Sunday, March 14, 2010

Faux-Nagi, Sardine, Skipjack and Arctic Char at San Francisco's Tataki Sushi Bar

Tataki of San Francisco

If you can judge a city by its restaurants, then San Francisco should definitely rank high amongst sushi aficionados. In the City by the Bay, sushi is fresh, innovative, and daringly different. This is, after all, the area in which I had first seen the pairing of cream cheese with eel, and the liberal and frequent use of fruit and macadamian nuts in rolls. Years later, it seemed, L.A. slowly began to catch up.

My first stop of many: Tataki on California Street, a tiny sushi restaurant reminiscent of a cozy coffee bar.

Faux-nagi, as it says on the menu, is obviously short for faux-unagi, otherwise known as seared black cod which looks like unagi. And just when I thought it couldn’t get more interesting, I saw the strange term iwana on the menu. Thanks to the translation written below the phonetically spelled Japanese word, I learned that it was “arctic char from Iceland.”

Oh, how it never fails to thrill me, these findings of rare fish you’d hardly come across in L.A. I have actually eaten arctic char roe (as well as whale sashimi) in Iceland, both of which were amazing, but rare is the occasion that I see arctic char on a menu—in a sushi bar, no less.

The seared black cod was a delight—buttery and smoky at the same time, as it remained soft even though it was seared. The arctic char sushi was certainly fresh and reminiscent of regular salmon in both texture and flavor, but my steadfast preference for the eggs over the fish remains.

The arctic char was also available in a cut roll with avocado, which I ordered along with a shiitake mushroom roll.

2815 California Street, San Francisco

The Honey Walnut Roll and More...

Fresh Off the Boat at Sakana Bune

I could hardly believe that almost seven years had passed since I first discovered the Honey Walnut Roll at Sakana Bune on Geary Boulevard, but it wasn’t surprising that the restaurant still thrived. Meaning Seafood Boat, Sakana Bune is one of those places in which you sit and watch floating boat-shaped trays of sushi sail by, contemplating which dish to snatch. And much like other sushi-train or floating-sushi dives, Sakana Bune has a separate menu of special, full-size rolls that are made to order.

Such a special, full-size roll is the Honey Walnut. As its name suggests, this is a roll that actually contains honey and walnuts, along with shrimp tempura, avocado, and Japanese mayonnaise. At the first opportunity, I revisited this restaurant and requested the same item right away. Although still as sweet and unique as I remembered, the walnuts seemed a bit dry this time and too-crunchy compared to the rest of the roll…or had my taste shifted over the years?

Still hungry after the nut n’ honey concoction, I partook of the selections from the ever-drifting boats on the bar, and surprisingly found myself liking the generic floaters more than my long-missed favorite. The albacore sushi suffused with garlic sang all the right notes in my mouth, and the two-piece California roll-like creation was not plain at all, especially with two types of faux crab and a dab of spicy mayo for each bite. The gunkan-style baby shrimp nigiri, however, did not do the restaurant justice. Or maybe it paled in comparison to the other items I tried. Still, overall it was a satisfying repast, and considering the low prices, well worth it.

Sakana Bune
5701 Geary Blvd., San Francisco

Kabuto: Dungeness Crab, Yama-imo & Ume

Kabuto of San Francisco

Kabuto, a popular choice with legions of fans and high ratings among yelpers, seduced me in no time at all. The service was a bit stiff, and a few selections were “not available today,” but it was the only place I had ever seen dungeness crab served nigiri-style, and certainly the only place in the U.S. that I have seen offer Akamutsu fish. Another rare but welcome touch: nigiri is priced and served as a single piece, unlike the typical pairings of most sushi joints. The dungeness crab nigiri, at $2 each, is luscious; but looking back, I wish I had asked for some Japanese mayonnaise in which to dip it. Another sassy touch: cranberries are used with parsley as garnish on every single serving plate.

What impressed me the most was the taste of the yama-imo and ume (sliced mountain potato and plum paste), served as a hand roll or cut roll. Plum paste, normally sour and purplish in hue, was salty-sour and brown in this case—and had gritty bits in it. The chef revealed that shaved bonito is mixed in with the plum paste for extra flavor—hence the crunch and brownness. The Tasmanian Salmon, they confirmed, is indeed from Tasmania, and if only for the exoticism I had to order the single-piece just to try it. The fish from down-under tasted fresh but not unlike most other fresh salmon, or maybe it was just me….

5121 Geary Blvd., San Francisco

The African Spider & Hawaiian Breeze Rolls

Sushi Bistro of San Francisco

Correcting a sushi chef is not one of my favorite tasks, but when I saw my “African Spider” Roll at Sushi Bistro bereft of tobiko, I objected right away. He tried to explain that only the regular Spider Roll—not the Africanized version—comes with flying fish eggs, but at this contention I handed over the menu from across the bar, pointing out the truth. And so he heaped on the orange stuff, which was one of the reasons I even ordered the thing.

Unlike a regular Spider Roll (which normally combines softshell crab with ingredients like avocado, sprouts, cucumber, and smelt fish eggs), this pumped-up version adds deep-fried cajun albacore and salmon, omits the cucumber, and substitutes smelt fish eggs with flying fish eggs—a splendid idea, as the latter are bigger and tastier in my opinion. Normally I would have asked for no eel sauce on top of my Spider, but the menu said it would be mixed with spicy sauce, which suggested a good mix of sweet and hot.

Although the “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” and “Stinky Salmon” both sounded good, I chose the “Hawaiian Breeze” Roll because of its unique medley of mango, avocado, fuji apple, tuna, macadamian nuts and cilantro pesto. I am not a particularly big fan of anything cilantro, but when diluted with something else, such as pesto sauce or something like it, and used on a sushi roll bearing nuts, fish and fruit, I have to believe the taste transforms wonderfully. (Plus I knew a rivulet of green atop a roll would make for a better picture.)

The cilantro pesto turned out to be zesty and refreshing, but very obviously cilantro-based. It didn’t go badly, however, with all the aforementioned ingredients, but rather enhanced the overall taste of everything.

Sushi Bistro
431 Balboa St., San Francisco

The Ebi Fry and The Sweet Tooth Rolls

Sushi in Japan Town

My stop in Japan Town proved worthwhile, but one can easily become indecisive amid the vast array of choices. To be competitive, a couple of the restaurants showcase their best items on colorful photo-boards standing on easels at the front door.

At Osakaya, the “Ebi Fry Roll” exceeded my expectations considering the plain name of the roll (which simply translates to “Shrimp Fry Roll”) and the strange mixing of breaded fried jumbo prawns (not to be confused with the lighter, less crunchy batter of tempura) with oshinko (pickled radish) and tobiko. It costs $9.50 for the roll, but you receive a humongous nine-piecer that it is at once thick and long. I thought the brown river of sauce on which the roll sat was a miso paste, but the waitress explained it was their signature “steak sauce” mixed with Japanese mayonnaise, which certainly made it creamy. It is both quantity and quality here, and the flavor holds a certain authenticity that isn’t easily imitable.

Two storefronts away in the restaurant mall, Kushi Tsuru offers “The Sweet Tooth”: a roll of apple, avocado, and cream cheese topped with strawberry, mango, kiwi puree and tobiko. I had stumbled upon it earlier, but deliberately chose to save this one for last, to savor as a dessert (it certainly seemed sweet enough).

The problem is, unless you move to Frisco for the sushi, you’re constantly going to crave it.

Japan Center, San Francisco

Kushi Tsuru
Japan Center, San Francisco