In the end, though, Moki's Sushi and Pacific Grill in Bernal Heights edged out Monkichi by the slightest of margins, because Moki's, from its charming glass sake decanters to its almost inhumanly clever specialty maki, is pretty much what I would consider a class act from top to bottom. In fact, Moki's fits perfectly into my two-tiered theory of sushi acceptability, where the proximate (decent or better, preferably within walking distance) vies with the superlative (top-quality, worth traveling to) for the sushi lover's hard-earned bucks. Moki's, of course, is an example of the latter, and as reigning champion will serve as the namesake for our new unit of sushi excellence: the Moki. I visited four restaurants this time, with one goal -- to find sushi as good as Moki's. A Moki means I did. No Moki means I didn't, and you're better off going to Moki's. After all, why settle for less?
By definition, sushi involves pretty much anything served with vinegared rice, a small eddy in the great river of Japanese cuisine in which simplicity, elegance, and, above all, freshness are of paramount importance. Of course, the possible variations on sushi are limitless, especially given the possibilities of California-style fusion, and when you throw in the non-sushi dishes most places serve, well, pretty much anything can happen. Hence Noe Valley's Amberjack Sushi, a small, quiet spot where pale hardwood floors and halogen lighting speak as much of a chic urban bistro as the traditional sushi house. Likewise, the menu places as much emphasis on innovation (salmon tartare with caviar, quail egg, fresh wasabi, and sesame oil, $8.95) as sushi, which made me wary, since I feared the quality of fish might suffer.
There was one way to find out -- the sashimi deluxe ($13.50) -- the true test of a sushi restaurant, as the raw, fresh fish lacks sauces or other enhancements to hide behind. Though the pickings were limited, what we got exuded the unmistakable glow of health, particularly the two American favorites -- three pieces each of firm, meltingly succulent hamachi (yellowtail) and glimmering maguro (tuna). Two pieces each of halibut, sea bass, and lightly poached salmon rounded out the offerings; nothing elaborate, but easily supplemented with smaller orders (five pieces for $5.50-6.50).
Still, we got the feeling Amberjack's non-sushi dishes, as graceful as anything you'll find elsewhere, are the real focus. I died at least two deaths eating the beef negi maki ($6.50) -- rolls of thin-sliced grilled beef stuffed with green onion, bathed in a decadent, almost gravylike teriyaki sauce, then arrayed like spokes around a Sonoma greens-stuffed tomato -- and two more during the sakana misoyaki ($6.50), a rich, tender fillet of miso-marinated butterfish.
Meanwhile, our third appetizer, the citrus-scented hamachi and tuna tartare with lemon-pressed olive oil ($10.50), needed some rethinking, or a fork. Though the dark red tuna and pale hamachi, diced into pea-sized bits, then arranged in opposing half cylinders and topped, respectively, with green and orange fish roe, made a lovely study in color, eating tiny pellets with chopsticks proved maddening, and the fish itself was so good I would have still preferred it as sashimi.
As for the actual sushi: From the selection of four large rolls (Spider, Caterpillar, Dragon, and Rainbow, $8 each), we chose the last, a California roll wrapped with slices of salmon, squid, hamachi, tuna, and halibut. It was simple and well done, though not particularly creative when compared to the appetizers. We hoped to finish with a very intriguing dessert: poached tomato with wasabi tobiko ($3.50). Unfortunately, our waitress told us, this had been discontinued, and we realized why upon sampling its cousin, the poached pear with mango sauce ($3.50). Poaching a pear makes it mushy and bland (Lord knows what the cooking method would do to a tomato), while the mango sauce, a thick purée, conjured two words: baby food. Perhaps the Japanese aren't known for desserts, but still, I have to make a stand, and an offer: If the people at Amberjack promise to stop poaching innocent pears, a Moki will be in the mail.
Now, let's step straight through the portal. As we took our seats at Sutter Street's Sanraku, a bright, bustling place where a waitstaff of at least a dozen seems poised at any moment to either deliver something or whisk it away, we received menus, plus a card depicting rhapsody incarnate: dragon sushi ($12). Picture a sort of shallow sushi casserole, cut into bite-sized squares, like a strip of baklava. Delicately crisp unagi (broiled eel) sat atop a thin layer of rice, followed by a microthin stratum that combined shiso, smelt eggs, seaweed, and tempura flakes, followed by more rice. This was so good I'd eat it for breakfast. After we penetrated the initial crispness of the unagi, a new, more intense tempura crunchiness took over, spiked with minty shiso, underscored with smelt, a Dionysiac intermingling of texture and flavor.
Within seconds, my date and I were fucking with wild abandon.
Or maybe not, but still, it was really that good.
In fact, only one thing fell flat here, the goma ae ($3.50), a small, organic spinach salad with a blandish miso paste. Apart from that, eating at Sanraku seemed a study in how Japanese food should be prepared. The special tempura (chicken, shrimp, and vegetables, $8.95) was so crisp it rustled like dry leaves, while the sashimi deluxe ($22.95) -- three pieces each of hamachi, tuna, kingfish, sea bass, octopus, mackerel, and gorgeously marbled sheets of salmon -- burned with life from the first piece to the last. Vegetable dishes such as the pleasantly deceptive Ume Q Roll (pickled plum and cucumber, $3.50) showed the same mastery. Though it looked like sushi, the Ume Q's razor-sharp tartness reminded us more of a super-potent tangerine. Also, a trip to Sanraku would seem wasted without ordering traditional oshinko (assorted pickles, $3.50) -- Japanese cucumber and eggplant, Chinese cabbage, carrots, and daikon radish, each pickled to a different, very precise degree of piquancy. Normally, I tape-record reviews, to better relive the moment. When I played this particular recording back, during the pickle section all I heard were moans and the sharp, poignant crunch of vegetables.