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Pink Zebra: Mission Pop-Up Falls in Gap Between Ambition and Execution 

Tuesday, Nov 25 2014
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Pink Zebra's signature dish is a perfect embodiment of the food world now: a bowl of popcorn laced with crispy shreds of deep-fried pig ears, then topped with housemade furikake powder, lime juice, and butter. It has it all: the high-low concept, the offal, the culinary fusion, the umami. Photos of it have been gracing my Instagram and Twitter feeds since Pink Zebra, the pop-up from former Mission Chinese Food chef de cuisine Jesse Koide, opened seven weeks ago. Restaurants can benefit tremendously from viral dishes like this, and judging by the early chatter, this one is doing its job. But, as with so many other experiments in the food world now, I loved the idea of the dish significantly more than the reality.

There's a thin line between genius and gimmick in today's culinary world, and though many of the genre-bending dishes at Pink Zebra sounded promising on paper, they often reminded me just how much talent and careful calibration it takes to make big risks pay off. My problem with that pig ear popcorn was the same one I found amplified on the rest of the a la carte menu: The dishes were full of salty, super-charged flavors that didn't titillate my palate so much as declare war on it. Some dishes were so salty or so citrusy they were more or less inedible, others never quite coalesced into something I'd order again. There were a few bright spots that spoke to what the restaurant could be, and I don't think it was a coincidence that these were the simplest ones.

I loved the chicken yakitori, for example, which had a sweetish marinade balanced by a charcoal-roasted finish. The poultry skewers could easily have been salt bombs, but the kitchen's restraint paid off — these were some of the loveliest bites of dinner. Their close cousins, chicken heart yakitori, were coated in a chili paste that gave a nice, slow burn. And the menchi katsu, a deep-fried pork cutlet laced with gruyere cheese, was fried perfectly — it's easy to overdo it with breaded cutlets, but these were juicy and cheesy in all the right ways. (The smoky sauce that accompanied them was a little too salty, and the cabbage salad was puckeringly citrusy, but the pork's excellence redeemed the dish.)

One of the biggest challenges of writing restaurant criticism is calibrating expectations; if you listen to too much breathless hype about a place, you can end up expecting more than it can realistically deliver. Was it unfair to go in hoping for the next Mission Chinese, a long, strange trip through an unexpected mind-twist of a dinner? It's hard to say. The pop-up certainly has gotten its share of media attention in the months before its opening. Named after Koide's ever-present hot pink zebra-print headband, Pink Zebra debuted as a pop-up in Copenhagen before landing at Tao Yin, a little-trafficked Japanese restaurant at 20th and Mission. Koide and his wife redecorated the place with art from their own home, including bright color-block abstractions and large prints of semi-naked women. (They also took over the sushi bar, and are serving an omakase menu from sushi chef Ryo Sakai to five seats at a time, but I only tried the a la carte menu available in the rest of the restaurant.)

The restaurant-within-a-restaurant conceit wasn't the only thing that Koide took from Mission Chinese; he also took the no-holds-barred approach to breaking down the barriers of cuisine. He worked at Japanese kitchens and Italian restaurant Farina before spending four years at Mission Chinese, and now, like Namu Gaji's Dennis Lee or Bar Tartine's Nick Balla, he's bringing all of his personal experience to bear on his new endeavor. It's obvious that Koide is a smart, thoughtful chef, clearly interested in the potential of food and putting things together in different ways. When I spoke to him, his enthusiasm was obvious as he excitedly riffed on dish concepts, like an Italian-style hunter's rabbit that would sub in Japanese salted plums for olives and be supplemented by pepperoncini, sake, and dashi. He rolled out wild ideas as fast as he could think of them.

If only I could be certain that such a dish would be delicious. Many of these ideas, in their current iterations, just failed to launch. Pickles came in two varieties: The vinegar ones had little more than a one-note tartness, and a batch of misozuke pickles, marinated in miso, was too salty to eat. The broth from those miso pickles forms the base of the bowl of braised pork belly, which tempered the saltiness into something more palatable, but its presentation with cranberry beans wasn't anything inspiring. Long-simmered beef tongue with persimmon showed good technique but failed to move anyone at the table. Some of the mistakes were service-oriented: a whole grilled sardine came nicely presented, curled around a pile of shredded daikon like a wave, but the whole fish was nearly impossible to eat with chopsticks (a server never came to check, and we ended up disemboweling it with our fingers).

Koide says he wants Pink Zebra to be a kind of izakaya, a place for friends to hang out with big Orion beers or carafes of sake and eat some snacks before going somewhere else for the night. Right now the restaurant seems better-suited for the dulled taste buds of those who have been out on a bender. That's not to say they can't dial it back and get things on course, though an older, wiser woman once warned me, "Fall in love with the man, not his potential." I haven't yet decided whether the same is true for restaurants.

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About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Bio:
Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.

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