As you step into Roy’s Restaurant, you will notice the names of many cities stenciled in gold on the glass door — places where other Roy’s Restaurants can be found. You might feel as if you are sidling into one of the branches of a Parisian house of couture or the district office of some international brokerage firm. My eyes darted briefly to the end of the two-columned list, half expecting to see the reassuring words “FDIC insured.” I didn’t see them. But then, insurance, whether from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation or some other gracious entity, isn’t really necessary at Roy’s. The place has found its feet here, and they are feet that move with a definite San Francisco style.
When our Roy’s opened six years ago, I walked through the doors into a fabulous inaugural dinner party and was disappointed. It was a lovely restaurant, yes, with innovative and well-prepared food conceived by Roy Yamaguchi, the founding chef and eponym — but it wasn’t in Hawaii, and the island magic seemed lost on the streets of San Francisco. The handful of Roy’s Restaurants in Hawaii are among the original ones, and they reflect the islands’ paradisial temper; life moves a little more slowly there, and people are less tense with the metropolitan urgencies. The Roy’s on the Big Island even has, for alfresco types, a kind of docklike deck extending over the water, and if you take a table there, you can practically hear the just-caught fish flopping around on the weathered timbers. The cooking reflects the immediacy and locality of the ingredients — seafood just minutes from the sea, beef from cattle raised on the Big Island — as well as the distinctive blend of influences, from Japan, Polynesia, and Europe, that give the Hawaiian Islands much of their gastronomic and cultural flavor.
Transport all this to a gritty and often chilly stretch of Mission Street and you have the restaurant equivalent of a heart transplant. There is no dock whose pilings are lapped by soft, warm waves, no purple sunset or palm fronds waving in a gentle breeze; there is just damp concrete and Muni buses. Even the interior decor is mostly in the urban vein: a huge exhibition kitchen and a honeycomb of wine bottles similar to the one at Bacar. If, like me, you remember Roy’s as part of the Hawaiian enchantment, you might well find the difference shocking and even disappointing. But this is unfair to our Roy’s, which in truth has become an excellent restaurant very much in the metro-California manner. If the long list of cities on Roy’s front door reveals that Yamaguchi has built an empire, it also tells us that, like the Roman Empire and its ecclesiastical successor, he has done so by adapting a core formula to local conditions, tastes, and expectations.
Roy’s core mostly has to do with the food, and its center of gravity (the menu’s term of art is “classic”) lies within the confines of the prix fixe, a $35, three-course dinner. The street signage describes the restaurant’s cooking as “Hawaiian fusion,” and for me the fusion isn’t so much East-meets-West as East–meets–West Hollywood. Yamaguchi cooked in Los Angeles in the 1980s, and he has a Wolfgang Puckish flair for boldness — grilled shrimp (part of the prix fixe first course) served with wasabi cocktail sauce, for instance, or a large, spherical crab cake ($15) mounted like a trophy on a pedestal of tinglingly spicy kimchi — sweet, hot, sour, and rich, all in the same bite.
The fixed-price dinners all open with the same appetizer trio, of which the shrimp is a constituent. Its companions include a single, but heavily meaty, baby back rib — tender as the night, Szechuan spiced and wood grilled — and a chef’s-choice item that might be a nicely crisped pot sticker. On the question of main dishes, choices open out. Here we find four possibilities, reflecting a world of influences. Large prawns in a tangle of pad thai — threads of carrot and daikon radish tossed with rice noodles — seem quite comfortably Southeast Asian, while charbroiled short ribs (of beef) are as tender and engagingly stringy as Grandma’s pot roast on a chilly Iowa night.
I was pleased that the hibachi-grilled salmon was wild king salmon presented on a molded pad of jasmine rice, though it seemed a bit late in the season for the fish to be local. The dish I found most representative of Roy’s local sensibility was a mahimahi filet, crusted with macadamia nut crumbs (a very Hawaiian touch), then sautéed and served with lobster-butter sauce (a rather French touch, I thought) and thick slices of new potatoes. The overall effect was less one of fusion than of California cooking. One minor note of discontent: the potatoes were undercooked.
Our friends, who are Roy’s devotees, urged upon us the melting hot chocolate soufflé, an innocuously cakey-looking object that was indeed filled with melted chocolate. At the touch of a fork, it oozed out like lava onto the plate. Less dramatic, but also texturally memorable, was a macadamia nut almond tart — a disk of one’s own, tasting a lot like pecan pie and topped with crumbles of macadamia nuts and a shift knob of vanilla bean ice cream. The tart was almost too sweet for me.
The devotees made a point of saying they prefer Roy’s to Boulevard. I am not sure I agree with them, but I understood their point, and perhaps the real news is that Roy’s and Boulevard can be mentioned in the same sentence these days — can be compared. The two, while neighbors, are very different sorts of restaurants, but each is a San Francisco restaurant, sprinkled with a bit of the local pixie dust. For Roy’s, member of a chain whose roots are halfway across the Pacific, that’s certainly some dust it’s glad to have. SFBG
Lunch: Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m.
Dinner: Mon.–Thurs., 5:30–10:30 p.m.; Fri.–Sun., 5–11 p.m.
575 Mission, SF