Tempted to pass up that plate of lurid, crimson steak tartare topped by a blob of saffron egg yolk? Not so fast. If it came from the kitchen of Simone Fung and Sebastian Mendieta—collectively known as S+S Gastro Grub—this may very well be dessert. The Oakland catering couple loves to concoct dishes that trick the eye, but treat the palate and the “tartare” in question is actually chopped compressed watermelon crowned with a golden orb of mango juice and mint shards.
A recent assignment for Oakland Magazine sent me to interview Fung and Mendieta about their mobile pig roaster. But during our chat at their live/work loft in Oakland’s industrial hip “Jingletown” neighborhood, thanks to tastes they offered me, I discovered their fascination with the techniques of molecular gastronomy, spherification and sous vide cookery.
With their multi-cultural backgrounds—she grew up in Hong Kong and he in a tiny town in Nicaragua—and extensive global street food research in travels from Malaysia to Jamaica, they resist getting stuck in a narrowly defined cultural corner. Their edible creations traverse the map, deftly combining elements of a range of cuisines and sometimes even fuse elements from their two food heritages—as in marinated, sous vide, duck-tongue tacos.
S + S have been thrilling diners at local pop-ups, underground dinners, fundraising events and private parties with their sublime creations since 2007. For years, the couple indulged their mutual passion for edible inventiveness by throwing large parties in their live-work artist loft. Finally, their enthusiastic friends convinced them to start a business and they acquired a shiny black catering van in 2011.
For the moment, however, both have day jobs: Fung is office manager for a San Jose semi-conductor company, while Mendieta works as logistics coordinator for a heavy construction firm. So their food-transforming forays are reserved for evenings, weekends and holidays. But their popularity is spreading as quickly as the uni sauce under their perfectly seared scallops.
The duo has cooked at fundraisers for the San Francisco Food Bank and Old Skool Café, been part of Food Social, Behind the Cart, done a Japanese themed pop-up dinner at (where else?) a Mexican restaurant, Cosecha, as well as catered birthday celebrations, showers, and outdoor park festivities.
something is fishy here (or not)
Fung says with a twinkle, “We like to trick people’s eyes and minds. Sometimes we serve dishes without telling guests what they’re eating. They think they know but then they’re surprised when what they taste doesn’t match what they were expecting.”
A good example is their “tuna belly” which is actually made from compressed watermelon that has been chilled until it is pliable, then seared with a combination of fish sauce, honey and lime juice. It’s savory, no wait it’s sweet.
S+S’s home “test kitchen” is stocked with the latest gadgets and materials necessary to perform this culinary legerdemain. Sous vide cooking slowly transforms an egg into a silky custard by a carefully controlled 50 minutes at the magic mark of 63 degrees. Spherification shapes liquids into caviar-like balls that can resemble something else; for example, carrot juice balls sprinkled on a salad convince diners they’ll be crunching on tobiko. A recently devised molecular mojito dessert combines lime sorbet, mint foam, rum spheres, and a sprinkle of pop rocks to deliver a roller coaster ride of taste and textures. Inspired by farmers’ markets and committed to sourcing ingredients from a 150-mile radius, S+S Gastro Grub supports local food purveyors and artisans such as Berkeley’s The Local Butcher.
Fung and Mendieta aim for modern interpretations of classic comfort food: think gumbo potpie, with okra and crawfish, mac and cheese with cold smoked pasta with a surprise hickory kick at the end. Their mobile pig roaster–a charcoal-fired Dutch oven on wheels–in which they can roast a succulent whole pig or lamb is a guaranteed party starter.
Their motto, “oaktown flava. napa roots,” pays homage to their favorite local eateries: Commis, Plum, and Camino, plus inspiration gleaned from Napa Valley’s Ad Hoc and The French Laundry. The duo’s dream is to expand their catering business and set up a cooking school for troubled Oakland youth. Meanwhile, watch out: that cream puff that looks like it’s filled with coffee ice cream and drizzled with chocolate syrup is actually a savory cheese puff injected with foie gras mousse topped by rivulets of maple balsamic sauce.
Next event: Friday April 20, 5-8pm, at Linden Street Brewery, S+S will offer their pickled quail eggs, bone-in pork chop buns, edamame and black bean sliders and more.
A version of this post first appeared on KQED’s Bay Area Bites