Traditionally, you don't go to an entertainment venue for terrific food. Whether it's a jazz club or a medieval jousting tournament, what's on your plate comes a distant second. Food is offered as a courtesy at some venues to encourage your drinking, and can be used as a sort of bribe: The best seats in the house are reserved for those who make a dinner reservation in advance of the evening's festivities.
When I first visited Yoshi's Jazz Club and Restaurant in the new Fillmore Heritage Center to hear Cuban jazz, that's what I thought we were doing: having dinner and listening to music in the same location. But when you enter the cavernous, soaring place, you're immediately aware that you're in a real dining establishment, not simply a nightclub, and an audaciously conceived restaurant at that. The performance space, as it turns out, is at the back of the building's lobby, with its own entrance.
Entering the restaurant is dramatic. You walk past a sculptural installation of carefully placed rocks and wood, a tiny Zen garden, and a dazzling white-and-steel open kitchen, and into a room that somehow seems both overwhelming and intimate. Some acoustic genius has devised a way to permit conversation at the highly polished wooden tables, despite the impossibly high ceilings and hard surfaces. Everything is in neutral, natural hues. Huge Noguchi-like sculptural paper light fixtures and filmy hangings divide the space. There's a glamorous two-level lounge, lit with glowing purple and blue lights, that wraps itself around the kitchen. It features cozy sofas and chaises as well as small table seating.
Yoshi's has come a long way from its beginnings 35 years ago as a tiny sushi bar in Berkeley. After moving to a larger space on Claremont in Oakland, the owners added live music. Yoshi's next move to Jack London Square at the invitation of the city a decade ago was intended to help revitalize that neighborhood; similar civic intentions are behind the new San Francisco location on a strip of Fillmore once famed for jazz clubs (the sidewalks are indented with plaques bearing the names of long-vanished venues and musicians).
The five of us are seated in a booth near the windows overlooking Fillmore, with a thin metal screen divider that could be pulled back for larger parties. During our meal, the other half of the booth was offered to two couples, who both preferred to be seated at their own tables.
The huge menu is divided into nine sections: zen sai (appetizers), ippin (small plates), agemono (deep-fried), otsukiri and morikomi (sashimi plates), nigiri sushi, maki sushi (aka rolls), robata (food from the charcoal grill that's visible in the front of the kitchen), and kamayaki (from the wood-burning oven tucked away toward the rear), plus a few sides. Yoshi's has hired a star chef, Shotaro "Sho" Kamio, who opened the respected Ozumo in San Francisco in 2001; he is devoted to modern Japanese food using the best seasonal ingredients. Our server tells us that everything on the menu is designed to be shared, and suggests two to three dishes a person.
Our first meal is something of a mixed bag. The largest sashimi assortment of the three offered, called sanban, includes two slices each of nine different varieties (bigeye tuna, bluefin tuna, yellowtail, salmon, sea bream, salmon caviar, crab, prawn, and sea urchin). It's beautifully presented and exquisitely fresh, but difficult to apportion among five people – and at $50, I'd rather sample other dishes than order another round. I'm beguiled by the slightly smoky seasonal organic vegetables roasted in the oven and wrapped in cedar paper, but more unusual dishes miss the mark. The layered "ravioli" of flattened squid mimicking pasta, sea urchin (uni), and shiso pesto seems like a stunt that doesn't showcase either the squid or the urchin, which is similarly lost in the uni "risotto," in which vanilla-scented cauliflower puree is supposed to be the "rice." A pricey chawan mushi containing lobster, foie gras, and more uni is liquid rather than custardy, and its ingredients are again obscured.
The straightforward free-range lamb chops with fresh wasabi and garlic mousse would do credit to any contemporary restaurant, but are again awkward to share, and I've had better versions of the miso-glazed black cod. The zesty geisha roll, with spicy shrimp tempura, snow crab, and tuna, is tasty, crunchy, and quite generous. Even though our server knew we were headed to the club, we've run out of time, and have to skip dessert. We haven't drunk much (one bottle of wine, one carafe of sake), and I'm still slightly hungry. But a choice table has been reserved right on the dancefloor of the two-level club for us, and we settle in for part two of a lovely evening.
A month later, I'm returning to Yoshi's just for the food – and tonight our meal is almost flawless. It's a lot easier to order and share for three of us, with the help of our extremely knowledgeable server. We are seduced by a $35 Tsukiji sashimi sampler, with fish flown straight from the famed Tokyo fish market. It has five varieties of white fish, three slices of each, exquisitely garnished with curls of cucumber and radish and delicate fronds of fresh herbs. But ultimately it's almost impossible to distinguish between the subtle differences of such fish as threeline grunt and scorpion fish, which are almost overwhelmed by the scent of cucumber. We sip from a three-sake sampler, accompanied by its own tiny laminated menu describing the daiginjo, ginjo, and junmai's qualities.
The six kinds of sushi we sample are simple and perfect, especially the uni and toro. Seared toro roulades are lovely to look at, but I think the heat has obscured the essential fatty quality of the fish. Four beautiful fat shrimp tempura boast the exciting, mint-and-floral taste of whole shiso leaves. The nine-vegetable tempura couldn't be better. My favorite dish is the sturdy battera, a version of the old-fashioned classic Japanese box-pressed sushi, eight big pieces topped with saba (silky mackerel) and a touch of salty shaved bonito — I can't stop eating them. I'm less impressed with the delicate, sweet lumps of charcoal-grilled Scottish salmon and the ginger-miso-marinated oven-roasted pork ribs; both are a trifle dull, with classic main-course presentation, certainly not as interesting as what went before. And a too-soft, too-bland panko monkfish sauté disappears from the palate as I'm eating it, despite a poached egg alongside topped with soy-and-Meyer-lemon sauce.
But the extraordinary desserts invented by former Top Chef contestant Marisa Churchill end our meal with excitement. A deconstructed key lime tart boasts yuzu lime curd under homemade marshmallows atop graham-cracker crumbs, with roasted pineapple cubes and a ball of coconut sorbet. A tart yogurt semifreddo hides under a crisp, salty sesame Florentine cookie atop papaya-shiso mint sauce. And three fat little beignets are accompanied by a sake cup full of an irresistible dense Suntory whisky cream called a slurry. Nothing is too sweet. We clean our plates, despite having already ordered (and consumed!) a little too much for comfort.
Even if there weren't a world-class jazz club attached (with its own Kamio-designed bar menu), Yoshi's would be a draw for its interesting, classy Japanese fare alone.