and sturgeon in shellfish-saffron sauce — fairly splits the difference between American and Moroccan flavors.
At Mourad, the shadings become even subtler. Rather than Aziza’s mostly Moroccan food with Northern Californian overtones, at Mourad the Bay Area aesthetic dominates. Plates such as salmon with peas, horseradish, and soubise, while gorgeously executed, sidestep any explicit connection to the Moroccan canon. And truthfully, while I admire Lahlou’s progressive vision, I most savored dinner at Mourad when the food explicitly conjured North Africa. I didn’t expect to find his birthplace most elegantly expressed in roast chicken for two. The bird brines in the Moroccan holy trinity of lemon, saffron, and olive puree and arrives with vivid sauces like herbaceous chermoula and a bright, feisty red harissa. Couscous glossed with brown butter flanks the platter. There, in the heat of layered spices and dueling textures, was the sun-swept complexity I’ve known and craved in Lahlou’s cooking.
Liholiho Yacht Club: 871 Sutter Street, San Francisco, (415) 440-5446, liholihoyachtclub.com
Californios: 3115 22nd Street, San Francisco, (415) 757-0994, californiossf.com
Mourad: 140 Montgomery Street, San Francisco, (415) 660-2500, mouradsf.com