Friday, June 3, 2016

Sushi's essence understood at Ju-ni in San Francisco

My wife and I met when I lived in Tokyo. We don't eat out for Japanese food as much as we'd like to. I'm sure natives of most countries say something like this about reinterpretations of their country's cuisine, but as my wife likes to say, "vegan sushi is not sushi."

We have to give props to Ju-ni, a new sushi restaurant in San Francisco that has a good concept, well executed. "Ju-ni" means 12. The restaurant has only 12 counter seats, with three chefs who each serve four customers. There are only two seatings, at 6 pm and 8:30 pm. And it offers only one meal, a 12-course o-makase ("chef's choice") menu for $90.

If it weren't for these restrictions, I wouldn't post this, because we don't want to help make the place impossible to get into. But you, dear reader, should take the opportunity, because this is excellent sushi in a way that is very American while also respecting the essence of Japanese sushi.

Most of the "courses," as you can see, are actually just one piece of sushi. Certain niceties are missing from the experience you'd get in Tokyo: no wet towel when you enter (it was hot on the day we visited), no green tea when you finish.

On the plus side, the room is very calming. There's plenty of space for your chef, yourself and your neighboring couple. (Good luck getting a reservation for more or less than two.)

As for the sushi itself -- well that's the reason you go.

The fish, much of it flown in from Japan, is pristine. And it has the right amount of American influence. There are no spicy tuna rolls here, but it's not austere either. Almost all of the sushi has the kind of minor touches that top sushi chefs like to do occasionally: a seared surface, a drizzle of pepper oil. Normally I like to get a pretty simple piece of perfect fish and my wife and I both complain about excessive adulteration. These were accents, and nothing felt overdone.

Daniel melts miso butter on kegani (hairy crab)
We were surprised that our chef, Daniel, is from Sacramento and had never been to Japan or studied under a Japanese chef. When I lived in Tokyo a good friend of mine worked for the US Embassy deciding which Japanese got visas. I spent many hours hiking with him arguing that "sushi chef" is a skill position. His stance was that they were taking American jobs because Americans could be trained to do it. I still don't agree, but Doug, if you're reading this, Daniel's prowess was a point in favor of your argument.

Insider tip: at the beginning of the meal, they offer a supplemental course of three more nigiri for $34. We said we would wait until the end of the meal and I'm glad we did, because it turns out there's a menu of nigiri supplements and the ones I most wanted weren't in the pre-order set.

We've been to most of the top sushi restaurants in San Francisco and this is the best one yet (with apologies to the previous incarnation of Maruya before the chefs quit). Maybe we sound like high rollers, but we thought the price was reasonable compared to other high-end sushi.

As for sake, I ordered by the glass and went with Dewazakura Dewasansan Junmai Gingo, a longtime favorite, crisp and wine-like, as well as Kirin-Zan Junmai Ginjo, dry and refreshing. My wife had Riesling and regretted it. But she didn't regret the sushi, not one bit. She might regret this blog post if we can never get in again, though. Sorry! But I can fix that, to wit:

Salmon roe topped with shaved frozen monkfish liver, a signature dish

Note to restaurant critics: Keep judging sushi places on dessert!

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