The story: Liholiho Yacht Club is the hot new restaurant that opened earlier this year in San Francisco’s “Tendernob” neighborhood. Chef Ravi Kapur (formerly of Boulevard and Prospect) has been experimenting with his dishes for awhile through a popular pop-up. Since opening the permanent spot, he’s had the city and national food media a buzz over his California cuisine with Hawaiian flair.
Why I went: I’ve been curious about Liholiho for awhile because of Kapur’s Hawaii roots (he’s from Oahu), but it’s taken me this long to book a reservation. (The restaurant releases dates a month in advance and the prime times often get snatched up quickly, probably because they don’t have that many tables available as they save about half the restaurant for walk-ins.) Since I grew up in Honolulu, I wanted to see Kapur’s spin on the food, and asked my friend Jeanne (also from Hawaii) to join me for a weeknight dinner.
The vibe: The lovely brick wall, blond-wood establishment gives off a casual and welcoming air, with several gathering spots in the front bar, a row of two-tops along the big open kitchen in the center, and a more intimate back dining area (where Jeanne and I sat). Kapur was smart to encourage walk-ins because that means a constant flow of people coming in checking for availabilities or hanging out in front waiting for a table, all adding to that buzzworthy vibe. The large black-and-white photograph above the bar of Kapur’s mom in her younger days provided the most Hawaiian feel as you can feel the warm island breeze blowing through her hair.
The booze: The bar menu offers a delightful collection of specialty cocktails with names that evoke the beach or islands, such as “Castaway,” or “Coconut Telegraph” or “Tropicalia.” There’s also beer (tap and bottled), wine by the glass and sake. I tried the “Surfer Rosa” ($11) cocktail made of Hibiscus Vida Mezcal, Punt e Mes, Benedictine, lemon and soda. I was warned that the mezcal had a strong smokey flavor, and they weren’t kidding. But the smoke flavor (kind of like mesquite) was a nice counter play to the tart lemon and hibiscus. (In terms of looks, though, it wasn’t very exciting coming to the table looking simply like a glass of grape soda.)
The menu: Dishes are broken into distinct areas of snacks, small plate starters, and large plates (that hold the most hefty prices ranging from $25 to $37). The tuna poke ($15.50) is probably the only thing that resembles something from Hawaii. And Kapur doesn’t claim to be a Hawaiian restaurant, just that his food is influenced by the ingredients of the various ethnicities that make up Hawaii’s melting pot. So sprinkled throughout the menu are ingredients like togarashi, kim chi, furikake, and pineapple. In fact, eating the food didn’t transport me back home to Hawaii.
Liholiho’s signature dish is probably the beef tongue steamed buns ($12.50 for two) that are served with kim chi and pickled cucumbers. While the flavors were great and the tongue tender, I felt there were way too much poppy seeds on the buns. Jeanne and I weren’t enticed by any of the large plates, so we built a meal on small plates, including the roasted octopus ($16.75) that was tender and felt Indian with curried raisins, or the lamb ribs ($16.75) that were easy to eat but needed more of a distinctive marinade beyond the black vinegar. We also tried a bit of the house-made Spam (a popular item in the islands) in Kapur’s fried rice with bay shrimp and mushrooms ($15.25). While tasty and well-seasoned (maybe too salty for some?), the fried rice didn’t showcase the Spam, which were diced small and barely noticeable up against the fresh bay shrimps. (BTW, the table next to us ordered the slab of beef ribs that literally looked like Flintstone-like meat.) Another signature dish is the baked Hawaii dessert, which is like a baked Alaska and served with caramelized pineapple ice cream. While impressive looking, it was hard to cut through the ice cream center.
My favorite dish: I can’t say there was anything that was “oh I must go back and eat that again” but I would say that the beef tongue buns were cooked nicely and was the most visually appealing. I probably would fall in love with it more if it were served on a plain bun without the poppy seeds.
Insider tip: This is an often-quoted tip on social media, but Liholiho offers one “off-menu” item, which is the house-made Spam served over rice with furikake (the Japanese rice seasoning often made with seaweed). Our server described it as a deconstructed Spam musubi, but she recommended the Spam fried rice instead. After being disappointed by the size of the Spam pieces in the fried rice, I’m thinking I should have ordered the deconstructed Spam musubi.
The last bite: Liholiho Yacht Club is a grand space in what still is a sketchy neighborhood in the upper Tenderloin area. The staff is welcoming (although some seem a bit unpolished or rough around the edges), Chef Kapur always offers a friendly smile from the kitchen, and the menu is interesting and unique. But I didn’t find anything necessarily memorable, and I wish I saw more use of Hawaiian ingredients like taro or kalua pig. And that may be my reservation in jumping onto the Liholiho bandwagon. I give the restaurant high ratings for the quality of food and ambiance, but I hope Kapur can bring more of the island feel and flavor for a real sophisticated Hawaiian experience on the mainland.
The deets: Liholiho Yacht Club, 871 Sutter St., San Francisco. PH: 415.440.5446. Open Monday through Saturday, from 5 to 10:30 p.m. (till 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday). Closed Sunday. Reservations, major credit cards accepted. (4% service fee automatically added for employees.) liholihoyachtclub.com
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