Talking Story with Ravi Kapur of Liholiho Yacht Club

ravi kapur Liholiho yacht club
Chef Ravi Kapur of Liholiho Yacht Club in San Francisco. Photo: Alanna Hale

The hot-to-trot Liholiho Yacht Club, in the newly anointed Tendernob, exudes a chillax island vibe, a party-like atmosphere with a soundtrack to match.

At the helm, chef and co-owner Ravi Kapur is a calm presence in the bustling kitchen before the hustle of service, a man of quiet action who chooses his words carefully.

No matter. Kapur’s menu speaks volumes.

Before launching into what Kapur’s food is, let’s clear up some confusion about what it is not. Kapur’s not slinging familiar Hawaiian fare, so visitors to his 6-month-old sunny restaurant at 871 Sutter St. should not come with expectations of lunch plates and poi. Although, there is that fresh take on ahi poke and his modern makeover of Spam …

Don’t expect tiki torches at the entrance, ukulele music on the playlist or traditional mai tais on the menu. (For the record: booze buffs claim that cocktail was first concocted in Oakland, anyway, at the original Trader Vic’s.) Although, there is that “ALOHA” welcome spelled out in cool blue tile at the front door …

It’s also not a fine-dining joint. And yet the dishes exhibit the kind of technical execution and stellar ingredients one would expect from a chef who spent a dozen years honing his kitchen skills for stalwart San Francisco chefs Nancy Oakes and Pam Mazzola, first as the chef de cuisine at Boulevard near the Embarcadero, and then as opening executive chef at Prospect in SOMA. Both are big restaurants recognized for their upscale American cuisine.

Liholiho Yacht Club, with origins in pop-up culture, is a much more casual affair. A place where Kapur can cook the kind of grinds—that’s Hawaiian-speak for eats—that he likes to prepare for his family, flavors that evoke childhood taste memories, a confluence of Asian and Pacific Island notes. Food from his heritage, home and heart. “The Aloha Spirit, the way people are treated, that’s the most important thing in my restaurant,” says Kapur, 38, who was born in Oahu, and is of Hawaiian-Chinese-Indian descent. “The concept of feeding people well, that’s the most Hawaiian thing about this place.”

Liholiho yacht club kitchen
Looking into the bustling kitchen at Liholiho Yacht Club. Photo: Alanna Hale

Island Vibe Finds a Home in SF

And diners are well fed at LYC or Liho for short. Let’s call the menu Hawaiian-leaning and leave it at that. The food, while playful, is seriously tasty. Take the fried oyster with beef carpaccio, sitting in a butter leaf lettuce cup with a dollop of Thousand Island dressing. It’s a party on the palate. Other flavor-filled items include earthy beef tongue teamed with vibrant kimchi and cooling cucumber slivers all stuffed inside a warm poppy-seed steamed bun. There’s diversity in taste and texture in each mouthful and a layering of ingredients and flavors that make adventurous eaters hungry for more.

Oh, and that tuna poke? It’s served with a dot of sesame oil and sriracha aioli atop a nori chip, a memorable blend of soft ruby seafood and crunchy dark cracker. Kapur’s version of Spam riffs off the iconic canned meat with a bad rap. Like every islander, Kapur grew up eating this popular processed product made from meat with a dubious past. Kapur’s spam (sans capital) features ground pork shoulder with a bit of ham mixed in for good measure. He emulsifies the meat, cooks it in a vacuum-sealed pan, and then glazes it with tamari, brown sugar and sesame oil before cooking it again in a low-temperature steam oven. He gussies up his spam with modern taste buds in mind by pairing it with the Japanese seasoning mix furikake, along with minced nori, scallions, pickled cucumbers and togarashi or Japanese chile. His Manila clams in coconut curry sauce come with fresh turmeric and fava leaves. A mighty fine combo of shellfish and sauce. Hardly surprising that an islander can make seafood—and less familiar meat cuts—shine. In the previous issue of this magazine we highlighted the restaurant’s tripe and squid salad as one of  “10 things to eat right now.”

While we’re talking menu, one sweet note has become something of an Instagram sensation. Pastry chef Penelope Lao, formerly of Craftsman + Wolves, who also worked with Kapur at Prospect, has created an island-inspired version of that ubiquitous dessert, Baked Alaska, named after the 50th state. Her Baked Hawaii boasts caramelized pineapple ice cream housed inside a toasted meringue with vanilla shortbread tucked inside as a treat. Rounding out the mix at the restaurant: Kickass island-accented cocktails and a stellar wine list come courtesy of Nopa restaurant veterans bar manager Yanni Kehagiaras and wine program manager Lulu McAllister.

Despite the name, Liholiho Yacht Club, the brick-and-mortar version, is not simply an extension of Kapur’s popular pop-ups. Kapur kick started his personal brand of eats after leaving Prospect and taking a hiatus back in Hawaii, following the birth of his son. He came back to the mainland with a newfound desire to play with his food.

Starting in 2012, Kapur began popping up under the LYC banner at friends’ restaurants, including Citizen’s Band, on Monday nights, typically a dark evening in the industry. Owner Chris Beerman, who worked with Kapur at Boulevard, is a kindred spirit.

“My restaurant is reminiscent of the food I grew up with, these classic Americana-style dishes that are maybe a little more refined,” explains Beerman. “Ravi is doing something similar with food from his own culture, like his upscale expression of poke, pork belly and spam.” After a somewhat regular series of pop-ups for a year or so at Citizen’s Band, Kapur moved his mobile eats to other venues when the SOMA restaurant began opening on Monday nights.

He did a couple of events at the underrated Contigo in Noe Valley and a series of dinners at the much-lauded State Bird Provisions. Beerman singles out the fried quail Korean style and pork ribs with pear, fish sauce and lime as winners from those dinners. It was during these pop-ups that Kapur’s concept for his own permanent space began taking shape. Beerman says he watched Kapur find his groove while trialing different dishes in each of these venues. For his part, Kapur gives a big mahalo shout out to his buddies in the business who were willing to share their spaces so he could cook, or prep in the case of Perbacco, for his temporary restaurant runs.

“There’s a lot of trust involved—on both ends—for these kinds of events to work,” says Kapur. “I really just wanted to have somewhere that I could cook freely and make a little money so I would still be able to spend time with my family and not get a ‘real job,’” he says. “You run very lean when you do pop-ups and it’s a scramble to get ready but it all comes together in the end.”

Opening his own place had its own appeal. For some time Kapur had tossed around the notion of partnering with Jeff Hanak and Allyson Jossel, co-owners of Nopa, long a favorite dining spot of his. Now the timing was right. The trio set out to find a space. In the interim, he and his longtime sous-chef, Nana Guardia, who’s been with Kapur since Boulevard, ran a weekly pop-up serving spicy noodles, aloha burgers and poke bowls in an alley behind the South of Market bar Bloodhound under the name Paniolo Social. A paniolo is a Hawaiian cowboy, a fitting name for street food served by a free-spirited chef at a bar with a hunting lodge motif. The food routinely sold out—this was not, after all, Kapur’s first rodeo. He’d developed a loyal following.

The cooking veteran with a signature mop of corkscrew locks lives in the Mission with his wife, April Storm, who also works at the restaurant, and their young son Makoa. The three-unit property, two flats and a freestanding cottage, is also home to his parents and his sister’s family. They’re a tight-knit clan and cooking is a given in their family culture.

“Food was just an everyday part of life growing up. My extended family was always thinking about what the next meal would look like,” he says. “Everybody helped, even if you just did the dishes.”

Originally, Kapur entertained the notion of finding a restaurant location in walking distance from his digs, and that almost happened. He’s not sorry the deal fell through. “The restaurant scene in the Mission is pretty saturated,” he says. “Very saturated. Like, the definition of saturated.”

Liholiho Yacht Club brings a cheery presence to the strip it occupies, in that ambiguous territory of lower Nob Hill, bordering the Tenderloin, with the rather unfortunate moniker, the Tendernob. The restaurant, opposite a coffee house, psychic wellness center and an “oriental” massage parlor, makes for colorful street traffic, all visible from the restaurant’s large front windows.

“I’ve always loved this neighborhood. It’s very diverse, all types of businesses, we’re not coming in displacing anybody,” says Kapur, swigging a beet, kale, celery, jalapeño, carrot and parsley concoction that fuels his mornings. “It felt right. We’re not Nob Hill and we’re not Tenderloin, we’re right on the cusp. It doesn’t have the preconceived attachments that come with those neighborhoods. I like that.”

Liho occupies a former grocery store that had long been closed. The elegant restaurant, a long, narrow 80-seat space, oozes style: Cozy booths, bright white floor tiles, yellow-taxi-loud kitchen tiles, a dominating black-and-white image of Kapur’s mom, circa 1975, at the bar. Talk about the Spirit of Aloha: There’s her radiant smile, long black hair blowing in the breeze, a sun-kissed face exuding joy. The ohana table, that’s the family or communal table in local lingo, fills the front window space.

Anchoring his open kitchen beyond the bar, Kapur is plating the kind of intimate food that is now popular on both sides of the Bay, as restaurant chefs cook the comfort food they grew up with, albeit often with modern interpretations and featuring standout California bounty from land and sea that they serve family-style. In Kapur’s case, he grew up eating dishes with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese and Portuguese origins, reflecting the rich variety of cultures on the islands.

About the name. Liholiho Yacht Club is an homage to an uncle in Maui, who in the 1980s supported his Hobie Cat hobby by co-hosting beach gatherings featuring barbecue, cold beers and local music. This was no snooty sailing club. It was just a way to make a few bucks while hanging out with friends at the beach. The club is named after the street Kapur’s uncle lives on. Kapur loved the name and the idea: Throwing a party to allow you to keep doing what you love. It seemed fitting for a restaurant that encourages eaters to “get jag,” an island idiom that means let loose or party on. The way Kapur sees it, his uncle and his sailing buddies were ahead of the pop-up pack.

tuna and spam at Liholiho yacht club

Get Jag

Kapur counts his blessings as a first-time restaurant chef-owner.

“I’m fortunate the people I’m partnered with—Allyson and Jeff—are actually working here,” he says. “They’re not puppet masters in an office somewhere.”

In fact, Hanak says, the pair is involved in all day-to-day operations of the restaurant, including nightly service, and decisions about food and service are jointly decided.

“Ravi feels like family. We understand each other from a professional and personal standpoint,” says Hanak. “We know we can rely on each other. This opening has been a blast. We are serious about what we do but we have fun doing it.”

And for Kapur the timing is right. “There’s no way I could have opened this restaurant even four or five years ago,” he says. “I wouldn’t have gone through the process it took to get here; I wasn’t in touch with that part of me at the time. When you’re a restaurant chef, you almost never cook at home, or I didn’t. On your day off, you go out to eat; you don’t want to think about cooking food. Before I took a break from restaurants the fridge was all condiments, beer and that’s about it. The pantry was literally empty.

“It actually took having no income, having a child, and having the time to cook again at home that brought me to this place. There was this moment where I thought people might like to eat how I like to cook.”

Kapur originally moved to San Francisco to attend the California Culinary Academy. He was fortunate, he says, to be in classes with a small, tight crew and good instructors. Then he left the city to do a stint cooking in New Mexico at the celebrated Coyote Café in Santa Fe. He returned to San Francisco to work as a line cook at the since-shuttered Redwood Park, a George Morrone and Michael Mina endeavor. He says every place he’s worked has been part of a journey that has seen him come full circle.

“All my family cooked. You’re sort of looked down upon on the islands if you don’t cook. To go out to eat is a special thing,” he says. “It’s a survival thing to be able to make something to eat every day. My maternal grandmother’s cooking—roasted meats, braises, hot pots—they were the jam.”

And he’s glad he trialed a bunch of his own menu ideas, while in pop-up mode. “In San Francisco now, you don’t have time to work out the kinks, you’ve got to hit the ground running,” he says. “You don’t have the weeks or months to figure it out. You’ve got to be ready.” He was ready.

Mentor Nancy Oakes isn’t surprised by his solo success. “He’s creative, motivated, organized, thoughtful, professional,” says his one-time boss, who admits to not yet having had a chance to check out her former employee’s new spot, not an uncommon lament among working chefs. “There’s also a kindness and calmness there, lovely qualities that you don’t always find in top chefs. Ravi has that too. He’s part of a new wave of chefs serving diners the kind of food they like to cook for themselves in a setting that reflects their own unique personal tastes.”

His challenges are universal to the industry, like the ongoing struggle to find good line cooks. “We pay our line cooks very well but it’s still hard to find people. We’re very competitive, but so many cooks can’t afford to live in the city anymore,” he notes. “Fortunately, we’re well staffed but we could add on because we’re so busy. Cooks can’t afford to live here, they leave, they can’t even commute here. You’re not going to drive in and pay for the cost of parking, if you can find it, and public transit closes too early.”

And some of his challenges are site specific. “We have this really fun and energetic environment where we’re cooking in a fluid way, we’re from the pan to the plate, there’s not a lot in between,” he says. “There’s a healthy tension in creating a kitchen culture that’s loose but never having that confused with being lackadaisical.”

He’s in it for the long haul, he says, dreaming up different ideas to introduce both on the plate and on the premises. Asked if he ever thinks about heading home, he jokes, “I might open a shack on the beach in Hawaii when I retire, you know, in 30 years.” A native son returning home to dish up delicious grinds. The islands should get so lucky.

Want more Edible San Francisco stories? Then like us on Facebook to stay connected to our daily updates.

Talking Story with Ravi Kapur of Liholiho Yacht Club was published in the Summer 2015 issue. © 2015 Edible San Francisco. Photographs © 2015 Alanna Hale.