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Izakaya Yuzuki: Painstakingly Crafted Japanese Food 

Wednesday, Jan 25 2012
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It's striking how often we now rely on restaurants to provide us with a sense of the homemade. Not just "house-made" salumi or pasta, but base ingredients whose production has been industrialized so long we've lost the collective knowledge of how to prepare them at home. Pickles. Butter. Miso paste. Once chores our great-grandparents did throughout the year, now they're professions of authenticity. The more effort the chef puts into each dish, the truer his or her food is.

By that measure, the fare at Izakaya Yuzuki, a 2-month-old restaurant in the Mission, are as true as Raymond Carver stories. Take the nukazuke pickles: chef Takashi Saito prepares them by burying baby vegetables, cucumbers, and slim eggplant in a tub of cultured rice bran whose potency he scrupulously mothers. Washed of their grit and arrayed on a stoneware plate in precise slices, the pickles emerge with a clean snap and a coy acidity, as if they'd been misted with brine instead of submerged in it.

The nukazuke are just one instance of the authenticity — not in the sense of canonical Japanese flavors, but the sense of dishes taken all the way back to their base — that Saito infuses into the food at Izakaya Yuzuki. Saito, a veteran of Ame and Kyo-Ya, serves warm tofu, curdled moments before it arrives at the table, and cultures his own koji, aka Aspergillus oryzae, a mold used to make miso, soy sauce, and sake. Not all of the dishes work, but the homestyle food Yuzuki is serving has a delicacy and detail hard to find in San Francisco.

There is the daily obanzai ($9), for starters, a trio of seasonal vegetables. On one visit, we peered into three nubbly clay teacups to find strands of black seaweed, musky and briny, topped with julienned chrysanthemum leaves; carrot and daikon threads tossed in a spiky yuzu dressing; and black sesame sauce drizzled over coins of sweet potato. Saito's satsuma age ($11), spongy fish cakes, are nothing like the bland sponge many restaurants serve: They have vegetable-flecked interiors and a mellow, piscine flavor, and are fried just long enough to give the exteriors a papery crispness.

Izakaya Yuzuki's menu is brief, the plates small, each enough for a few tastes. Crisp Japanese cucumber ($4) — smaller and less watery than standard American cukes — is tossed with sesame oil and just enough shichimi, or spice-pepper blend, to prickle. An exquisite chawanmushi (steamed custard, $12) with a lobe of uni placed on top after cooking, is so ephemeral the custard seemed to have been captured mid-quiver. And rings of giant squid (yaki surume ika) marinated in koji salt and grilled, have all the toughness of a silk handkerchief.

There is a tiny bowl of beef tendon ($11), which most pho geeks would find not braised quite long enough to transcend its gelatinous chew, and kara-age chicken ($7) that doesn't come out quite as crisp or quite as tender as one would hope. But there's also a spectacle called kakiage ($12): airy nests of shredded gobo and parsley leaves, with juicy white shrimp embedded in the swirl, all deep-fried to an ephemeral crispness and served with green tea salt and a smoky dashi-based dipping sauce. And while it's about as novel to praise pork belly as it is to confess smutty thoughts about Ryan Gosling, the buta na kakuni ($13) is as lovely as you could hope for, the cubes of pork belly braised into a restrained succulence, and surrounded with greens, pearl onions, turnips, and green beans. A smear of Japanese mustard along the lip of the bowl offers a punctuation mark to the dish — or smelling salts for anyone overcome by its richness.

Izakaya Yuzuki does have two challenges to surmount. The first, as anyone who has lived in the Mission for more than a few years knows, is the space. I've eaten at the corner of 18th and Guerrero at least a half-dozen times under a half-dozen restaurant names, and never warmed to the dining room, basically a cube of air with some tables at the bottom. Tall, high windows along two walls seem like they should be its best feature but, like an overly jutting jaw, muscle out other charms. Owner Yuko Hayashi has softened up the cube with peach walls, a small wood bar, and line drawings of vegetables that float up one wall, but then she blasts a soundtrack that veers from morose Japanese folk songs and Bach cello suites to garage rock, which doesn't help. Packed tables will mitigate the problem once Missionites stop being wary of the space's evident curse.

The other challenge: calling the place an izakaya. Yuzuki, like every other self-titled izakaya in San Francisco, is actually a higher-end bistro predominantly serving small plates and skewers, rather than a humble, smoky pub bustling with red-faced office workers. Yuzuki does have a lovely Oregon hefeweizen on draft, as well as a sake list that contains surprises for sake critics. But the skewered chicken meatballs, thighs, and wings Saito serves aren't nearly as impressive as its simmered, pickled, and fried dishes, and if you want rice to accompany your meal — and fill your belly — you have to order the koshihikari rice ($11), an ultra-premium grain that comes to the table after the other dishes, and is often overcooked to boot. Given Izakaya Yuzuki's deep, authentic cooking and the care with which Saito presents each plate, the izakaya by any other name would smell much sweeter.

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Jonathan Kauffman

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