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Where To Eat Now: Next Wave Asian

Redrawing culinary boundaries.

 

Read more of our ultimate Where To Eat Now guide here.

Out-of-the-box Asian joints are everywhere, straying from type and shirking expectations. They include deft departures like Rasa (209 Park Rd., Burlingame), a South Indian restaurant with a hint of Chez Panisse. Organic produce and sustainable proteins fuel a fiery farmers’ market–driven menu, which turns sweet potato fritters into Bombay-by-the-bay “sliders” ($9), touched with tangy tamarind-and-cilantro chutney and squeezed between soft half-moons of pav bread.

Crisp idli chaat is a street-food staple dressed up for the evening, its small rice-flour fritters held together in a disk by a mortar-like mix of whipped yogurt, tamarind, and mint. Not everything soars: A basil chutney dosa, when dipped in its basil chutney, tastes a little too much like marinara. But the kitchen traffics mostly in fresh, inventive winners, westernizing dishes without dumbing them down. Any worries that Rasa’s Indian essence might be diluted fades at your first taste of the lively rasam, a tomato–and–tellicherry pepper broth that’s hot enough to  free the fillings from your teeth.

An izakaya might be the Japanese equivalent of a pub, but you won’t find a bunch of loose-lipped drunkards clinking endless bottles of Sapporo at Izakaya Rintaro (82 14th St.). Located on a quiet urban block behind Rainbow Grocery, the beautiful, cloistered space—practically creaking with traditional Japanese wooden booths—is aimed at the rustic-food purist who cares to marvel at the buttery cheeks of a sake-marinated grilled king salmon collar ($12), ponder the art of yakitori made from pasture-raised chicken ($7), and slurp up handmade udon from a deliciously rich fish broth.

Whether owner Sylvan Mishima Brackett was influenced by his former job as Alice Waters’ assistant or his summers in Japan with his family—or both—you can’t miss his reverence for subtle, ingredient-driven cooking and good taste. The open kitchen counter is the place to sit if you like a little theater (and have a small bottom—the rickety, antique stools are definitely Japanese-size), though if you’re lucky, you’ll arrive on a warm night when Brackett himself is out in  the little gated courtyard grilling skewered meatballs beneath the twinkle lights strung overhead. In that case, start your dinner there.

On paper, Liholiho Yacht Club (871 Sutter St.) is a bit of a head-scratcher: a sprawling Hawaiian-themed restaurant named after King Kamehameha II, located in the tourist-fringed Tendernob. But leave it to the folks behind Nopa to go off-trend and nail it. With its blond wood and accents of azure blue concrete tiles, Liholiho is one of the buzziest and most beautiful restaurants of the year. (It also wins best head of hair; Hawaiian chef Ravi Kapur’s stylish, signature do only enhances the covetable yellow-tiled open kitchen.) The nods to California’s favorite island destination are just that. Though there’s tuna poke, as well as off-menu Spam (albeit housemade) on top of rice with pickled cucumbers, you’re not going to be starting with poi.

Sophisticated cocktails, like the falernum-, grapefruit-, and rum-driven Bitter End, are there to whet your appetite for a number of eclectic Asian inflected dishes. Portions aren’t plate-lunch size, but they’re not precious: A table of friends can easily fill up on the poppy seed–studded steamed buns with beef tongue ($12.50), or the roasted octopus with curried raisins and potatoes, or, yes, a very Left Coast kind of Little Gem Caesar with avocado and shaved cured-tuna bloodline. Be warned: The main courses, like a slab of beef ribs ($37.25) with kimchee chili sauce, are hefty. Even so, no one here seems to leave without an order of the Baked Hawaii—a beautiful beehive of golden meringue encasing vanilla chiffon and caramelized pineapple ice cream. On day one, it was already a classic.

While Thai food is well represented in San Francisco, there’s no Thai quite like James Syhabout’s Thai. At the Valencia Street outpost of Hawker Fare (680 Valencia St.), his follow-up to his original Hawker Fare in Oakland, the chef pulls no punches in his interpretations of the street food of Thailand’s Isaan region. Heat and funk reign supreme: This is a restaurant whose veins flow with fish sauce. But if Syhabout’s well-documented refusal to make vegetarian-friendly menu substitutions has cost him customers, it has also paid dividends for anyone with an appetite for dynamic, challenging flavors that leave scorch marks on both the tongue and the memory.

Though much of the menu is dedicated to affairs of the flesh—braised pork belly bathes in a murky broth of dark soy and five-spice powder; beefsteak tartare is jacked up with tripe and beef bile—some of its best dishes skew pescatarian, like the earthy, rust-hued catfish jungle curry ($15) and the succulent, cooling grilled mushrooms garnished with toasted rice powder, soy sauce, and a host of fresh herbs. It’s food that’s eminently shareable and, complemented by the cavernous restaurant’s design—Technicolor oilcloths on the tables, vintage Thai movie posters and bright bolts of fabric on the walls—also eminently festive.

Its sinus-excavating properties call out for cold, strong drinks, which the restaurant offers in abundance. Use the premium-leaded Oahu Gin Sling to chase a bowl of the restaurant’s salty, spicy, lime-spiked beer nuts and you’ll feel no pain, just a comfortably numb afterglow. Clearly the city was desperate for a new dim sum destination.

Since week one, even a foggy, windswept Monday afternoon at the Richmond district’s Dragon Beaux (5700 Geary Blvd.)—opened by, among others, the people behind Koi Palace and M.Y. China—often requires a lengthy outdoor wait, endurable only with the help of Buddhist monk visualizations of hot tea and dumplings. When your number is finally called over the microphone, DMV style, you are directed to sit down in one of three dining areas in the massive 6,600-square-foot space. Every room has a look, created in part by ornate furniture brought over from China and a number of sparkly LED chandeliers that appear to rain down on you like Halley’s Comet.

The dim sum here is a tiny cut above, in that some items go off the beaten dim sum path: The sleeper is the $4.68 sweet-savory baked barbecue pork bun (which, despite its prosaic name, is actually an addictive sweet cloud of fluff mingled with savory pork filling). At night, the Beaux turns into a hot-pot spot, offering frog, abalone, baby fish maw, and other meats to cook up in five different broths—but it’s still the dim sum that brings them in. Until it moved across the street into bigger digs, the beloved sushi bar  Ichi was housed in a sliver of a Bernal Heights space.

In May, owners Erin and Tim Archuleta threw up some deep sea–blue murals aswirl in yellow like the inside of a shell, opened up the kitchen, and turned the place into an oyster bar called Ichi Kakiya (3369 Mission St.)—“Ichi’s oyster shop” in Japanese. Pairing with the edited selection of beer, sake, champagne, and wine is a classic raw bar–focused menu that shows tasteful restraint: It’s as tiny as the space. On it you’ll find clams, scallops, and a host of must-have oysters—including small, deep-pocketed kusshis from British Columbia and plump Cove Miyagi oysters from Tomales Bay—as well as steamed  items like French Caledonia shrimp and Atlantic lobster.

Of the few composed cold dishes, order the dewy, sliced raw scallops with kombu pickle purée, nori, and glistening, salty orange orbs of house-cured salmon roe ($14). From the hot line, the smooth, slightly sweet kabocha squash soup with shiso oil ($8) is a more delicious and comforting finale than any dessert (though Mitchell’s Ice Cream is nearby). Happy hour here runs Tuesday through Saturday from 5:30 to 7 p.m. and includes $1 oysters. Set your Google alert now.

 

 

Read More:

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A Ground Meat Groundswell: Burgers aren't going anywhere.

Prix Fixe Holdouts and Casual Refinements: Fancy still has its place.

Keeping it in the Family: Platters are the new plates.

Destination Neighborhood Joints: Local spots with wide-ranging appeal.

France, Now and Forever: The bistro still abides.

Eating, Drinking, and the Other Way Around: Bar or restaurant? You be the judge.

Next Wave Asian: Redrawing culinary borders.

 

 

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco

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