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Two e-mail tips lead to delectable Japanese fare

Wednesday, Dec 15 2004
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One of the questions I get asked frequently is how I choose the restaurants I go to, and beyond the obvious (covering the new places, my appetite), there's an avenue I really enjoy: following up on readers' tips. A month or so ago, after I mentioned taking my Tokyo-based friend Carl to Frisson, I received two such e-mails in a day, one right after the other, well-written little reviews that sounded sincere and appreciative. They piqued my hunger.

The first, from David Frank, began, "My wife and I stumbled upon a new restaurant in the Mission that I think is perfect to take your friend Carl to. ... I think this place is as close to a small funky Tokyo eatery as you will find in the U.S. We were shopping on Valencia between 22nd and 23rd (beads for her, CDs for me) and it was already 6:00 so we decided to have a bite before heading back down the Peninsula. There is a fairly new place called 'OZ' ... that was a winner in terms of quality and value. We lived in Tokyo for many years, so we know and love creative Japanese food. The menu is limited but they had a 'chefs special' for $20, $25, or $30. We chose the $30 course and I was impressed by the freshness and presentation of each dish. I don't remember everything we ate but we walked out stuffed -- which is unusual for a Japanese/sushi restaurant. I do remember there was an appetizer of sashimi (including monkfish) drizzled with a slightly sweet vinegar sauce and cranberries, another course of fresh sardine fried in a light tempura batter served with some type of pickled vegetables, and the dessert was melon sorbet served in the husk. ... The place is quite tiny and there was actually a line outside by the time we left at around 7:30."

I went to Oz with Robert, who used to live on its same block in the years when sit-down restaurants were thin on the ground in the Mission. It's a chic little sliver of a place, with a tiny open kitchen manned by a single chef in the back, and a row of tables clinging to its two long walls. It did feel like the Japanese restaurants you see in the movies (as close as I've come to Japan, alas). There was a couple ordering takeout at the kitchen counter and another seated opposite us. I tried to avert my eyes from the flat-screen TV hung above Robert's head, showing Sleepless in Seattle. The menu, though intriguing, was brief indeed -- only 10 fish listed under sushi and four under sashimi, for example, plus eight fusion dishes listed as tapas. There were more than a dozen special rolls, however, with unexpected ingredients such as bananas and wild carrots. We nibbled on edamame and ordered the $30 omakase, or chef's choice, menu, and the dishes started rolling out quickly.

I was completely beguiled by the first, a beautifully arranged plate described as "tuna carpaccio with spicy sauce." The tender, rosy sashimi squares were crisscrossed with thin lines of several sauces (a pale Japanese Thousand Island and a bright-red hot pepper sauce among them), and decorated with scallions, cucumber, and crunchy orange tobiko (flying fish roe). The next was described by the lone server as "Asian pizza," the name it appeared under on the menu, too, but we recognized it as okonomi-yaki, which I think of as more like a flat omelet or a frittata than a pizza. It's a crispy-edged egg pancake, in this instance delightfully full of seafood, including baby shrimp and crab, with minced mushrooms, scallions, and asparagus. After which we each received bowls of dark, unusually pungent miso soup.

Then came two plates of a popular fusion dish that I first tasted years ago, made with black cod (the usual fish) at the original Matsuhisa in Los Angeles. At Oz, the miso-glazed cod was identified as silver cod, the soft, sweet fish carefully cooked and accompanied with meaty roasted shiitake mushrooms. We each got a cone-shaped, crunchy, spicy salmon-skin roll, cutely served in martini glasses. And then came a refreshing and peppery baby shrimp salad, pale pink, heaped on butter lettuce with thin crescents of pale green avocado and darker green accents of radish shoots and herbs.

I was almost replete after the next offering, thin slices of ankimo (monkfish liver, which tastes like the foie gras of the sea), served on soup spoons with slivers of lemon and a bit of fresh dill. Yet I managed to eat the sushi that followed, the fish cut in largish slices and casually draped over the rice: salmon, hamachi (yellowtail), toro (tuna belly), and lovely uni (sea urchin).

But I was defeated both by the quantity and the flavor of the last savory dish, a special roll that our server proudly told us was invented by the chef and called "Beachy Boy" (it's Beach Boys on the menu). The roll, wrapped in unagi (barbecued eel), was an amazing mosaic of banana, avocado, asparagus, wild carrots, and cucumber, and there was a coconut-curry sauce on the side that wowed Robert, but I was put off by the banana (so was Robert) and unconvinced by the sauce.

We each got two little frozen strawberries stuffed with a substance that looked like vanilla ice cream but tasted like cheesecake, still in their wrappers, which identified them as "Strawberries Smile" and were imprinted with poetry: "Spoon it up, and the freshness of the ingredients will waft in your mouth like a cool breeze." Well, as fresh as fresh-frozen gets, that is, and they would have been better if we'd let them warm up a bit, but still, it was an amusing finale to a charming, delicious, even reasonably priced meal.

A week later, and I was ready to try the next reader-recommended Japanese neighborhood spot, based on a long encomium from Casper Oswald that began, "I can only admit that it pains me badly to give up the information that I am about to. I imagine after a review my haunt will be overcrowded and difficult to get a table at." But in San Francisco, where there are at least 120 sushi places, I don't think he really has to worry. Oswald's favorite is Amasia Hide's Sushi Bar: "Despite being open for almost two years now, it's still relatively unknown. The remarkable nature of the restaurant derives mostly from its simplicity and frankness. The atmosphere is quiet and comfortable for conversation even when full and busy. ... The proprietress' art adorns the walls, and the lighting and ambiance are subtle and quiet. ... A fine selection of very fresh and often exotic fish and other delicacies always supplements a menu that is accessible to the uninitiate or those with more conventional tastes. The quality of the food is high, with attention given even to the simplest dishes. A full and very broad selection of premium Japanese sakes is stocked (regulars are allowed to keep their own bottles on a special shelf). ... After two or three times in the restaurant you are recognized as a regular and treated to small talk and a Japanese honorific."

Mr. Oswald also mentioned the proprietress' koto, a long stringed instrument given pride of place near the entrance of the warm, big, homey square room, but we were not treated to an impromptu concert on the chilly night that Garrett, Nate, Flo, and I showed up for dinner. Nor did we sit at the sushi bar, Oswald's preference, for the suggestions and conversation of sushi chef Hide. We were tucked into a snug but comfy corner, and ordered a few starters while we perused the big, three-page menu, which included 26 different fish sushi, 10 vegetable sushi, and almost 40 different rolls. There was also a board bearing a dozen daily specials.

Here the ankimo was extraordinary -- five thickish yet delicate pink slabs perched on slivered lemon, around a heap of minced green onion. The supple gyoza (steamed dumplings) were filled with minced shrimp, and the generous bowl of hijiki (seaweed salad) was nicely seasoned. I wasn't totally wowed by either the baked mussels under a thin skein of mozzarella studded with minced vegetables or the unusual takoyaki, described as "baked wheat cakes with octopus," tiny hillocks of firm minced octopus, but each had its partisans, the mussels being Flo's favorite starter, and Garrett claiming the last takoyaki, his preferred dish.

We proceeded to a torrent of impeccably prepared and presented sushi (and a lone plate of chewy, pink-and-white octopus sashimi that was just as it should be): albacore (white tuna), saba (mackerel), maguro (pink tuna), tairagai (scallops), unagi (barbecued eel), hamachi (yellowtail), and ikura (salmon roe). We got two orders of each, two pieces per order -- between $3.25 and $3.95 -- so we could all taste everything. The kitchen didn't have our favorite toro, the succulent fatty tuna, that night. And we got a single salmon and cucumber roll, cut in six pieces, called Sake-Q, sweet, crunchy, and easy to eat.

The specials board had been taken away, and I forgot that I'd wanted to order a lobster roll from it, along with a couple of intriguing vegetable rolls (the ingen, or kidney bean, and inari, or cooked bean curd) off the regular menu. But there was already almost too much for us to eat, all of excellent quality. I should have snatched the single piece of ikura sushi that went back to the kitchen, but I couldn't have managed it. I could see why Oswald loved this place. I would be happy to be a regular here.

We lingered over a bowl of vanilla ice cream topped with dusty green tea powder and a composed cold dessert called cream Anmitsu: vanilla ice cream with slices of fresh orange, apple, litchi, a bit of Asian fruit Jell-O, a scoop of black soybeans, another of red bean jam, and, yes, a Strawberries Smile, this time minus its wrapper. It was only the second time I'd ever seen one, but now I'd know it anywhere.

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Meredith Brody

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