Taking culinary cues from San Francisco

San Francisco / This is an article about San Francisco and its current dining scene. This isn’t to say that I couldn’t find anything to write about in Honolulu–quite the opposite, really. It’s an exciting time for me to write about food here, but this piece is prompted by a recent extended trip to San Francisco. We can’t ignore San Francisco’s influence on our own scene, from the number of California Culinary Academy grads in our workforce to SF’s farm-to-table mantra, imparted to many of our chefs due to our similarity in ethnic makeup (a large percentage of Asians). So it seems reasonable to me that we can continue to draw inspiration from San Francisco and apply it to our own unique landscape.

I found Susanna Ok, former chef de cuisine of Downtown at the HiSAM, in Mission Creek Kitchen, a culinary incubator, breaking down a whole hog. These days, in SF, to get with the cool kids, you gotta know how to break down a pig. She’s now working with Richie Nakano of Hapa Ramen, and they butcher one pig a week to make their rich soup base, pates, cured meats and leaf lard for pie dough (as well as use in other as-yet-unknown dishes that use the spleen, kidney and other parts that just don’t have the marketability of a pork loin).

More than a dozen food businesses operate out of Mission Creek Kitchen, each run by 20- and 30-something food entrepreneurs. They are caterers, bakers and cooks; all hip in their jeans and clogs. Another Honolulu chef describes the youthful atmosphere as sexy and inspiring. I marvel at the open, airy space, industrial, yet naturally-lit; contrast that with the Pacific Gateway culinary incubator in Kalihi, where the kitchens are closed off like prison cells. Still, the Mission Creek Kitchen leasers exist more like roommates than best friends–slight bickering over fridge space, who pays more for what.

But it’s these sort of places that enable young food entrepreneurs, the abundance of which is one of the main differences between SF and Honolulu, according to Ok. My favorites are those creating entirely new experiences by reinventing standbys. Take Smitten Ice Cream and Scream Sorbet (actually in Oakland), each jettisoning the traditional ice cream method of crème anglaise churned in a batch freezer, favoring instead liquid nitrogen (Smitten) or a Pacojet (Scream Sorbet).

At Smitten, housed in a recycled shipping container on a newly built streetscape, each scoop is mixed and frozen to order by pumping liquid nitrogen into an ice cream base, resulting in an incredibly dense, rich ice cream more akin to frozen custard. In truth, I may be more in love with the gimmick of Smitten than the actual richness, but for Scream Sorbet, I’m willing to forego any ice cream forever. Scream Sorbet, with an intense pink grapefruit sorbet as well as more inventive ones like almond pink peppercorn and orange almond vanilla uses no dairy; its creamiest flavors use nuts for a richer mouthfeel.

Without dairy, flavors like the pistachio taste like the purest essence of their ingredients, unhampered by unnecessary fats. Whereas traditional ice creams require fat and sugar for a creamy texture in a batch freezer, the use of a Pacojet (essentially, an incredibly high-powered food processor capable of whipping through frozen solids) eliminates this need, resulting in an intensely flavorful frozen sweet.

Outside of desserts, Mission Chinese Food represents, to me, the best of SF’s new direction. The ingredients, from beef cheek to lamb breast, to organic produce, are of high-caliber, but this isn’t an ingredient-driven restaurant. It’s an homage to Chinese food (speaking of which, the best Chinese food is no longer found in SF, but along the Peninsula: Shanghainese at Little Shanghai in San Mateo, Taiwanese at Liang’s Kitchen in Cupertino, dim sum at Coi Palace in Daly City, Michelin-recommended The Kitchen in Milbrae). Born out of a pop-up concept in a run-of-the-mill Chinese restaurant, Mission Chinese Food has since evolved into cohabitation status with Lung Shan restaurant. Korean-American Danny Bowien applies professional kitchen techniques to Chinese flavors, like making a Kurobota pork shoulder ragu for the base of a tingly spicy ma po tofu, or a warm egg custard with duck confit and sea urchin.

There are some things we have to admit we may never have (a wealth of authentic Indian, Mexican and Burmese restaurants–though someone needs to recreate a tea leaf salad here), simply because we don’t have the cosmopolitan makeup and population size of SF. But there are some things we can port over: utilizing the fruits of a long growing season in our restaurants, promoting a culture of entrepreneurship and drawing on our ethnic influences to create not necessarily authentic restaurants but uniquely Hawaii ones.