In the end, it always comes down to ingredients. Last week, after a drink with R., we met up with the boys for sushi at newly opened Yuzu. We stopped in by happenstance -- our first choice in the area was full, and I'd walked past the new spot a few times earlier in the week.
What we found was a mostly empty place with pale mushroom walls, lots of sleek, flat surfaces, dim lighting and minimalist decoration. In a sushi restaurant, especially in the Marina, that often means pricey soju cocktails and mediocre fish, but we sat down with an open mind.
The initial service wasn't very tight. Our waitress knew the sake well but not the wine list. I drummed my fingers on the table nervously. When the edamame arrived, it was hot and well salted, which is how I like it, but the assymetrical bowl was woefully small for the price. R. rolled her eyes, annoyed, and I squirmed in my seat. The wine came next, which hit a sour note with me. Wine should always be served before any food, even nibbles, so that you can taste it without the interference of other tastes on your palate. And also, because let's face it, I like my drink.
But then the tuna tataki was set down, lightly seared and topped with raw daikon, scallions and ponzu sauce. Understated oohing and aahing rippled across the table. Soon after we were using crisp chips to scoop up soft tuna tartare from a spicy pyramid. I noticed a few more smiles. But it was the otoro sashimi that made history.
One bite of the fatty tuna belly and we were transported to sushi heaven. It was so delicate that a nudge of the chopsticks was all it took to fall apart, and it turned nearly to butter on my tongue. The four of us looked at each other in surprised delight -- what could possibly follow sushi this good?
Sweet pink salmon with razor thin slices of lemon on top for added crunch and subtle tang. A green dragon roll with sweet eel and tuna. A smooth jumbo scallop. The red dragon roll, my new favorite, with fresh crab on the inside, tuna and seaweed salad on the outside. By this time, our waitress was approaching us at her own risk to bring new drinks and dishes; each visit prompted much gushing and praise. And then I had an out of body experience. My inner critic, normally happy to follow wherever my contented belly leads, made an appearance. "Yes," it said slyly, " the sushi is good, great, even stupendous. But do they serve real wasabi?"
Would I be writing this post if they didn't? As a thank you for our enthusiasm, they served it to us on the house, but when you go, make sure you ask for the real stuff and be prepared to pay extra. We carefully divided the dark green, lumpy knob into quarters. It is far superior to the fake stuff that's laced with horseradish and dyed green. Real wasabi's heat fills you up slower and sweeter. Some of us -- I'm not saying who -- might have licked our chopsticks when it was gone.
About this time the sushi chef, sensei Hirosane, came over to say hello. Accompanying him were the owners, Fred and John Yick. Fred runs the front of the house, and John works with the sensei making sushi. The sensei sat down and introduced himself. "We love the otoro!" we shouted in unison.
His eyes smiled and, with diamond earring winking and mustache wagging, he replied, "Ahi to me is garbage. This is a diamond." Sensei explained some things we knew -- that ahi-grade tuna is cheap and should not be used for sushi -- and some we didn't -- that cold, narrow waters and a swift current make for fattier fish. Yuzu's otoro comes from bluefin tuna in the Strait of Gibraltar off the coast of Spain and can weigh up to 500 pounds. They build up extra fat to keep them warm, and it's this added fat that makes for divine sushi. The cuts taken from closer to the bone are the softest and most prized, and this is the cut sensei likes to buy.
Our second order of otoro arrived, and R. asked him why he gave us 5 pieces for 4 people: "So you will fight!" The man had a spark, and as we ate he regaled us with stories and tidbits. He talked about Japan's famed kobe and wagyu beef and about how sushi was born -- like many things, of necessity when an inn full of fierce yakuza were still hungry but the kitchen was almost bare. He instructed us on eating sushi properly with fingers, using the oshipuri (which translates as "squeeze" and refers to the hand towel they give you) throughout the meal to keep our fingers clean. "Colonel Sanders didn't invent finger-licking good," he said with a chuckle.
The biggest surprise came when I asked for his secret to making good sushi. The man had a bit of a swagger, and was rightly proud of his work like the sauces, which are all (save the soy) housemade. I felt sure he'd talk about his extensive training or technique formed over the years at restaurants in Japan and America. His answer was simpler. "My source," he said confidently. Though I had forgotten that what matters most is using the best ingredients, he had not. Like many European-trained or California-influenced chefs, sensei cares most about his ingredients -- where they come from, and how they vary from day to day.
Over a sampling of exquisite desserts -- tiny poached sickle pears; an icy sorbet trio of sour apple, lemon and strawberry; a cake infused with star anise, allspice, clove, nutmeg, peppercorns and vanilla beans -- we talked more. Next time we vowed we'd eat with our hands, and sensei did us the honor of agreeing to serve us omikase (chef's choice). We were hoping to go again before the holidays, but a busy schedule and unfortunate bout of food poisoning (poor Mr. Food Musings) mean that it will have to wait. Something to look forward to in the New Year.
Yuzu, San Francisco, 3347 Fillmore Street, 415.775.1873