This article was first published here at Table8 where I am national editor.
Being passionate about my food and as Japan is one of my top two favorite countries to visit in the world (the other? Italy), Im ever on the hunt for authentic, transporting, purist Japan experiences, even as I crave innovation and fusion, too. There is a wealth of such Japan experiences in SF on the sushi side (some of the most hardcore edomae-style sushi experiences and beyond here), but here are two unassuming Japanese gems serving cooked and raw dishes well beyond sushi in true-to-Japan form.
YUZUKI JAPANESE EATERY, The Mission
In 2014, I wrote about Yuzuki Japanese Eatery at Zagat, raving about its complexity presented with simplicity and purity alongside thoughtful saké pairings from owner Yuko Hayashi. I am delighted to say upon a recent return to try their $90 tasting menu for two (sake pairing is $30 per person) that Yuzuki is still a special Japanese food gem in a region rich with excellent Japanese food. From Japanese toilet in the bathroom to environmental practices across the board, each detail at Yuzuki has been thought through. The whole experience is Zen-like and transporting, down to the Japanese-dominant patrons (a good sign).
Eat This: Their silky, housemade zaru tofu (made from organic soy beans) remains a highlight, while obanzai, a course of local, seasonal veggies on the tasting menu (recently, it was skinned cherry tomatoes in shiso dressing; corn tofu with corn and wasabi; zucchini and baby ginger root in white and red miso dressing), tastes of the season with kaiseki-esque reverence. Served in a large, earthen pot, the salmon koshihikari rice course is refined comfort. Housemade desserts are still a standout over many a Japanese restaurant, including ammitsu ($9) or agar (or algae jelly) squares in Okinawan black sugar syrup with vanilla ice cream and sweet adzuki beans.
Drink This: Its all about those sakés, a collection Hayashi compiles pulling from favorites from home, interesting brews from female saké brewers and even aged saké, like the golden, melon-meets-butterscotch notes of Yuzuki Junmai Ginjo 10 year aged sake from Takenotsuyu Brewery in Yamagata, or the savory, bouillon, sherry and dried fruit notes of the 8-year-aged Hanahato Kijoshu from Enoki Brewery in Hiroshima.
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KAPPOU GOMI, Outer Richmond
Since opening in 2009, Kappou Gomi has been one of my under-the-radar go-tos for authentic Japanese food, pages and pages of fish, grilled, raw, seared dishes with nary a bit of sushi in sight, though there are lovely, raw fish dishes. Service is generally sweet though there was one lackluster server during my recent visit. The intimate space is packed with mostly Japanese regulars (reserve ahead as there are few tables), digging through pages of tempura or salt-grilled fish to order a slew of shareable plates.
Eat This: While the likes of butter-grilled scallops remain a crowd-pleaser, the gems lie on the chefs specials menu where you can find the days freshest and the most authentic dishes. I feel back in Japan when eating a sphere of grilled squid rolled in sesame seeds or skin-on fish in a complex dashi broth.
Drink This: There are some solid sakés and not-as-good wines but drink isnt the strong suit here corkage is only $15 if you want to bring your own bottle in.