Saturday, April 20, 2013

At The New Hutong SF: Food and Graffiti Art Vie for Attention

Hutong in San Francisco's Cow Hollow district is a terrific restaurant. There is only one problem: it opened in the wrong place. The very concept of "hutong"--gritty, crowded alleyways in old Beijing--goes against the vibe in the safe, affluent, Tommy Bahama chic of Union Street. I don't think it would even occur to my 22 year-old nephew, who eagerly joined me in one of my two trips, to wander into this neighborhood had it not been for Hutong. Not since Pane e Vino's heyday, maybe 15 years ago, have I found a reason to come to Union Street. Kudos to Hutong for breaking my Union Street MIA streak.

Hutong's ownership and crew were bold to kill the popular Betelnut after an 18-year run and replace it with an edgy, graffiti-inspired look. Unless you've been under a rock for the past ten years, you would find the food familiar--the cuisine succeeds in being tasty but doesn't really break new ground, as it consists of takes on popular Asian dishes refreshed and refined in hip small plate presentations. What steals the show is the graffiti decor that exudes a shadowy, gritty vibe. If Hutong's look from the signage to the interior offends the genteel Union Street crowd, then the restaurant has hit the mark. A particular treat are the paintings by Banksy that adorn the walls here, here and here.

Cutting-edge cocktail selections are de rigueur in the city these days so Hutong's cocktails are up to speed in being exotic and fun--a lay-up given the hutong theme. But what delighted me was the cocktails paired well with the food, though I'm not sure if this was by design or purely accidental. For one, the Fu Dog--Stoli vodka, St. Germain liqueur, Maraschino liqueur, grapefruit, egg white--was a fruity, refreshing start, making my palate water before I started drinking wine. On another visit I tried the ginger flavored Beijing Mule--Buffalo Trace Bourbon, ginger, lime, ginger beer--which pairs as good as any sparkling wine or white wine with the spicy dishes. Unless I missed it, what I'd like to see on the drinks menu are good shochu (soju) and sake offerings, perhaps even exotic Asian spirits like Maotai and baijiu--that would complete the hutong picture.

I brought a wine that I haven't had in a while, Andre Ostertag's 2005 Alsace Pinot Noir "Fronholz. Andre Ostertag makes serious Alsace Pinot Noir as he studied winemaking in Beaune and trained with Dominique Lafon. Enjoying an Alsace Pinot Noir doesn't happen often, as few are made and it's not a wine one thinks of drinking from Alsace, but opening one with some age is an even rarer treat. This '05 Fronholz was an eye-opener, proof that Alsace Pinot Noir can age beautifully, gaining finesse after several years. I was reminded of a Chassagne rouge. It is drinking fresh and youthful, with a lovely concentration; its soft, dark, earthy fruit flavors proving versatile with every dish.

On another visit I brought a white Burgundy, the 2007 Philippe Colin Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru Clos Saint Jean. The mineral, almost Chablis-like sharpness of this Chassagne was fantastic with many of the the dishes, especially the Raw seafood section of the menu. We gulped down the bottle well before we finished eating everything.

The stone pot noodles is mixed by the server tableside and is one of my favorites on the menu.

A dish that is reminiscent of sisig is the oxtail hotpot. What a tasty concoction! Very much in the street food, hutong spirit.

2030 Union Street
San Francisco, CA 94123

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