December 7, 2016
A labor of love has finally been realized after nearly two years in the making: a Japanese-style bathhouse and restaurant in San Francisco! Opened in the Tenderloin neighborhood by husband and wife team Sunny Simmons and Caroline Smith, Onsen is a relaxing oasis in the middle of the city, in a location that was once an auto body shop.
The space is pristine and indeed invokes a sense of calm. No detail has been missed – Caroline and Sunny clearly had a vision for Onsen and it is a delight to simply walk around and revel in the details. From the fixtures and joinery, to the art on the walls, and even the well-tended bathrooms, Onsen is a must-go destination for those who appreciate design and architecture, or to simply be pampered.
Sunny was raised in California and grew up going to hot springs in the Pacific Northwest with his family. He told me that he had always wanted to create a space where people can relax in a hot springs setting and connect with each other. Sunny is a builder. He amassed tons of wood over the last 20 years during site projects, which was used to build Onsen.
The bathhouse is an open space with lots of natural light and greenery. It is open for women-only on Mondays and Thursdays, and men-only on Wednesdays. Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays are co-ed. There is also a dry and steam sauna.
And this cold shower!
Caroline is an acupuncturist and artist. She did most of the art on the walls throughout the bathhouse and treatment rooms.
Massage and acupuncture treatments will be offered soon in individual rooms. The space is labyrinthian and seems to go on forever.
I was especially excited for the tea house and restaurant, which can be found right as you walk in the front door.
Yoko and I had a stellar meal here last week. Presided by chef George Meza, formerly of Ame, the menu features fresh, local ingredients, all served with Japan-inspired twists.
There are a couple of shochu cocktails, beers, and wines on the menu and a varied, nicely curated sake list.
Pickles and ferments of beets, cucumbers, and greens:
Mount Lassen trout served raw with dashi infused with peppers and onions, topped with shiso oil:
I don’t think I have ever had raw trout before. It was mellow and clean. Loved this flavor and texture combination!
Soft egg custard with Dungeness crab, ginnan, shiitake, and yuzu:
Grilled Shishito peppers and Monterey squid:
Kakuni braised lamb and “boneless chicken wings” yakitori:
Asian pear preserved in loquat tea, with chocolate and black sesame, garnished with Concord grapes:
It looks like a sea cucumber, right?
We were pretty floored by this dessert. The flavors all worked in harmony. Dare I call it DIVINE?!?!?
Tea service is well-executed here, with a concise list of Japanese and Chinese teas and tisanes.
The hashioki (chopsticks rests) are imitation Legos made of wood!
We warmly welcome Onsen to the Japanese food community in the Bay Area. Congratulations to Caroline and Sunny for creating such a welcoming and cozy space, effortlessly melding together food, tea, and relaxation. Bravo to Chef George who has such a creative and playful vision for the restaurant. Kanpai!
Photos by Yoko Kumano