You can find the state induced by a recent meal at Yu-Zen, a modest but charming Japanese restaurant in the outermost Outer Richmond, in its name. The calm succession of properly made sushi, exquisitely presented sashimi, and lovely cooked izakaya small plates, delivered in a nicely decorated room, rendered us relaxed as well as well-fed — as close to a Zen state as we've been in a long time. The drive out to Balboa and 42nd avenues on a chilly night is meditative in itself, and the view over the Pacific, just a few blocks away, is both beautiful and a reminder of the raw seafood awaiting diners inside.
The atmosphere at Yu-Zen is the antithesis of a trendy rock 'n' roll sushi spot. There's no greeting shouted at you from the sushi bar, which is tucked into the back of the spacious room; no noisy soundtrack; no wacky creations with wackier names on the menu. There's not a Dynamite, Electric, or Volcano to be seen. (Okay, hidden near the end of the list of rolls, between a traditional ume shiso — pickled plum —and soft-shell crab is a salmon-with-cream-cheese roll called a Philly.)
The floor is wood, and the walls are solidly wrapped about halfway up with warm-colored polished wood, which is also used for the eight-seat sushi bar. The creamy-colored upper walls are hung with a few discreet flower prints, alluding to a fresh ikebana arrangement on a nearby table. Larger framed pictures of fish flank the sushi bar. The whole effect is more sophisticated, almost luxurious, than we expected for a mom 'n' pop restaurant on this stretch of Balboa, which is thickly populated with ethnic places heavy on the Formica.
Yu-Zen is still not a white-tablecloth place — the tables are topped with textured burgundy plastic that's a near-duplicate of the gleaming wood, and the napkins are paper. But heated moist cloths are brought with the menus, a nice ceremonial touch.
The three-page menu is wide-ranging. In addition to sushi and sashimi, there are about 20 izakaya dishes, some simple salads, and several miso soups; dinners featuring teriyaki, tonkatsu, tempura, and a couple of seafood hot pots; and a few noodle and porridge dishes.
Daily specials included a variety of seasonal fresh vegetables, prepared ohitashi (blanched), goma-ae (blanched with sesame dressing), or kinpira (sautéed). We tried chrysanthemum ohitashi ($2.50), cut stems and leaves stacked like a little log that tasted similar to slightly bitter spinach, sprinkled with salty bonito flakes. It was a chewy and fresh contrast with the delicious buta kakuni, succulent long-simmered pork belly ($5.50), dotted with a welcome bit of hot mustard, presented like a miniature pot roast resting in soy-flavored broth. An exceptionally good clam miso soup ($3.50) came topped with four fresh clams in the shell.
Our classic nigiri sushi choices included hotate (scallop, $4), amaebi (spot prawn, $5.25), tako (octopus, $3.50), unagi (eel, $4), uni (sea urchin, market price $6.95), anago (sea eel, $4), and mirugai (giant clam, market price $6). The style here includes a slight swipe of wasabi between rice and fish as well as the occasional exciting inclusion of a fragrant shiso leaf, which we all adored. Every sea creature was bright and fresh; we especially enjoyed the ruffled, chewy giant clam; the beautifully cooked, sweet, soft eel; and the impeccable uni. A separate plate of big, crunchy, deep-fried shrimp heads came to the table as part of the amaebi sushi.
We also ordered the deluxe assortment of chirashi sushi, described as "sashimi over rice," the most expensive item on the menu at $21.50. We were dazzled by the beautiful arrangement, which looked like a bouquet. There were more than a dozen kinds of fish and seafood, with sprouts, carved carrots, and shredded daikon tucked in here and there, serving as edible garnish as well as decor. Fat beads of bright-orange salmon roe rested in a tiny bowl made of curled cucumber. Triangles of yellow tamago (cold egg omelet) stood up like little flags. There was tuna, salmon, uni, yellowtail, eel, octopus, bonito, mackerel, and fluke, as well as shrimp accompanied by its fried head. The cool rice below was entwined with thin strands of salty black seaweed. It came with a simple salad of lettuce and radish rounds and a bowl of miso soup.
The presentation was appetizing, and the deconstruction and consumption of the dish was fun as well as satisfying. It was a perfect plate to share and linger over, inducing that relaxed zen state that we sometimes achieve at table, but not often enough.
Another lovely dish was nasu dengaku ($5), broiled eggplant glazed with yeasty miso and sprinkled with sesame seeds. A halved globe came to the table, so carefully cooked that its translucent flesh could be scooped out like a trembling, soft pudding. Another surprisingly good small plate was the shiitake ebi shinjou ($5), mushrooms stuffed with shrimp paste and fried tempura-style, two meaty caps laden with a creamy shrimp mixture, resting in salty broth that softened their fried crust.
The only disappointing dish of the meal was a small plate of shrimp and vegetable tempura ($6.50), ordered impulsively as an afterthought when we enjoyed crunching our way through the fried shrimp heads. Nicely served in a woven basket, the shrimp, broccoli, squash, carrot, and zucchini suffered from a thicker, duller crust than the lacy, crisp coating we expected. Unlike the rest of the meal, it seemed like run-of-the-mill Japanese cooking — unlike the beef teriyaki we saw a neighbor happily forking through, which looked more like a real steak than any beef teriyaki we'd seen in some time. We had a flash of sudden enlightenment: Next time, try the steak.
We were also cheered by the fact that a long, well-served, satisfying, self-indulgent meal (including a small bottle of sake) ended up costing only about $32 a person before tip. Our tip is: Seek satori at Yu-Zen.