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Pirates of the Embarcadero

Pier 29 pop-up Waiheke Island Yacht Club is infiltrating the city with the flavors of New Zealand—until it ships out.

Venison tartare with oyster and fresh horseradish
(1 of 5)

The dining room on Pier 29
(2 of 5)

New Zealand lamb with feta
(3 of 5)

Chef Hayden McMillan
(4 of 5)

Moa's breakfast beer
(5 of 5)

The Kiwis are here. Hearty seafarers, they’ve shown up just in time for the America’s Cup, breezing into town on a stylish vessel, bidding us aboard, and offering us a taste of their distant home.

The name of their ship is the Waiheke Island Yacht Club, and its skipper is Tony Stewart, an established restaurateur best known in Auckland for a place called Clooney. He settled on these shores in a rush this summer, setting up Waiheke Island in a scant six weeks after yacht-racing honchos gave him the green light to fill the vacant space on Pier 29.

Officially, Waiheke Island is a seven-day-a-week lunch and dinner pop-up, pegged to the city’s current catamaran madness and scheduled to shut down on December 31. But it cuts the profile of a serious build-out. The Embarcadero warehouse has been warmed by woodwork, its centerpiece a rough-cut deck supporting a fleet of hardwood tables ringed by brown leather sling chairs. An open kitchen flanks the rear, and a blond-wood bar runs along the left.

The laid-back, seaside vibe suggests a place where you might find Jimmy Buffett—if Buffett ditched his flip-flops for Top-Siders and swapped his flowered shirt for something Ralph Lauren. Though the surroundings are far more raw than finished (space heaters; fancy porta-potties standing in for restrooms), the setting is transportive. You feel as if you’ve wound up somewhere special—a yacht club, yes, but without the snobbery.

Under the direction of Clooney chef Hayden McMillan, the menu promises a journey too: “a New Zealand sensibility in the San Francisco marketplace.” A number of ingredients are winged in from Down Under (ever had the tangy citrus fruit feijoa?), but serving salmon from another hemisphere is not enough to make a meal exotic—not in an age when culinary currents travel the globe faster than trans-Pacific flights.

The food here is distinctive, but the difference doesn’t stem from its sourcing or descriptions. Trust me: You haven’t tried these dishes. Come upon a ceviche of New Zealand wild snapper, for instance, and you’re certain that you’re drifting into familiar waters. But one bite and you’re tacking in a fresh direction, thanks to a cooling scoop of wasabi sorbet. Gazpacho salad recasts the soup’s flavors—tomatoes, basil, sourdough croutons—into something unexpected, its tastes and textures softened by fresh mozzarella and brightened by tomato granità.

When Waiheke Island opened, its dinner menu was only offered as a four-course prix fixe, but, as a hostess told me, that format was found to be “a bit too fiddly,” so now you can order à la carte too. The food, for its part, retains plenty of haute touches. A slow-cooked fillet of salmon with eggplant purée and arugula emulsion arrives shrouded in a cloud of coconut foam. The dusting on the smoked duck breast (with apricot purée, compressed plums, and duck liver parfait) turns out to be a flurry of hazelnut powder that vanishes as quickly as a springtime squall. White flakes also fall on the venison tartare: horseradish snow that melts as you spoon into it.

Such embellishments might come off as fussy. But this cooking is pretension-free, so that even seemingly clashing combinations— like blood-red beef fillet in a miso-dashi glaze, underpinned by mushrooms à la Grecque— wind up playing sweetly on the plate. The poise and creativity extend through dessert. Among the highlights: a chocolate mousse bar topped with powdery freeze-dried mandarins and manuka honey.

What the kitchen crew pulls off is all the more noteworthy given their facility’s limitations. Lacking a gas line, they rely heavily on induction burners and sous-vide machines. That may explain the sluggish pacing (I was starved out for long stretches, then delivered several courses at once). But it doesn’t excuse the spotty service, which is hampered by waiters who don’t know the menu.

Therein lies Waiheke Island’s greatest weakness. Priced on par with the finest of fine dining (with most entrées hovering around the $30 mark), it’s plagued by the problems of a weekend pop-up. It’s also hamstrung by the Cup’s corporate relationship with Napa Valley, which limits the wine to labels from that region. Luckily, there’s a range of first-rate beers by Moa, a Kiwi craft brewer, including a fruity “breakfast beer”—a billing that sharpens the idea of NZ as a place where it’s 5 p.m. all day long.

I enjoyed that beer one evening as fading sunlight played against the blond-wood bar. Everyone around me looked like a well-bred sailor, and most sounded like they had come from somewhere else. In that moment I felt like I’d been transported—maybe not as far as the restaurant had promised, but the trip had been lively enough to convince me that I’ll be back before December’s end.

The Ticket
A recommended dinner for two people (before tax and tip) at Waiheke Island.
Pacific-style fish ceviche with wasabi sorbet ...........................................$13
Gazpacho salad ........................................................................................$10
Smoked duck breast with liver parfait, apricot, plum, and hazelnuts ...... $21
Salmon, eggplant purée, coconut foam, and roe .................................... $19
Beef fillet with dashi, miso, and mushrooms à la Grecque ......................$32
Tcho crunchie bar, mandarin, and manuka honey ...................................$13
Lemon verbena curd, pineapple, licorice sorbet, and lychee ....................$13
Two Moa breakfast beers ..........................................................................$18
Total .........................................................................................................$139

Waiheke Island Yacht Club
Pier 29, 1256 The Embarcadero
415-956-1048
Two and a Half stars

Originally published in the September 2013 issue of San Francisco

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