Before I went to Honolulu for the first time last May, someone mentioned that it was the best food city in the United States right now. They said it in a casual yet authoritative way, but I was skeptical. An ethnically diverse place in the middle of the ocean means a lot of cross-pollination, yes, but it seemed only logical that many ingredients in Hawaii would be prohibitively expensive at the best of times, if not scarce altogether — and an invasion of visitors who never stop coming isn’t necessarily a motor for dynamism.
I was off and it is true: Honoulu is incredible. The poke alone, dressed simply in sesame oil and soy sauce, is orders of magnitude beyond what we get here, plus ’inamona is an addictive condiment. I had a scallop with a cauliflower espuma at Hoku that I remember as the single best scallop of my entire life, and of course, the chocolate-pudding malasadas at Leonard’s are worth playing tourist for. Something about all the influences that go into “traditional” Hawaiian cuisine mean they emerge from 21st-century approaches crisper and brighter, like focusing a beam through a prism to see the full visible spectrum shoot out the other side.
That’s the feeling I get at Trailblazer Tavern, the newest Michael Mina project, whose kitchen is run by Michelle Karr-Ueoka and Wade Ueoka. They arrive from their highly regarded MW Restaurant in Honolulu, where the eight-course omakase tasting menu is an affordable-by-San-Francisco-standards $150. If you can get up Trailblazer’s stadium-seating staircase to the second floor of the Salesforce East building and then through the outer room without wrinkling your nose — it looks like a discarded set piece from Dreamforce 2013 — you’ll be richly rewarded. It’s a trans-Hawaiian, post-tiki experience with that Mina brand of exactitude, when you think to yourself, “It’s the little things” and smile with contentment. It avoids the overblown theatrics and slight claustrophobic quality of International Smoke, and together with the revamped and Egyptian-ized Michael Mina flagship, indicates a new direction for the tireless chef and his restaurant group.
Trailblazer’s inner half is tropical without feeling Disneyfied, and if you squint, its layout might almost seem like a less scene-y and more food-driven version of The Pool, which occupies the quieter half of the original Four Seasons location in Manhattan. If that sounds lofty, know that the fish is flown in from Hawaii. And after three visits, there was so little room for improvement that I’ll just go through the strongest dishes and list the virtues of each.
The Korean fried chicken ($14) in lettuce cups is the one that changed the most, becoming more bite-sized over time. You build it yourself, largely from fermented components whose acid buddies up to the sauce. It’s superficially uncomplicated — as are the even more deceptively simple ahi poke nachos, with their mild yet long-lasting heat — but fastidiously fashioned from just the right kimchi.
While the cut of butterfish ($31) might be small, its halibut-like meatiness and miso-honey glaze — where Mina and the Ueokas merge — are transcendent. It’s flaky on the fork and the light bitterness of the bok choi namul pulls the sweetness back just enough. Meanwhile, mochi-crusted opah ($33) takes the usual macadamia and turns it on its head, plus the chili-lime orzo delineates the urgency for more Thai-Mediterranean flavor combinations. It’s no coincidence that opah is the only warm-hearted fish in the sea.
The visual showstopper is porchetta lau lau ($28), a crispy cut of kalua pork as symmetrical as a butterfly yoyo. Pulled pork and lomi tomato relish seem to pour out both sides of it like pahoehoe lava, and while it’s a tad unfair to have to pay $4 extra for rice, it’s salty perfection. But for an even better contrast of textures, the Tropical Creamsicle Brûlée (coconut tapioca, dragon fruit, pineapple, and passion fruit sorbet, $9) is tops. A parfait with a glassy lid, it nails the tangy sweetness that condenses everything pure and good from Hawaii into one. Who needs a malasada after that? As it says over Trailblazer Tavern’s door, A Hui Hou Kākou. Until we meet again.
Trailblazer Tavern, 350 Mission St., 415-625-5445 or michaelmina.net