Despite countless lauded sushi restaurants I’ve eaten at in NY and LA, I find San Francisco more than keeps up, whether with the staggering range of fish (and lovably surly attitude) Roger delivers at Zushi Puzzle (pencilfish or flying fish, anyone?), the sustainable efforts of Tataki and Sebo, or the pristine precision of Sausalito stalwart Sushi Ran, which tops overrated Nobu restaurants, in my book.
Here is one new SF spot, and one revamped Berkeley restaurant, adding more welcome sushi diversity to the Bay Area.
SARU SUSHI BAR, Noe Valley (3856 24th Street at Sanchez, 415-400-4510)
Why couldn’t Saru Sushi Bar have been in Noe Valley all the years I lived right by this 24th Street storefront? The space’s original two sushi incarnations were less than desirable, where I was once subjected to smelly, rubbery fish. The closet-sized restaurant is completely revamped to the unrecognizable point. Still tiny, it feels roomier with large front windows and sleek brown color scheme. Cheery service pleasantly elevates the experience, particularly on a sunny day at lunch.
I’d claim the space has finally arrived. There’s not just the usual hamachi and sake (salmon), but rather playful, unique bites prepared with care. “Spicy cracker” ($7) is a sheet of seaweed fried in tempura, topped with spicy tuna and avocado – a textural bite. Bright halibut tartare is drizzled in lime zest, yuzu juice, and Japanese sea salt. Though I ever appreciate sampling options, some tasting spoons ($7) work better than others. One that worked: young yellowtail (kanpachi) in truffle oil and ponzu sauce, with garlic chips and scallions.
I know I’m good hands if raw spot prawns (amaebi) are on the nigiri menu ($7 two pieces). Bright and firm, they taste as if they were caught fresh that morning. Snappy rolls (maki) are not overwrought.
Quality raw scallops are a favorite so I appreciate Naked Scallop ($12), a roll wrapped in light green soy paper, filled with snow crab, avocado, masago (smelt roe), and, of course, scallop.
Not near as junk-food-sushi as it sounds, is the fresh, fun, subtly crispy Popcorn Tuna roll ($10): panko-crusted spicy tuna is topped with masago (smelt roe), scallions, spicy mayo, and a sweet soy glaze.
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JOSHU-YA BRASSERIE, Berkeley (2441 Dwight Way at Telegraph Ave., 510-848-5260)
At first glance, Joshu-ya Brasserie could be another hip Berkeley student hang-out: a funky, converted old house with red gated front patio. But step inside the recently remodeled space and bamboo and dark wood exude an Old World Zen. A fountain out front murmurs soothingly while the sun warms the partially covered patio.
A chalkboard lists fish specials, but also rabbit tacos and Kobe kimchi sliders (the latter cooked too medium-well for me). One immediately realizes this is no typical sushi or even Japanese restaurant.
Young executive chef/owner Jason Kwon’s vision is bigger. Yes, he is going for the Bay Area standard of seasonal, sustainable, locally-sourced ingredients – after all, he founded Couteaux Review, a culinary organization promoting sustainable agriculture. But it’s French influence and unique twists that keep things interesting with dishes like pan-roasted rib-eye medallions in blackberry balsamic reduction, or duck confit with buckwheat noodles, nori and bonito flakes. In some ways, the vision feels beyond what the restaurant has yet fully grown into, but the intriguing elements hold promise.
The $35 omakase is a steal, particularly when chef Kwon informs you his fish supplier is the same The French Laundry and Morimoto buy from. After a starter of seared albacore, fresh and bright, if a little too doused in fried onions and ponzu sauce, a giant, artistic sashimi platter hits a number of high notes with actual fresh wasabi (always a good sign), aji tataki (horse mackerel) from Japan, kanpachi (young
yellowtail) from Hawaii, hirame (halibut) from Korea, and chu-toro (bluefin tuna) from Spain. Only one fish on the platter arrived too cold and firm. The rest were silky and satisfying.
Being less of a sweet tooth, I’d rather have finished the omakase with another savory dish than tempura red bean ice cream. Generous scoops of fried ice cream and pound cake were a little weighted after such a refreshing meal. Seared salmon in truffle creme sounds like a fine dessert to me.