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This Hayes Valley Michelin-hopeful makes abstaining easy with curated nonalcoholic drinks menu

"Why Yuzu Sour" is a mocktail created at new Hayes Valley restaurant Kiln. | Courtesy Vincent Balao

At most fine-dining restaurants, a carefully curated wine cellar and cocktail list are essentially prerequisites. The team at Hayes Valley’s newest upscale eatery, however, is thinking outside the buzz. Kiln, which debuted Tuesday on Fell Street between Franklin Street and Van Ness Avenue, emphasizes bottles without the booze. 

From chef John Wesley and general manager Julianna Yang (both previously of Michelin-starred Sons & Daughters), Kiln centers on hyper-minimalist plates. Typical dishes feature just a few high-quality ingredients that are incredibly labor-intensive to prepare. 

According to Yang, the restaurant’s name is a metaphor for the transformation that raw materials undergo when they spend hours in a kiln. As such, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Wesley’s kitchen relies on a hearth that he acquired from the location’s former occupant, Cala—a Mexican restaurant that shuttered during the pandemic.

Kiln’s beverage director, sommelier Vincent Balao, is just off a four-year tenure at three-Michelin-star-minted Atelier Crenn and Bar Crenn in Cow Hollow. Balao’s beverage program includes a typical bottle and cocktail list, but with help from Yang, he has also developed an array of nonalcoholic wines and mocktail pairings. 

Balao told The Standard that his emphasis on spirit-free beverages is all about inclusivity. 

“It’s about being hospitable,” he said. “We want to provide everyone with an experience. Just because you’re not drinking doesn’t mean you should have only water, soda or ginger ale to choose from.”

Over the course of his research-and-development process, Balao narrowed in on a gin-like drink called Seedlip, which is made from peas from a 300-year-old family farm in Northern England. He sources zero-proof whiskey from emerging U.K.-based brand Lyre’s and nonalcoholic wine from a Canadian company called Proxies. 

The "Verde Side" is another no-proof cocktail on Kiln's menu. | Courtesy Vincent Balao

Balao also ferments a selection of nonalcoholic kombucha and shrubs for his cocktails. He told The Standard that he hopes to iterate on Kiln’s amazake—a low-proof or no-proof sake made from rice. 

Balao’s favorite zero-proof creation, which he calls “Why Yuzu Sour,” is a refreshing combination of yuzu, genmaicha green tea, Seedlip Garden 108, Oro Blanco and housemade kombu syrup topped with housemade amazake foam. He said that this light and refreshing mocktail complements Kiln’s richer umami dishes—like the wild deer that the kitchen sources from Hawaii. 

Balao himself was raised on Oahu—where seasonality is largely limited to fruit—and said he only learned the importance of using seasonal ingredients when he moved to San Francisco eight years ago. He plans to refresh Kiln’s beverage program seasonally, taking inspiration from ingredients he gathers from the Downtown farmers’ market. 

“San Francisco was my first and only insight into what seasonality brings,” he said.  

While Balao acknowledged that mocktails have become trendy lately, they’ve been important to his beverage philosophy since he started tinkering with zero-proof spirits four years ago at Atelier Crenn. 

“Honestly, it should be a part of everyone’s beverage program,” he said. “It’s so inviting when anyone can expect to enjoy something really fun and creative.”