I was unaware, months ago, that I was walking around with a hole in my heartbelly the size and shape of Hawaii. Had you told me, I would have balked; Hawaii ranks near Palm Springs or a Carnival Cruise on my list of food motivated vacations. The thought of it conjures up images of lei wearing, pink cheeked, hefty white folks at a cheesy luau, eating roast pork and sucking down sugary drinks topped with colorful umbrellas. Also, can Americans PLEASE choose somewhere else, anywhere else, for their Honeymoon? WTF IS THAT?? Ahem.
Seemingly affable and adorably afro’d Ravi Kapur set up shop around the corner from our apartment about six months ago and set the record straight, forcing me to see Hawaiian fare (OK Cal-Hawaiin) with awestruck wonder for the first time…ever, at his first brick and mortar, Liholiho Yacht Club.
I find certain things about LLYC to be totally endearing, food aside. First, there is LLYC’s charming origin story; Ravi and a group of young friends, hosting pop up’s on the street they grew up on…Liholiho street that is, replete with food, beer, and a band, to support their hobby, racing catamarans (totally into that!) The name of the group; the Liholiho Yacht Club. Then, Ravi plied his trade at some heavy hitting SF resto’s, had a kid, had a moment, went back to pop ups, and perfected the melding of his modern-day, California style training with his old-school, childhood cuisine. So I hear, anyway. it’s not like I’ve had so much as a handshake with the guy.
Irresistibly sweet item number two comes in the form of a warm, inviting, giant photo of his mother as a woman of the ’70’s; if I were a different person, this might put me in the mood to utter the word “aloha,” but alas, I am not.
And then, there is “aloha” itself, the widely instagrammed, turquoise tiled greeting, dotted into Liholiho’s threshold
Inside, the scene is modern and bright; the front room is half bar, half perimeter seating; in back, a rectangular open kitchen, on display like a bright yellow diorama, across from which sits the best culinary voyeur seats in the house, a row of four or five full backed, wood benched booths.
I’m hooked on the cocktails at LL, which are guilty-pleasure-tropical in theme, yet extremely well-balanced and actually taste of ALL ingredients present, as opposed to your typical glass of all-inclusive-hotel syrupy concentrate blended with chipped ice. In particular, I adore the Pineapple Peet, a refreshing yet heady mix of scotch, vermouth, pineapple and lemon, as well as the Bluth cocktail, a banana rum concoction that I can’t seem to stay away from, like a moth to light.
I’ve consumed a good 75% of LL’s menu, which is split simply into small plates up top, large on the bottom; I’m left with a sense of longing to sample the other 25.
Togarashi popcorn is the perfect starter snack to accompany the inaugural round of drinks, setting a fabulous tone for the rest of the meal; it arrives slightly sweet, covered in a moist sheen, sprinkled with tangy, umami powered seaweed
The soft and sweet beef tongue buns are like a pillowy bagel, covered liberally with poppy seeds which not only pack a noticeable flavor, but also, an interesting, crunchy mouthfeel. Inside, slices of meat with a pastrami like texture, cut into long rectangular strips, sauced with bright citrus, topped with cool crunchy kimchi and refreshing cucumber; it eats well, the flavors are interesting, the arrangement pleasing, it hits on every level.
The fried oysters with beef carpaccio, 1000 island and butter lettuce didn’t pop to me the way so many of the other dishes did, granted it’s a simple dish, but I guess I’ve become a little spoiled
LihoLiho’s poke is a spectacular version, served atop a crispy, dark nori cracker. The fish is fresh and oceanic, dressed with sesame, and while poke is, for the most part, poke, this rendition benefits greatly from its accompaniments; crisp, moist, radish, peppery microgreens, and a zesty, creamy sauce. It’s a perfect bite composed well, much like the beef tongue we ate prior.
The duck liver toast is an absolute standout in my book, thanks in part to the mellow flavor of the creamed liver, but also, to the sweet brioche studded with nuts beneath it, and even more so, the sprinkling of spiced pineapple, herbs and celery atop; it’s an all-encompassing montage of flavor and texture; fat, fresh, sweet, juicy, carby, chewy, crisp, and velvety. Damn that’s an adjective heavy plate of goodness.
The roasted octopus maintains a surprisingly firm texture, at a time when it seems that the technique du jour is to beat octopus into buttery submission, served alongside the ruler of the kingdom of olives, Castelavrono. An herby sauce coats the bottom of the plate, while curried raisins give a fruity, spicy, pop.
The lamb ribs come molasses crusted, juicy, and firm, the meat clinging perfectly to the bone but sliding right off with just the right amount of encouragement. The peppy watermelon radish and walnut slaw really work with the heavy flavors of the meat; in fact I think it almost outdid the meat for me, it’s just that good.
The clams with naan is the most craveworthy dish I’ve yet to consume at LihoLiho. The naan is made on site, delivered oven hot, salted, and tasting of the same sweet flavor that an Indian fry bread does. In a word, it’s awesome. The curry is equally good, a south Indian style coconut broth, the likes of which I could drink a mug of, or, take a bath in if I absolutely had to; it’s complex and light at the same time; the little half-open clam shells provide the perfect little scoop for hand to mouth delivery.
Large meat dishes are surprisingly generous, I’ve watched them plate the ribs (which I have yet to try) in particular, which end up Flinstone like in appearance, piled high, topped with herbs, on a large round platter. I have had the pork belly, which is served as two decadently thick meaty pieces, with the most deliciously salty, seared skin and an underlying coat of buttery fat. Breaking the heaviness, peppery fennel and sweet pineapple, with a citrus sauce, and a side of sticky rice, the best of soaking vehicles. I worked some clam curry into that mess and imaginarily clapped triumphantly at the results
The escargot and bone marrow is certainly tasty, and fatty, and all that the name promises it to be, but those flavors together ended up being a bit muddy for me, in need of something bright. Apologies for the hideous picture, this happened late night.
The baked Hawaiian, a bee hive shaped, bruleed, meringue, filled with caramelized pineapple ice cream and vanilla chiffon, accompanied by fresh pineapple and coconut is absolutely as good as it sounds and even better than it looks.
LLYC is in the midst of a high-praise bombardment from critics and diners alike, and I must say, they completely deserve the accolades.
Liholiho Yacht Club
871 Sutter Street
San Francisco, CA 94109