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.
The pricey sushi (which ranges from $2 to $5 per piece, and we ordered three of each kind we tried) was as simple and as good as any I'd ever had: impeccably fresh, carefully sliced, on rice that managed to be both fluffy and firm. Kabuto's list is the kind that encourages compare and contrast, since there are five different tunas, three different crabs, three mackerels, six roes, six clams. There wasn't a loser among anything we chose, but our favorites included the shiro maguro (velvety white tuna, which we preferred to the more expensive, famously buttery toro, to our surprise), lush shima aji (amberjack) imported from Japan, chewy white hirami (fluke), ivory discs of sweet hotate (scallops), oily saba (mackerel), miso-bathed unagi (freshwater eel), and the most delicious, fragile uni (sea urchin), like fairy scrambled eggs. (We also tried the hand-ground hon wasabi, a bargain for the curious -- only 50 cents! -- but virtually indistinguishable from the free commercial product.)
We ordered seconds of uni and eel for our next go-round, plus a few items from the laminated menu of goofy dishes, which were too goofy for us, as it turned out. The Halloween number -- a handsome molded column of rice, Japanese pumpkin, and chopped shrimp and scallops muddied with mustard sauce -- was forgettable, and the Sushi Mozzarella, in fact a mozzarella-topped casserole of red snapper, tasted like a bland, wan attempt to disguise leftovers. We were too stuffed to do more than glance at the last menu of the evening, desserts, which included the expected green tea and red bean ice creams as well as some more unusual treats (deep-fried tempura ice cream, hot red bean soup with soft rice cakes).
Since Kabuto A&S had become one of my favorite restaurants after a single meal, I decided it was the right place to take Tommy, who had been singularly unlucky on the previous two occasions we'd dined together. I wasn't prepared to wait, however (it was a very chilly night), so we met there at 5:30, when the place opened, and got a snug table for two in the corner. We may have had an even better meal this time: From my first taste of the first dish (fried baby octopus on a bed of lightly dressed salad, which served as a fresh, tangy foil to the crunchy little beasts) I relaxed and smugly told Tommy that this meal would absolve me of any guilt I felt. The chawan mushi (steamed custard with leeks, small white nameko mushrooms, and pink shrimp hiding in its depths) was so good he wanted to know what it was called, so he could have it again. Big, grilled, spicy mussels were tasty under a mayonnaisey sauce (though not very spicy). The sushi was so flawless I think you could point blindly at anything on the list and be assured that it would be the best of its kind (though it's true I was flummoxed by a mushy sea eel, and learned that Dungeness crab makes boring sushi). The only disappointing dishes were, surprisingly, a plate of not-very-crisp tempura (better-made at any number of low-rent Japanese restaurants, and odd coming after the excellent fried octopus) and an unappealing cut of grilled, too-sweet marinated black cod (though we enjoyed its sides of cold omelet, steamed spinach sprinkled with bonito flakes, and pumpkin).
As we lingered over a delightful dessert called ogura cream anmitsu, ice cream and red bean paste in sweet syrup studded with cubes of clear jelly and sliced orange, apple, and banana, I asked our server why Kabuto A&S had moved from its original, larger location after more than 20 years there. "Well," she said, "now we own the building." I was happy to hear it.