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In everyone's private arsenal of restaurants (the spot you like to go for breakfast in the neighborhood, the best burger place, the celebration restaurant where the owners always remember your name and favorite table), there should be a favorite sushi place. In L.A. I loved Sushi Gen, which wasn't particularly convenient, as it was way over on the east side in Japantown (which is now, I note, breathtakingly close to Disney Hall). But since it was in a mini-mall, you could usually find a place to park; it was good-sized, so you could usually find a place to sit; and its menu featured interesting cooked dishes (such as the steamed monkfish liver called ankimo, aka the "foie gras of the sea"; sea snails; even noodles if you were with a non-seafood-fancier), so you could always find something to enjoy.
San Francisco, CA 94118
Region: Richmond (Inner)
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Pira-kara nasu $4.50
Chawan mushi $6
Fried baby octopus $5
Sea escargot $6
Uni sushi $3/piece
Ogura cream anmitsu $4
Open daily (except Wednesday) for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and for dinner from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. (Sunday until 10 p.m.). Closed Wednesday.
Parking: moderately difficult
Noise level: moderate
I've had some superb sushi in the Bay Area, especially at the tiny, eccentric Midori Mushi, which I'd be happy to return to, despite its small size and loud music. But the sushi place that's going to be the one to beat in my personal lexicon is Kabuto A&S. It's on Geary, in the Richmond, so you can't be guaranteed an easy parking space. It's not very big (half a dozen tables for four, a few more that seat two, and 15 places at the sushi bar), so you might have to wait. But Kabuto's amazing, almost overwhelming menu (menus, actually) trumps almost any in my experience.
On my first visit, I knew we wanted sushi -- which shows up on the ninth page of an 11-page, spiral-bound menu. I was dazzled, nearly stopped dead in my ordering tracks. In addition to nearly 50 different kinds of fish and shellfish sushi, and a dozen types of vegetable sushi, and 42 varieties of fish and vegetarian makimono, including the famous California Roll (all of them served cut into six pieces or as a handroll), you can choose from among four soups, eight salads, 19 cold ippinryouri (small plates), 14 hot ippinryouri, a dozen different sashimi, a sashimi platter, a half-dozen rice and noodle dishes, a dozen agemono (fried foods), 19 yakimono (grilled dishes, including sea snails), half a dozen sushi platters, teishoku dinners (for which you choose two or three dishes from a list of eight), an omakase (chef's choice) bento box, and a final page titled "Unique (Matchless Sushi)," where, in addition to ankimo, you'll find grilled cod's milt and shark's fin among the 10 possibilities.
Oh, and there's another menu, a laminated, two-sided document that features more than a dozen additional "unique" sushi and ippinryouri, with wacky names like "Halloween" and wacky ingredients such as mozzarella (from the fusion school that Slow Food movement founder Carlo Petrini likes to call "con-fusion"). There must be a computer program that can take these figures and calculate the number of different combinations possible. Billions, I'm sure.
I didn't set off that night knowing I'd end up at Kabuto A&S. My friends Britta and Sean, brand-new parents of baby girl Asta (named for the filmmaker Asta Nielsen), wanted dinner within stroller-walking distance of their apartment, and I'd come prepared with a few suggestions, chosen strictly for proximity. As soon as I said "Kabuto," the decision was made: "We love Kabuto!" And nearly as quickly, we were out the door.
It was a Friday night, fairly early, but there was already a knot of hungry aspirants outside who'd added their names to the sign-up sheet. "It never used to be like this when they were across the street," Sean said, gesturing to a storefront directly across Geary. "It was much larger." I figured the place must really be good, because nobody disappeared from the cluster, despite a wait that stretched to 45 minutes.
Eventually we were tucked into a table for four, the one closest to the back kitchen, and perusing the daunting menus. (A beverage menu features a couple dozen brands of cold sake, numbered according to their relative dryness.) Britta and Sean wanted some favorites: miso soup (it was a chilly night); oshinko, which are assorted vegetable pickles; and pira-kara nasu, a hot eggplant dish. We chose several sushi and a couple of makimono, and steamed asari sakamushi clams, and grilled yellowtail collar, and, what the hell, the only lamb dish on the menu, called grilled lamb ribs. And edamame. And fried shishito peppers. And sea snails. And a green salad.
As soon as I tasted the green salad and the miso soup, I was excited: These weren't assembly-line dishes, sent out carelessly before the main event, which happens even in otherwise good sushi places. They were thoughtfully prepared. My excitement continued through the cooked dishes: the delicate little asari clams in their fragrant sake-scented broth, the crunchy peppers, the spicy grilled Japanese eggplant. The sea snails were the biggest ones I'd ever seen, baby-fist-size, served two on a plate, topped with a chopped garlic butter that referenced the classic French escargot butter without duplicating it: tender, utterly delicious, and large enough so that we each got a couple of bites. (I realized later that the small sea snails I'd expected were filed under cold ippinryouri. Easy to miss when you're looking through a couple hundred possibilities.) The only disappointing dish in this first go-round was the lamb (I should have known better); from the name, I anticipated tiny, crackling bits of meat clinging to the bones of what were marketed as "lamb riblets," but it turned out to be one rare rib lamb chop slicked with a too-sweet honey miso sauce, rather a bad buy at $7.
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