I've never visited a Shinto shrine, eaten at an unmarked Osaka sushi restaurant with five seats, or seen the fishmongers at work in Tokyo's Tsukiji Market, but it doesn't take a Nipponophile to figure out that Omakase is not a traditional milieu. Chef Jackson Yu's 14-seat SoMa restaurant is plainly named ("omakase" means "chef's choice"), but the execution is playful. For good or ill, it's a place where you can Instagram your food without incurring anyone's wrath.
It's simple, too. The physical menu consists mostly of sake. Otherwise, it's a three-tiered structure, with tasting menus for $100, $150, and $200. What they have is what you eat, and you can't underestimate the thrill of that adventure. Over two visits, I went with the latter two tiers.
Like a whisper-quiet cannon shot, a dish of salad with lobster and "caviar" (kelp) set things off, with more apps to follow. A preparation of squid ink paste came with an anago (saltwater eel) terrine with cinnamon sauce and cucumber. It was like darkness paired with light.
Then it began, the nonstop nigiri, as long as a coal train in the American South: sea bream, orange clam, bluefin tuna, young amberjack, young snapper with kombu, and Japanese barracuda seared with a torch so that it disintegrates beautifully in the mouth.
The sexiest part — if not the very best dish — was the uni, which Chef Yu handles as if it were a stress-relieving ball instead of a weaponized exoskeleton. He cut the stump as though it were a head of romaine, then made two clean cuts before ripping the uni in half and emptying its fluids in the sink like an especially milky coconut.
"Don't copy me," Yu said. "A lot of practice, this will hurt your hands."
Yu served the uni on halved shells filled with shaved ice, as a few of the spines twitched in response to stimuli, then asked someone if they'd seen the Giants game — the irreverence of which was as startling as it was calming. You can't feel like you're committing any faux pas when the sushi chef is that relaxed.
Then it was more nigiri: a firm, peppery whiting; Japanese saba (mackerel); and a piece of deep-sea, hard-to-catch whitefish that I was told was the most expensive fish in the house. (Like the barracuda, it was seared with the torch, but unlike the barracuda, all I could taste was butane.)
Serving aji, or Japanese horse mackerel, Yu mentioned that it was his favorite, owing to the texture. Because aji swim single-file, they die "happy," as opposed to struggling in a net with thousands of their schoolmates and flooding their systems with stress hormones. Yu also produced the implement used to quickly and humanely kill larger fish: a thin tool rammed into the base of the spine. To demonstrate this, Yu had to put down the sharkskin board he was using to grate baby ginger.
After a while, the precise order of nigiri began to bleed together. Was the goldeneye snapper before the unagi? However disrespectful I felt for misremembering, it didn't matter once the ankimo, or monkfish liver, arrived. This — not the uni — was the true centerpiece, a dense slab of undersea perfection. Deveined, rolled up, and steamed as usual, it was much sweeter than anything I've had elsewhere. It made the lobster feel like an afterthought.
Unsurprisingly, there is no dessert. The 23rd(!) and final item was a rich miso broth with a fully intact shrimp, and then the check came.
Omakase is the least-loud restaurant in San Francisco. A bossa nova version of Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out" might be playing, but this establishment is refreshingly quiet. (The downside is that if there's a gabby party of four next to you chatting about the dude from Million Dollar Listing ringing the NASDAQ bell, you're stuck.)
Although I generally shy away from remarks about service, I have to mention that at Omakase, the service is almost uncomfortably hands-on, with a lot of whispering in the ear. Two female servers in pink-gray kimonos work the room, providing boxes for your bag and explaining that the hand-painted sake cups come from Kyoto. The women are unfailingly obsequious, such that at one point I dropped my pen and leapt to get it before one of the servers dropped to her hands and knees and groped around beneath the chef's counter.
Omakase's attention to detail is conspicuous at every turn. Even the water comes in its own metal caddy, sized exactly so that the word FIJI is visible right above it. As much as I hate Fiji Water — drought, schmought, do we really need to import H2O from 5,000 miles away? — the elegant practicality of such a gesture was a reminder that we live in an aesthetically impoverished society.
One thing to keep in mind if you decide to splurge on dinner is that each tier of the tasting menu doesn't include every last item from the tier below. It's more food, but also different food, so you might be seized with envy as a person 18 inches away eats, say, a nori cone full of pearly roe that you didn't get.
Any jealousy will melt as Yu works the room. He knows exactly how to leaven his gravitas. At one point, he came very close to convincing another diner that a clam she was about to eat was still alive. "This is Omakase," he told her, "You cannot say no." The instant his face broke into a smile, he posed for a pic, dead serious, with his knife held straight up.