One of the most memorable meals I ate in 2022 was at Sons & Daughters, Teague Moriarty’s Michelin-starred tasting menu restaurant in Nob Hill. It featured the best beet dish I’d ever eaten. The preparation took days. First, the chefs roasted the beet whole, then sliced and marinated it in cherry vinegar and smoked it over juniper branches before baking it in a low-temperature oven to achieve a texture like a dried apricot. Served with a rich bone marrow emulsion and paired with grilled elderberry sauce, it was simultaneously chewy, sweet, tart and rich.
So I was intrigued when I learned that the dish’s creator, former Sons & Daughters chef John Wesley, was leaving to open his own restaurant. In May, Wesley teamed up with former Sons & Daughters general manager Julianna Yang to open Kiln in the Fell Street space previously occupied by the upscale Mexican restaurant Cala. The team didn’t have to do much to the high-ceilinged, cement-walled space—which was once occupied by an auto repair shop—opting for an airy, dramatic vibe that contrasts and harmonizes with the white tablecloth dining room.
Wesley brings to Kiln the minimalist, technique-driven approach that he’s developed over the years at Michelin-starred restaurants such as Commis in Oakland and New York’s Eleven Madison Park.
But at Kiln, he’s making use of a 6-foot-by-8-foot hearth he inherited from Cala. Wesley said when he first saw the hearth, “it was a goosebumps moment.”
The restaurant offers a 20-course, two-and-a-half-hour $225 tasting menu or an abridged 90-minute, eight-to-10-course bar menu with a number of other dishes that utilize live fire. Squab legs with claws still intact are gently smoked until the skin gets dark and crispy, while chanterelle mushrooms are grilled and tossed in an herby butter and folded into a custard.
But the real stunner is the grilled wild mackerel, which comes about halfway through the meal and is served tableside with a creamy sauce made from dried shellfish.
Wesley sources fatty mackerel from Norway. It’s gutted then hung to dry in the walk-in for three days, causing the fish to lose some of its moisture while the skin tightens and gets extra crisp when it later hits the grill. Just as with meat, aging enhances the fish’s flavor, Wesley told me, making it taste “a little bit more interesting.”
On the day it’s served, the mackerel is fileted and returned to the walk-in. The bones are blanched, then boiled for 14 hours or so—until they’re reduced into a caramel-like sauce that sticks to your lips. It tastes like the sea.
When a customer places an order, the fish is lightly salted, then cooked skin-side down on the hearth over almond wood for two or three minutes and finished with a spritz of shio koji, a super salty liquid that’s the byproduct of koji, a naturally occurring mold used in Japanese cooking.
But Wesley isn’t done yet. The mackerel is finished with yet another sauce, a buttery mix of dehydrated shellfish, aromatics, warming spices and chopped pickled ramps—a kind of wild leek—for acidity and texture.
The sauce on the bottom powerfully seasons the fish. The sauce on top adds a wonderful fatty richness. It’s genius in its restraint, but far from simple.
If you opt for a wine pairing ($165)—which you should—Beverage Director Vincent Balao selects a 2021 chenin blanc from Domaine de la Taille Aux Loups in the Loire. The acidity helps cut the richness and complements the dish.
Not everything touches the hearth at Kiln—a crispy fried chip made from sweet potato noodles and beef tendon dusted in caramelized onion powder is a Funion-inspired start to the meal. To finish, creamy goat’s milk ice cream is satisfying but not too sweet.
Like every other part of this meal, the dessert appears simple but contains multitudes: Hidden beneath the ice cream is a dense layer of goat’s milk caramel. The entire thing is slightly submerged in cola-colored birch syrup and aromatic woodruff oil. It almost tastes like Christmas.
🗓️ Tuesdays-Saturdays | 5 p.m.-8:30 p.m.
📍 149 Fell St., San Francisco
Omar Mamoon is a San Francisco-based writer and a cookie dough professional. Find him at @ommmar.
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