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Ohana in a Tech Tower

Michael Mina’s new Hawaiian spot is the very definition of a corporate restaurant. It’s a good thing the food is stellar.

SLIDESHOW

The Friday-only kalua pig is the centerpiece for a spread of Hawaiian-inspired dishes.

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The bar area.

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Ahi poke nachos.

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The Resting Beach Face cocktail.

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I did not get lei’d at Trailblazer Tavern, the new Hawaiian-inspired restaurant in the Salesforce East tower. And though I might have heard a hostess mumble “Aloha,” the warmest island welcome I received came not from a person, but from a written greeting, stenciled in bold letters above the entrance to the mezzanine-level bar and lounge: “E komo mai, e noho mai, e ‘ai a e, wala’au.” Come in, come sit, eat and talk.

Sitting sounded nice, but it was happy hour on a Friday, and the tropical-themed hangout was standing-room-only, filled with South of Market 9-to-5ers in full-throated unwind. They thronged three-deep around the bar, which occupied the center of the soaring space, fringed by leafy plants and sheltered by a blond-wood trellis, the walls around it done up in an outsize mural of mountains, palm trees and the Pacific. The clientele skewed young and male and coder. The tech-tosterone was palpable. Fruity cocktails flowed. Pupu proliferated, many of them fried and familiar-sounding, but more brightly flavored than the leaden tourist-fodder of Waikiki.

Squeezing through the crowd, I went first for Spam musubi, prepared not with Spam, but with pork arabiki meatloaf, a smoky-sweet ground patty, pressed between layers of crispy mochi. Seaweed, traditionally used as wrapping, had been emulsified and dolloped on top, then crowned with the sunny yolk of a quail egg: a cross of earthy richness and oceanic brine. It was finger food of unfussy refinement, and I married it with a Calvados-based drink called Resting Beach Face, which I figured might be cloying, given that it also featured creme de banana. It went down with unexpected ease.

I might say something similar of Trailblazer itself, an otherwise unpalatably corporate package that grows more appealing when you strip away the trappings and focus on what there is to eat.

The biggest name involved is Michael Mina, the celebrated chef-turned-restaurant brand. But the duo bearing the brunt of daily duties are Michelle Karr-Ueoka and Wade Ueoka, the Hawaiian-born, husband-and-wife tandem behind acclaimed MW Restaurant in Honolulu. She’s the pastry chef. He handles the savories. Both were influenced by stints with Alan Wong, a godfather of modern Hawaiian regional cooking. Like Wong, the couple strives for local sourcing. Also like him, they have fun stirring up the mingled currents of their home state’s melting pot cuisine.

Riding on those currents are a number of dishes that many of us recognize from luaus and plate lunches—the main difference being the playful turns they’re put through and the subtlety with which they’re made. Take lumpia, those tightly coiled egg rolls that arrived in Hawaii with Filipino migrants. They’re in fine form here—golden, but not overly greasy, served with a biting black pepper dipping sauce that speaks piquantly of the South Pacific. It’s the Dungeness crab stuffed inside that locates these lumpia more closely to the West Coast. Huli-huli chicken, another island mainstay, glistens in a teriyaki-like glaze, as it does at countless food stands around Hawaii. But a trace of chile heat gives the often too-sweet sauce the jolt it needs, and the deboned legs and thighs, grilled to succulence and tossed with Chinese broccoli and crispy rice cakes, take on the distinction of a humble roadside staple that’s been spiffed into a smart, restaurant-ready dish.

On Fridays only, there’s whole-roasted kalua pig, a canonical centerpiece of Hawaiian feasts, traditionally slow-cooked underground, but, here, cooked over coals in a standard above-ground oven. Stuffed with shredded pork and steamed taro leaves, which are tender like spinach, but with a nuttier taste, the pig is carved into thick cuts, wrapped in banana leaves, then unwrapped tableside by a server, who garnishes the portion with tomato lomi relish, pico de gallo’s Hawaiian cousin. Tucking into this tropical porchetta, its crackling skin giving way to all-but-melting, smoke-traced fat and meat, with the greens and tomato lomi to lighten each bite, was something of a revelation for me—so this is what kalua pork was like before beachfront resorts got a hold of it.

Friday is also Aloha Shirt Day at Salesforce, the software giant whose founder, Marc Benioff, spent a soul-searching, swimming-with-the-dolphins sabbatical on the Big Island that has since passed into tech-world lore. Benioff’s fondness for the islands famously informs his business. It explains why he calls his workforce his “ohana,” or family; why Salesforce has conference rooms with names like Maka Launa and Hala Kahiki; and why its glass-and-steel skyscraper in downtown San Francisco has a Hawaiian-inspired restaurant one flight up from its lobby.

There is no forgetting you’re in an office building. Astride the bar and lounge spreads a mezzanine dining room, which is tastefully furnished with wood tables, teal-hued chairs and sunset-patterned banquettes, yet it still feels like a food court. The bar, for its part, though more immersive, has the themed quality of a poolside watering hole at a Disney hotel. On none of my visits to Trailblazer did I see Mina. But I wouldn’t have been shocked if Mickey Mouse had waltzed across the room.

Whether this is good or bad is open to debate. A lot of people will eat it up. And anyway, Trailblazer’s ambiance seems well-suited to the interests of its most immediate audience. Aside from a humming happy hour, the restaurant also thrums at lunch, when a la carte items are bolstered by a $35 three-course option. You take your pick of pupu, such as Spam musubi or ahi poke nachos; move on to a main plate like huli-huli chicken; then wrap up by choosing a trio of fresh baked cookies or a chalice of strawberry shave ice.

At both lunch and dinner, it’s worth diving deeper into the menu. Ueoka’s hand is as deft with banana-leaf-steamed snapper as it is with North Shore-style Kauai-farmed shrimp, a gentle saute of the shellfish, mixed with rice, carrots and edamame in an understated garlic sauce. Nor will Karr-Ueoka’s desserts disappoint. Topping my list is her chocolate cake, underpinned by a chocolate wafer, lushly frosted with ganache and complemented by a scoop of tart passion fruit sorbet. But her coconut cake is right up there: a deconstructed delight, with shards of the cake piled in a happy avalanche, along with compressed pineapple, over mounds of coconut cream and coconut sorbet.

I wonder, though, if soup-to-nuts sit-down dining is the sort of business Trailblazer will draw. The first two times I tried to visit, the restaurant was booked for private parties. Bummer for the general public, but the idea of it—a select crowd snacking and hobnobbing, cocktails in hand—made a lot of sense. Unlike Benioff, not every tech-world worker can afford to build a mansion in Hawaii, much less snatch up a Hawaiian island, a feat that Benioff’s ex-boss, Larry Ellison, pulled off. But, no matter. A slice of the tropics is available for rent.

The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two at at Trailblazer Tavern

Dungeness crab lumpia . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $16
Spam musubi . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $14
Ahi poke nachos . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $16
North Shore-style Kauai shrimp . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $26
Porchetta lau lau . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $28
Kimchi fried rice . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $9
MW chocolate cake . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $9
Coconut cake . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $9
Resting Beach Face . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $14
Maui Brewing Lilikoi Saison . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $9
Total . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $150

Trailblazer Tavern
350 Mission St. (near Fremont Street), 415.625.5445
2½ Stars

 

Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco

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