Immi at Turntable/Lord Stanley – San Francisco, CA
Many restaurants made dramatic changes to their operations as a consequence of the pandemic. Lord Stanley, a one-Michelin-starred neighborhood spot serving relatively affordable tasting menus in San Francisco, recently re-opened as a rotating residency restaurant, geared toward presenting younger, up-and-coming chefs the opportunity to show off their craft in one of the most important food cities in the world. Seeking a spot for a late birthday dinner after a late arrival from the east coast, Turntable seemed like the perfect option.
Chef Kevin Law occupied the March residency at Turntable. Chef Kevin, a Bay Area native and the child of Hong Kong-er and Taiwanese immigrants, has long been developing Immi with his partner, Rumpasri Chicharoen, whose Thai immigrant family raised her in Los Angeles. Immi, short for "immigrant," is their popup that made some waves in San Francisco just before the pandemic, operating out of a taco joint's kitchen and focusing on elevating and bringing dishes they ate as kids in Asian-American immigrant homes to the palates of SF's fine dining crowd. Both Chefs worked at the inimitable State Bird Provisions in SF before landing at Blue Hill Stone Barns, after which they traveled across Asia and ate their way through some wonderful food in multiple countries, returning to California inspired to start their new project. Immi obviously got sidelined during the pandemic, but at least for a month found a home at Turntable while they try their hand at opening a permanent spot somewhere. Chef Kevin is insistent that this cuisine is Californian and by no means should be interpreted as "authentic Asian" fare––as born-and-bred Californians with immigrant parents, the couple brings their distinctly Californian experience to their work at Immi.
I had a pretty disappointing flight from JFK and was feeling birthday grumpy (I even yelled at a bunch of teenagers who had strewn themselves across a moving walkway at the otherwise empty SFO airport) so even though I was three hours ahead mentally and fatigued, I was very much ready to dig into some amazing food. Rather than walk up a(nother) massive San Francisco hill from my hotel, I dialed up a rideshare and just minutes later found myself right in front of Lord Stanley’s corner storefront in Polk Gulch, just a few blocks down Polk Street from the iconic Swan Oyster Depot (where I’d enjoy lunch the next day!). The modern, but still old-San-Fran-kitschy space was much more compact than I expected and while it was overall lovely and comfortable, sound certainly did carry, and I felt like I was a part of everyone’s conversations. Though most tables would leave within a few courses of my arrival, dining alone didn’t feel so alone this time around!
I’d had plenty of hard booze on the nearly-seven-hour ride from NYC, so I decided to order, for the first time ever, a spirit-free cocktail! This one was gently suggested by my server after I ordered the other spirit-free on the menu, and it was delicious––a play on a gin and tonic with hibiscus tea, slightly bitter red verjus, and tonic. Still thirsty from hauling my fat ass and suitcase up five blocks of a 45-degree-angled Powell Street, I was happy to have this little refreshment to revisit as the meal progressed.
I also snagged a pot of luscious milk oolong to keep my east coast brain, which thought I was eating at midnight, attentive during the meal. The tea was fantastic, curated by a super gay supermarket in the Castro, and gave me enough of a buzz to keep my eyes wide open well past midnight.
Wine pairing was naturally the order of the day for the other beverages. The awesome beverage director first brought me a bone-dry bubbly from the Languedoc, called Joséphine and made by Domaine Les Hautes Terres. A "Brut Nature" means a sparkling wine without any residual sugar––as bone-dry as they get. Combine that with the all-white-grape fruit profile of the wine and you get a puckery, zippy sparkler perfect for opening a meal.
Chef Kevin’s time at Blue Hill Stone Barns was certainly evident in his menu this evening, which began with “Crudités,” or a gorgeous mélange of raw veggies, similar to the parade of raw veg from the farm you’d expect to start a BHSB meal. Snap peas, asparagus, Hakurei turnips, and fennel flowers are the ones that stand out in my memory, but there were countless little morsels, all brought together by a white sesame dressing laced with sneaky Sichuan peppercorns. By the end, my lips and tongue had the buzzy tingle you get from the peppercorns, which somehow made the texture and acidity of the bubbly even more exciting.
“Scales and Arpeggios” is a special wine unlike any I’d ever tried that emerged from unfortunate circumstances, and the name refers to the “Ups and Downs” of the winemaking business in the era of climate change. The wildfires in California in 2020 caused significant smoke damage to Stagiaire’s sangiovese grapes in the Santa Cruz Mountains, so rather than waste the fruit or make a red wine tainted with smoke, the intrepid winemaker decided to make a white sangiovese, pressing the juice off the skins right away. The resulting white was lush and had the mouthfeel of a red, with even a background hint of tannin. An appropriately-named wine for the Maestro as well!
Sonora wheat is a native California grain that formed the flour for all of the floury things this evening. Hearty, with a bit more nuttiness and chew, these chilled Sonora wheat noodles were served in a cool pool of glistening dashi and Meyer lemon and topped with a helping of oh-so-sweet Dungeness crab meat from the Bay and green onion. A simple chilled noodle dish with thoughtful complexity and pristine balance, and probably my favorite course of the night, particularly with the remarkable wine!
Sicily is a wine region that’s getting a good amount of attention from people in the business with an eye for unusual, cult, funky, or natural wines. Sergio Drago, one of the most badass wine names I’ve ever heard, makes this wine from the cataratto grape, which grows in the far northwestern reaches of Sicily in a region called Alcamo, to which Sergio himself brought worldwide attention. The wine is made organically with no intervention in the vineyard or cellar. As you might expect with a natural wine, it was funky, acidic, and a bit grippy, which would prove to be a masterful pairing with the fermented bean and chili paste in the next dish.
Remember how I said the previous dish was probably the course of the night? Now that I type this, I may be ready to change my answer! Kanpachi was the star of this tartare dish, but the amberjack had been marinated in doubanjiang, a piquant and funky broad bean paste used in Sichuan cuisine. To balance out the saline and spicy marinade, Chef Kevin included some beautiful segments of cara cara oranges and creamy avocado along with some fresh mint leaves. Immensely successful.
The Turntable team gave an option of an added course, which, since it was my birthday, I pounced on, though I’d probably also have ordered one on any other day! Meant to be a vehicle for Tsar Nicoulai caviar, sustainably harvested from California belugas, two pieces of delicately folded tamagoyaki (Japanese-style egg omelet) were topped with a dollop of caviar and little mounds of shaved daikon radish. Alongside was served a selection from Den Sake out of Oakland, just across the Bay Bridge, made in a semi-dry style with organic California rice. A worthy addition to an already outstanding dinner, though part of me wishes the caviar and daikon were evenly distributed to get all the flavors in one bite!
Back to the regularly-scheduled programming with the next wine, another peculiar selection that blends red and white grapes called “A ma guise” from Les Terres Promises in France. A rather vibrant wine with loads of high-toned red fruit and mouthwatering acidity, it was an excellent segue into the red(der) wines and heavier courses of the night.
Guo tie is Mandarin for "potstickers," and Chef Kevin’s, made from the same Sonora wheat used in the earlier noodles, were stuffed with a delicious traditional filling of pork and cabbage. Alongside was a Chinese aged vinegar the likes of which you might find served alongside Shanghainese xiao long bao, giving a lovely, complex acidity to each bite. Certainly not the most interesting course of the night, but still fantastic.
L'Originel is a natural malbec from Cahors in the south of France, with a medium to full body, robust red fruit and a bit of green pepper from the bit of merlot in the blend. The beverage director also poured a glass of gamay from the south of Burgundy for me, knowing I was a lover of such wines, so I got to experience the next dish with two pairings!
The next course screamed Blue Hill, with a succulent duck breast served with a mélange of greens, both raw and cooked, from local farms and an orange jus, as well as serving of tasty but somewhat mystifying Sonora wheat scallion pancake. The duck was brilliantly cooked and the greens pristine, and I was happy to experience the dish alternating between both pours of wine. An excellent way to close the savory courses.
Purple shiso, a Japanese herb, granita was the palate cleanser for the dessert courses, and may have been the prettiest thing I ate that night! Man, I am telling both of my loyal readers––for the love of all that is holy, get into shiso. So good.
Dessert wine this evening was an organic ruby reserve port from Quinta do Infantado, with a considerably drier profile than many ruby ports. They paired this with some divine mochi donut holes, served with a dipping sauce made of matcha green tea and glazed with orange. A super tasty way to end the meal.
I was even surprised by my wonderful sister, who had called a few days earlier to pay for my birthday dinner! She is the master of surprises, and after a long, sort of disappointing birthday, I was moved to tears by her thoughtfulness. A couple across the room saw me weeping at my table, and when I answered their query about what was wrong with "I'm okay, my sister just bought me birthday dinner," they invited me over for a last glass of celebratory dessert wine before I headed out.
It's pretty rare that a birthday is a perfect day for me––my suspicion is I'm cursed being born on the Ides of March––but I usually find a glorious bright spot. Immi was that joy this year; I'm very glad I made the choice to dine here! Check out the rotating cast of chefs at Turntable next time you're in the Bay Area. So much talent to explore!