Chef Shawn Naputi and his business partner, Shawn Camacho, both grew up in the same tiny town in Guam, but somehow never met until they both landed in California. Their restaurant dreams converged, but even then, serving food from home seemed a little far-fetched. Thanks to Naputi’s style and sensibility, it’s working.
The menu is concise, split between The City’s best deal of a tasting menu ($40) and a well-priced spread of a la carte options.
Goods from tiny Guam’s tinier corners are prominent. A particular salt is plucked from the threshold of a freshwater bay in Southern Guam, where (the way Camacho tells it) an old woman in a fishing boat rows from her cove to where the ocean begins, then harvests and boils dry what turns out to be a remarkably soft and uniquely mild salt. On housemade coconut ice cream with hazelnut crumble, it’s perfectly subtle.
For an amuse bouche, Naputi caps a Somerset oyster with his play on a mignonette, swapping fermented nectar of coconut flowers for standard vinegar. A thimbleful of coconut wine — an earlier stage of the same stuff — makes for an interesting comparison; it’s sweet and rounded, weighing on the tongue like honey. A treasure of Guam, they say.
The tasting menu might start off with something like poached butterfish over smoked Delta asparagus, tangled in a bed of pistachios and round baby leaves of micro shiso. Next, perhaps, a shrimp souffle peppered with corn — a less-fried version of its Guamanian fritter counterpart.
Naputi’s escabeche stages pencil-thin fried smelt on a bed of pole beans, cabbage and radish. It’s snacky, balanced and rich with umami. As my experience with the tasting menu progressed, Naputi’s style slowly came into focus. It wasn’t until the chalakilis, though, that the evening found its center.
For his rendition of Guam’s sweet rice porridge, Naputi grinds toasted rice and thickens it into a porridge with coconut milk that is dyed a ruddy sienna with achiote seed. In the center is a bouquet of specialties: pickled anchovies, a quail egg cooked sous vide and a smoked pork jerky that binds the dish with the taste of smoldering wood. The porridge is soft but toothsome, earthy and rich, an amiable platform for the piercing acid of the pickles, softened by the custardlike center of a quail yolk.
Naputi’s cooking is exciting in varied ways. It is balanced, unusual and rooted in place, with half the ingredients making their way here in a suitcase. The kitchen is a smooth and rapid operation, and yet, Naputi gives out fist bumps freely and easily finds time to talk.
Even when I brought a friend with an onion allergy — a chef’s kryptonite — he readily and kindly took to overriding the onion-packed menu by riffing on golai hagan suni, a soft and currylike dish specked with eggplant, switching housemade fettuccine for the onions.
The flavors might be foreign here, but the hospitality feels like home. Even the pickles alone are worth the trip.
Location: 2847 Mission St. (near 24th Street), S.F.
Contact: (415) 952-3654
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays
Price range: $7 to $40
Recommended dishes: Pickles ($3), golai hagan suni ($9), tasting menu ($40)
Credit cards: All major