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Dinner and a Show 

The food duels with presentation at the best little sushi house in San Francisco

Wednesday, Jul 19 2006
With dozens and dozens of sushi bars in this hungry city — it seems that the sushi bar has overtaken the cocktail bar in numbers — I still hadn't found my raw-fish nirvana. I'd had memorable dinners at Kabuto A&S, Kyo-Ya, Midori Mushi, and Ino, but Kabuto has new owners, Kyo-Ya is pricey and its rooms somewhat charmless, Midori Mushi no longer exists, and Ino, though I love its classic approach, never inspired me to linger. A recent excursion with my friend Peter, who has a prodigious and eclectic sushi appetite, was pretty much a disaster: The rock soundtrack was painfully loud; the young, highly styled sushi chefs (a man and a woman who looked like especially chic hairstylists) turned out slightly clumsy nigiri sushi and flavorless rolls behind a smeary glass counter exposing carelessly stacked chunks of fish. And the tariff was high.

I'd heard whispers about a tiny, eccentric one-man sushi place on the edge of Japantown. The neat, modern, clean white boxy room on the ground floor of a contemporary apartment block looks nothing like the classic woody Japanese restaurant, save for the angled five-seat light-wood sushi bar fitted into one corner of the room, behind which is the entirely open kitchen. There are three white-linened tables: two for couples, and a third that can seat four. The decor is limited to an elegant flower display near the front door; another arrangement, perhaps of grasses and a pearly abalone shell, in a wall niche behind the bar; and a display of sake bottles on a sideboard tucked behind the tables.

I'd come alone, early on a weekend night, for my reserved seat at the sushi bar. All five places were carefully set with square stoneware plates and chopsticks laid reverentially on holders shaped like tiny fish. I was brought a hot and moist rolled towel, which refreshed me before I studied the not terribly helpful two-page menu. There was a page of about a dozen appetizers, some familiar (the steamed custard called chawan mushi, deep-fried tofu), some not (mushi-uni and shira-ae, steamed sea urchin and greens); a brief list of sashimi options (two chef's choice plates, hamachi, maguro); two soups; and four "entrees" called "assorted sushi," "chef's special assorted sushi," "assorted sashimi," and "chef's special assorted sashimi," with no specifics. There was a tiny handwritten page of specials, entirely in Japanese. The usual long list of seafood options for sushi and sashimi was nowhere to be found; the day's catch was laid out in front of me, behind immaculate glass, in appetizing chunks and slabs, some silvery, some pink, some white.

I took the easy way out, and ordered the first and cheaper of two "omakase" options ("five or six kinds of chef's recommended plates including sashimi and sushi"), and asked for a suggestion for a fragrant sake from the list of about two dozen options, listed simply by name. I was given an icy blue-striped glass filled nearly to the brim with Hakkaisan, at $11.50 one of the mid-range options (prices run from $5.50 to $40 a glass), by the courteous sole lady server.

The proprietor and chef, addressed by others at the bar as Naka-san, placed a small blue ceramic bowl on the raised shelf that contained a cold, tangy salad of mixed julienned root vegetables, seaweed, and beans.

As I enjoyed the mingled crunch and sliver, I watched as Naka-san moved between his open kitchen (a four-burner stainless steel range, a refrigerator that opened frequently to reveal stacks of boxes and bowls, the mise en place of a day's work), and the sushi bar, stirring a saucepan, checking a deep-frier, slicing his fish, shaping the sushi rice with deliberate, unhurried, graceful gestures. I was enjoying the show, especially his beautiful knife work, almost as much as I was my food. Even the way he placed the plates on top of the glass fish case was thoughtful, as in a tea ceremony, but never precious. After the salad came one of the best noodle dishes ever: thin hot rice noodles dabbed with a bit of thick miso paste and topped with a towering cold thatch of hairlike crunchy vegetables dressed with a sharp vinaigrette. The heat against the chill, the smooth against the crisp, was delightful. Then there was deep-fried squid served in a bit of broth; chawan mushi with chunks of fish and smooth-textured gingko nuts hidden in the custard; a sashimi plate with seven varieties of fish and shellfish exquisitely chosen and arranged for differences of color and texture, followed by four assorted nigiri sushi. After these came a smoky miso soup full of tiny mushrooms that I was too sated to appreciate, and then a wedge of honeydew melon cut into chunks, whose cool sweetness perked me up a bit.

When I lived in Los Angeles, there was a one-man sushi place called Ginza Sushiko whose omakase meal ran $250 a person. I never ate there (and now that it has moved to New York, been renamed Masa, and offers omakase meals from $300 to $500 a person, it looks like I never will). But the experience that I had at Kiss felt eerily like what I had read about Ginza: delicious dishes prepared and proffered by a master, each course served on different pottery, in a ritual succession of flavors and textures (minus some extravagant ingredients such as caviar and bits of gold leaf). And all this for the princely sum of $42.

When I returned with Peter, we went for the pricier omakase option. The starter salad was much the same, followed by a three-sectioned white dish filled with a tiny-dried-shrimp, Asian pear, spinach, and creamy tofu salad, tender braised chunks of octopus, and chewy, luscious geoduck clams. Then we received several bundles: a mousse of tuna, striped bass, and salmon in thin tofu wrappers in a yummy savory broth, followed by chawan mushi, this time topped with steamed clams in the shell.

The sashimi assortment included Thai snapper, giant clam, toro tuna, amberjack, shrimp, and halibut; some velvety, some, like the clam, resistant to the tooth and chewy. Sushi included yellowtail, whose succulence Peter exclaimed over, wild salmon, lovely oily mackerel, marinated maguro tuna, and halibut laid over a bit of chopped pickled clam and a shiso leaf (the last two, Naka-san cautioned, already seasoned, should be eaten without soy and his excellent fresh wasabi). We sipped a succession of sakes: milky Shimeharizuru, perfumey Urakasumi, clean Essyu, fragrant Uyama, a couple as suggestions, a couple as lucky shots in the dark.

"I've never seen anybody do it better," I said to Peter, as we watched Naka-san expertly slice the giant clam into microscopic slivers still attached at the base. "I loved every dish we got," he said, "but I was still jealous of everything he prepared for others that we didn't get to taste!" (I missed eating the humble pasta dish, served to others but replaced in our meal by the costlier and, yes, delicious seafood trio.)

I was only sad that I hadn't yet tried the beautiful sea urchin that called to me, seductively arranged on a wicker tray in overlapping scallops, and available not only as sushi but also in a steamed dish I greedily watched floating over to another diner. That was a treat I looked forward to. My only caveat: When you reserve, ask for the bar instead of a table. That way you get dinner and a show.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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