Dinner and a Show

The food duels with presentation at the best little sushi house in San Francisco

With dozens and dozens of sushi bars in this hungry city — it seems that the sushi bar has overtaken the cocktail bar in numbers — I still hadn't found my raw-fish nirvana. I'd had memorable dinners at Kabuto A&S, Kyo-Ya, Midori Mushi, and Ino, but Kabuto has new owners, Kyo-Ya is pricey and its rooms somewhat charmless, Midori Mushi no longer exists, and Ino, though I love its classic approach, never inspired me to linger. A recent excursion with my friend Peter, who has a prodigious and eclectic sushi appetite, was pretty much a disaster: The rock soundtrack was painfully loud; the young, highly styled sushi chefs (a man and a woman who looked like especially chic hairstylists) turned out slightly clumsy nigiri sushi and flavorless rolls behind a smeary glass counter exposing carelessly stacked chunks of fish. And the tariff was high.

I'd heard whispers about a tiny, eccentric one-man sushi place on the edge of Japantown. The neat, modern, clean white boxy room on the ground floor of a contemporary apartment block looks nothing like the classic woody Japanese restaurant, save for the angled five-seat light-wood sushi bar fitted into one corner of the room, behind which is the entirely open kitchen. There are three white-linened tables: two for couples, and a third that can seat four. The decor is limited to an elegant flower display near the front door; another arrangement, perhaps of grasses and a pearly abalone shell, in a wall niche behind the bar; and a display of sake bottles on a sideboard tucked behind the tables.

I'd come alone, early on a weekend night, for my reserved seat at the sushi bar. All five places were carefully set with square stoneware plates and chopsticks laid reverentially on holders shaped like tiny fish. I was brought a hot and moist rolled towel, which refreshed me before I studied the not terribly helpful two-page menu. There was a page of about a dozen appetizers, some familiar (the steamed custard called chawan mushi, deep-fried tofu), some not (mushi-uni and shira-ae, steamed sea urchin and greens); a brief list of sashimi options (two chef's choice plates, hamachi, maguro); two soups; and four "entrees" called "assorted sushi," "chef's special assorted sushi," "assorted sashimi," and "chef's special assorted sashimi," with no specifics. There was a tiny handwritten page of specials, entirely in Japanese. The usual long list of seafood options for sushi and sashimi was nowhere to be found; the day's catch was laid out in front of me, behind immaculate glass, in appetizing chunks and slabs, some silvery, some pink, some white.

Kiss is a one-man band.
James Sanders
Kiss is a one-man band.

Location Info

Map

Kiss Seafood

1700 Laguna
San Francisco, CA 94115

Category: Restaurant > Japanese

Region: Japantown/Pacific Heights

Details

474-2866

Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.

closed Monday, and first Sunday of the month

Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 2, 3, 4, 1, 31, 38. Noise level: low.

Chef's omakase dinner $42

Chef's special omakase dinner $60

Dried shrimp and spinach salad $4.50

Chawan mushi $5

Sashimi plate $18, $28

Assorted sushi plate $30, $38

Urakasumi sake$7

1700 Laguna (at Sutter)

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I took the easy way out, and ordered the first and cheaper of two "omakase" options ("five or six kinds of chef's recommended plates including sashimi and sushi"), and asked for a suggestion for a fragrant sake from the list of about two dozen options, listed simply by name. I was given an icy blue-striped glass filled nearly to the brim with Hakkaisan, at $11.50 one of the mid-range options (prices run from $5.50 to $40 a glass), by the courteous sole lady server.

The proprietor and chef, addressed by others at the bar as Naka-san, placed a small blue ceramic bowl on the raised shelf that contained a cold, tangy salad of mixed julienned root vegetables, seaweed, and beans.

As I enjoyed the mingled crunch and sliver, I watched as Naka-san moved between his open kitchen (a four-burner stainless steel range, a refrigerator that opened frequently to reveal stacks of boxes and bowls, the mise en place of a day's work), and the sushi bar, stirring a saucepan, checking a deep-frier, slicing his fish, shaping the sushi rice with deliberate, unhurried, graceful gestures. I was enjoying the show, especially his beautiful knife work, almost as much as I was my food. Even the way he placed the plates on top of the glass fish case was thoughtful, as in a tea ceremony, but never precious. After the salad came one of the best noodle dishes ever: thin hot rice noodles dabbed with a bit of thick miso paste and topped with a towering cold thatch of hairlike crunchy vegetables dressed with a sharp vinaigrette. The heat against the chill, the smooth against the crisp, was delightful. Then there was deep-fried squid served in a bit of broth; chawan mushi with chunks of fish and smooth-textured gingko nuts hidden in the custard; a sashimi plate with seven varieties of fish and shellfish exquisitely chosen and arranged for differences of color and texture, followed by four assorted nigiri sushi. After these came a smoky miso soup full of tiny mushrooms that I was too sated to appreciate, and then a wedge of honeydew melon cut into chunks, whose cool sweetness perked me up a bit.

When I lived in Los Angeles, there was a one-man sushi place called Ginza Sushiko whose omakase meal ran $250 a person. I never ate there (and now that it has moved to New York, been renamed Masa, and offers omakase meals from $300 to $500 a person, it looks like I never will). But the experience that I had at Kiss felt eerily like what I had read about Ginza: delicious dishes prepared and proffered by a master, each course served on different pottery, in a ritual succession of flavors and textures (minus some extravagant ingredients such as caviar and bits of gold leaf). And all this for the princely sum of $42.

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