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Raising the Sushi Bar

Some ambitious newbies have rebooted our entire raw fish scene. A user's guide to San Francisco's finest nigiri.

Japanese spot prawn at Roka Akor. Photo by Maren Caruso.
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Ocean trout at Saru. Photo by Chris Rochelle
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Halfbeak at Kiji. Photo by Chris Rochelle.
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Baby seam bream at Koo. Photo by Chris Rochelle
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Japanese sea bream at Ichi. Photo by Chris Rochelle.
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Nagasaki kuromaguro at Akiko's. Photo by Chris Rochelle.
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Mendocino sea urchin at Oyaji. Photo by Chris Rochelle.
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Aji at Shimo. Photo by Chris Rochelle. 
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Further reading:
Why You Should Still Say No to Toro 
Advice for the Nigiri Novice
Selecting the Right Sake
A Visit to SF's Sushi Nazi 

The 8 Best Nigiri in Town

1. Like Carmen and Miranda on rice: Puritans might scoff at the new Roka Akor (the third location of a Scottsdale, Arizona chain) with its dark and clubby lounge, but they’d be missing out on the inspired preparations by chef Mike Lim, who was last at Napa’s Morimoto. Lim’s Japanese spot prawn with uni, caviar, and 24 karat gold–filled “angel tears” ($16/two) is his most flamboyant nigiri, but it’s a beauty that tastes as rich and delicious as it looks. 801 Montgomery St. (at Jackson St.), 415-362-8887

2. Trout royalty: Opened in Noe Valley last spring by 30-year-old chef Billy Kong, formerly of San Mateo’s revered Sushi Sam’s, teeny Saru is a dimly lit and notably stylish joint—elements not appreciated by most sushi sticklers. Don’t judge. Kong takes things seriously here. Everything from the ponzu to the soy sauce is made in-house. Here, coral-hued ocean trout is topped with yuzu kosho ($7/two), a punchy, salty and spicy citrus paste. 3856 24th St. (near Vicksburg St.), 415-400-4510

3. The silver fox: Flying under the Mission district hipster radar, Kiji is located in a Victorian space with creaky wood floors and down-tempo music. For the past eight years, chef Eddie Hong has offered top-quality sushi here from an expansive selection of fish flown in from Japan. We love this silver-streaked, mild-mannered slice of halfbeak with a dab of fresh ginger ($7/two). Hong also knows how to make the most of fish pulled from our local waters. 1009 Guerrero St. (near 22nd St.), 415-282-0400

4. Where salty meets sweet: At Inner Sunset destination Koo (Japanese for “eat”), chef Kiyoshi Hayakawa (formerly of Sushi Ran) peers over his bifocals at you as he takes your order. This is not to say that he’s judging you for ordering over-the-top rolls like the Tokyo Crunch, but he has a deft touch with more traditional nigiri such as the baby sea bream with salty ume paste made of pickled plums ($8/two). If you’re lucky, the sea bream will be followed by its fried bones, which are meant to be eaten whole like a crunchy snack. 408 Irving St. (near 5th Ave.), 415-731-7077

5. The nouvelle sushi: Customers start lining up at 5:30 p.m. to get a seat at beloved Ichi, co-owned by chef Timothy Archuleta, for beautiful, out-of-the-bento-box nigiri like the Japanese sea bream with shiso, kabosu juice, green-tea salt, and yuzu kosho ($6.75/two). Before year’s end, the restaurant will close to become an oyster bar under the same ownership. Ichi Sushi + Ni Bar will reopen across the street in a bigger space, providing both omakase and izakaya. 3369 Mission St. (at 30th St.), 415-525-4750

6. The butter bomb: Over the winter, 26-year-old Akiko's was given a complete makeover, from the DWR chairs to the aspirational menu. Sidle up to the bar, and head chef Ricky Yap will happily explain why he cooks ankimo sous vide or how he tenderizes abalone between sheets of kelp. When he’s offering Nagasaki kuromaguro ($20/two)—one of the most sustainably grown bluefins—get it. The chu-toro cut (lower shoulder and belly) lives up to the just-like-butter hype. 431 buSh St. (near cLaude Ln.), 415-397-3218

7. The uni archetype: At Outer Richmond’s Oyaji, it’s all about the rice, served at body temperature and held together so gently that a grain could stray at any moment. Other than some choice words from infamously cheeky chef-owner Hideki Makiyama, nigiri here arrives with little fanfare. The payoff comes in classically rendered preparations of the usual suspects, like the Mendocino sea urchin ($8/two), served in artful proportion to the mound of sushi rice below. 3123 Clement St. (near 32nd Ave.), 415-379-3604

8. Amplified aji: At cheery, familial Shimo in Outer Richmond, smiling-eyed Kiyomanu Shimo plates nigiri with a judicious two-to-one fish-to-rice ratio, ensuring that his fluffy tamago and glistening halibut won’t be upstaged. Bites come with a polka dot of Sriracha here, a brush swipe of soy sauce there, and a check total that’s almost always blessedly lower than expected. Our favorite? The pearlescent skin-on aji (Spanish mackerel) with grated ginger ($5/two) and house-infused lemon soy sauce. 2339 Clement St. (near 25th Ave.), 415-752-4422

 

Originally published in the October 2013 issue of San Francisco

 

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