Mushroom and tofu ramen at The Ramen Bar. Photo: James Carriere.
The front terrace and entrance to The Ramen Bar. Photo: Drew Altizer.
A look into Pabu’s main bar area. Photo: Bruk Studios.
The dramatic bar and lounge at Pabu. Photo: Bruk Studios.
The sushi bar and main dining room at Pabu. Photo: Bruk Studios.
The irresistible Happy Spoon. Photo: Kevin J. McCullough.
Two big openings are happening simultaneously at 101 California Street: ~PABU~ and ~THE RAMEN BAR~ from Ken Tominaga (of Hana in Rohnert Park) and Michael Mina. Let’s start with The Ramen Bar first, the more casual of the two, which just opened yesterday (Monday June 30th).
Tominaga’s ramen is inspired by Tokyo-style ramen, which features a lighter broth, and a lot of attention will be paid to each of the top-notch ingredients, from the proteins to the fresh vegetables (I’m looking forward to finally having a soy-cured egg that isn’t cold). There are four kinds on the opening menu: Tokyo roast chicken ($12) with soy-cured egg, bamboo, spinach, and yuzu kosho; braised pork belly ($12) with wakame, soy-cured egg, and wilted spinach; shrimp and crab dumpling ($16) in a ginger clam broth, with sweet corn and mizuna; and mushroom and tofu ($11) with miso, mizuna, hon-shimeji mushrooms, sweet corn, and nori. Gluten-free noodles are available as well.
There is also a variety of salads and donburi available, plus Hong Kong milk tea, boba tea, LAMILL Coffee drinks, and more. You can dine in (there are 46 seats in the dining room, with a mix of counter seats and regular tables, and 44 seats on the terrace with umbrellas), or order ahead online and get it for takeout (there’s also an app for iPhone and Android, just search “Ramen Bar SF”). The design by Bishop Pass took the element of water as its inspiration, as well as integrating elements of a Japanese fishing village (rope and sails, check).
There was already a line out the door on opening day, so expect to be waiting with fellow ramen obsessives during these opening weeks. Fortunately it’s open Mon-Fri 8am-9pm, with food service starting at 11am. 101 California at Davis, 415-684-1570.
Okay, so now it’s time to shift our attention to the big one: ~PABU~, opening for dinner this evening. Upon walking in, you’ll notice the bar area to your right, with a notably elevated ceiling, and softly glowing lanterns above with cranes on them (the room has an airy feel, and if you’d guess that air was the element Bishop Pass was working with here, you’d be correct). There are tall windows, and comfortable booths along the back wall upholstered in a burnt orange, sure to get filled up during happy hour (Mon-Fri 3pm-6pm). Mina Group head bartender Carlo Splendorini and lead bartender Nick Jones are at the helm, creating house-carbonated beverages, fizzes, highballs, and more, with some Japanese ingredients making appearances. Look for fresh herbs and fruits embedded in the ice (you can look at the cocktails and more here). There’s also a Japanese whisky ceremony available if you want to celebrate a good day on the stock market.
To the left is the warm-feeling dining room that’s full of wood (including oak-paneled floors), with a loooong sushi counter (22 seats!), seating in the center of the room, and some booths enclosed with wood slats along the side with sea foam-green seats that create an even more intimate experience. There are also some beautiful private dining rooms, and I loved the Japanese landscapes and cherry blossoms painted on the concrete walls. There’s also an indoor garden dining room in a light-filled atrium.
Tominaga’s menu features both izakaya dishes and sushi, ranging from cold to hot small plates (there’s a wonderful ankimo dish, and don’t miss the happy spoon with uni, ikura, tobiko, ponzu, and crème fraîche), robatayaki (eight kinds), shabu-shabu, and some larger plates, including tempura, seafood, and A4 and A5 Japanese wagyu—look for a contemporary approach to this dishes, and they’re designed to share.
But anyone who loves sushi is going to want to beeline for the spectacular nigiri menu, and particularly Ken’s Nigiri Tasting Menu, which brings eight courses of beautiful Edo-style nigiri served two pieces at a time. The quality of the seafood is spectacular, from kohada to shima aji to a maguro pairing that will make you look at the fish in a different light. The sushi bar is at the hands of Yoji Harada, who started his culinary career at 18 in Japan, and he eventually came to the U.S. Ken got him to come to Hana from Gonpachi in Torrance, and then recruited him for Pabu Baltimore, which recently closed. All I can say is lucky us that we now have Yoji at Pabu SF, because the omakase experience I had at a test dinner was fantastic.
The other component to the omakase menu you don’t want to miss is the sake pairing from sake master Stuart Morris. You’ll learn more about sake in one meal than you probably have in a year, and the range of flavor profiles is very exciting. Even if you don’t opt for a sake pairing, you’ll still get steered to some excellent selections, and some are very rare.
Dinner Sun-Thu 5:30pm-10pm, and Fri-Sat 5:30pm-10:30pm, with weekday lunch service (11am-2pm) beginning on Monday July 28th. 101 California at Davis, 415-668-7228.