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Down the Rabbit Hole

At a restaurant-within-a-restaurant on 20th Street, a former Mission Chinese chef is taking his customers on a long, strange trip.

A spread at Pink Zebra.

A spread at Pink Zebra.

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A spread at Pink Zebra.

The dining room.
 

(2 of 3)

A spread at Pink Zebra.

Chef-owner Jesse Koide

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Fusion cuisine is the food world’s hair metal. Big in the ’80s, it has since been widely dissed as cartoonishly outdated, the product of an era when Whitesnake sold out venues and sashimi alfredo seemed like a viable idea. While it’s easy to make fun, such mockery ignores the obvious fact that culinary borders are forever bending. The same creative forces that once prompted Wolfgang Puck to fry lobster in vanilla bean tempura persist today, perhaps more insistently than ever.

Fusion doesn’t just endure. It enjoys a certain brand of street cred, embraced, in a grittier guise, by a tattooed, f-bomb-dropping generation of chefs whose cross-cultural interests have given rise to mashups such as Roy Choi’s Chego and David Chang’s Momofuku—and inspired mongrel dishes like seared white sea bass with Sicilian bread salsa, Castelvetrano olives, braised baby beets, and cured salmon roe.

That unlikely collision was created by Jesse Koide at Pink Zebra, a defiantly oddball restaurant in the Mission district that reflects the chef’s eclectic background, to say nothing of his fondness for experimentation. Prior stints found Koide at Farina, Bar Tartine, and, more recently, Mission Chinese Food, that cult darling turned mainstream favorite where he clomped about the kitchen in a pink, zebra-patterned headband that has become his signature accessory.

Like Mission Chinese, a hipster’s haunt housed inside a run-down Chinese joint, Pink Zebra is a Russian-doll-like restaurant-within-a-restaurant. The sign outside reads Tao Yin, and five tables in front are reserved for Tao Yin patrons; that is, diners craving cornstarch-thickened stir-fries and the like. Wander farther in, though, beyond the TV’s flicker and the wan glow of pink paper lanterns, and a server hands you Koide’s built-for-sharing menu. So begins your journey down the rabbit hole.

A few years back, the New York Times, with help from Anthony Bourdain, identified a genre that it called “stoner cuisine”: comestibles prepared by and for people on a certain herb. Though I can’t speak to Koide’s THC intake, one bite of his popcorn with crispy pig ears—spiked with lime, sprinkled with furikake (ground fish–and–seaweed powder), and served in a movie theater–worthy portion—and an image of a chef with the munchies springs to mind.

Whatever is fueling Koide’s work, it hasn’t saddled him with inhibi- tions. Ranging freely, he roams the Mediterranean, spreading Japanese flavors as he goes. He marries clams and lamb chorizo with winter squash, then bathes the combination in miso dashi and kombu butter. His kombu focaccino features soft, pizza-shaped, kelp-seasoned dough topped with bur- rata, eggplant caponata, and ribbons of country ham sliced prosciutto-thin. Never mind that it looks like messy antipasto—and good luck stopping after just one bite.

Every kitchen can be a laboratory, but not all chefs adopt this mad tinkerer’s approach. On one hand, Koide’s tack allows him ample freedom. On the other, sometimes freedom’s just another word for “huh?” At its best, Pink Zebra deals in unpredictable delights. Who would have thought of garnishing braised beef tongue with seaweed-and-persimmon salsa verde, the diced fruit sweetening the salty greenery and both enhancing the tender meat? Koide did, and the world is better for it.

But ask the same question of that complicated sea bass, and you wind up pointing fingers instead of heaping praise. Though some of the entrée’s elements make sense—the briny roe matched with the earthy beets, for one—the addition of green olives and a thick ground cover of parsley-and-bread salsa transforms the dish into a muddle that brings to mind visions of a food fight at the U.N.

Inside this Trojan horse of a restaurant, there is also a sushi bar: a five-seat, L-shaped counter overseen by Domo veteran Ryo Sakai. His omakase offerings, though nowhere near as wild as Koide’s primary menu, are hardly of the California-roll mainstream. The fish he cuts is too pristine for soy sauce soakings, and Sakai treats it lightly with exactly what it needs, curing horse mackerel in rice wine vinegar, for instance, or coating tuna and white sea bass in miso vinaigrette. In a satisfyingly dramatic flourish, the chef pulls a live butter clam from its shell and slaps it on his cutting board with a healthy thwack, delivering a shock to the clam’s system that firms up its texture. Sakai serves it in two portions, delivering the foot, nigiri style, on rice, and following it with the mantle, served with kelp and a vinegary cucumber salad—as bright and bracing as a sunrise ocean swim.

With all that it has going on, Pink Zebra doesn’t bother with dessert. But for palate cleansing, there is always beer or sake. I was well into the latter on a recent evening when Koide emerged from the kitchen, trademark fashion statement wrapped around his head. Behold the pink zebra! Or was it a white unicorn? Years from now, I imagine, I’ll look back on the evening and wonder whether it really happened—or if it was a figment of a late-night trip.

Pink Zebra
Two and a Half Stars
3515 20th St. (Near Mission St.), 415-285-4926

The Ticket

A recommended dinner for two at Pink Zebra

Vinegar and misozuke pickles........................$7
Hurricane popcorn and pig ears ................... $6

Beef tongue with persimmon-and-seaweed salsa verde...................................................... $12
Kombu focaccino........................................... $16
Clams with lamb chorizo, winter squash, 
miso dashi, and kombu butter..................... $16
Koshihikari Echigo beer.................................. $8
Honjouzou sake.......................................... $8.50
Total............................................................ $73.50

 

Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

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