At The Shota, Subtlety and Restraint Define a New Omakase Experience

The pleasures of Chef Ingi “Shota” Son's tasting menu might be experienced best all by yourself.

Miso-sake marinated black cod with Japanese mushrooms, cauliflower puree, and fried quinoa.Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane

The most fabulous object in the world, per Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, is a lump of Evil emitting yellow smoke inside a toaster oven. But at The Shota, on the ground floor of a 1912 office building that was once the headquarters for Standard Oil, it is a blue, polished agate coaster upon which a series of sake cups rests. That coaster beats out other accouterments, from the pair of chopsticks you pick out of a case to the young and old ginger to the bell jar full of applewood smoke that announces the arrival of the ocean trout sashimi, with its orderly trio of mustard, wasabi, and chrysanthemum.

San Francisco has slowly filled with omakase restaurants, but chef-owner Ingi “Shota” Son’s FiDi counter — housed, helpfully enough, in the former City Counter space at 115 Sansome St. — has little energy to spare on theatrics or excess. There is some ostentation, although it’s aesthetically unified with the fish itself, flown from Toyosu Market in Tokyo, the replacement for the famed Tsukiji that closed last October after more than eight decades.

The Shota’s generous team-style service and superb pacing should impress any nitpickers, and this is the rare upscale restaurant that might actually be better experienced as a solo diner. These are not chefs who entertain with flashy knife skills. Maybe they’ll elaborate upon the differences between the white and red sushi rice, but it doesn’t get much showier. If you bring a date and they absorb your attention, you’re going to miss a lot.

The omakase tasting menu is $150, with an optional $80 sake pairing (on Fridays and Saturdays, a tea expert offers a tea pairing as well). There’s arguably an over-reliance on the spark of yuzu, but the only real letdowns may be the first two bites. One of them is a sea-urchin pâté that misaligns the creaminess of Hokkaido uni and foie gras with a spongy, cardboard-y sandwich that tastes as stale as a cheap ice-cream cone — and especially out of sorts with the golden sphere it’s served in and which you partially unwrap yourself. The other is a flavorless piece of snow crab in an otherwise warming enoki-mushroom egg custard.

The uni returns near the end, though, in a purer nigiri form.

In between, you’ll have your tea attentively refilled as diligent (but never intrusive) servers shuttle about in something of a wave formation, in concert with the three chefs. That snapper sushi (ji-kinmedai) almost gets lost between the delicately salted sea scallop nigiri (hotate) with a touch of sour orange and the cold-smoked trout (sakura masu). Three pieces of tuna feel like a masterclass in that fish, and if you’ve always been partial to fatty otoro, this might be the moment when you truly grasp the appeal of an almost beefy akami. This much must be said: Bluefin is not a sustainable fish, but conservation efforts have helped its recovery, and it’s begun reappearing in California waters, too. Do as you feel you ought.

Tktk. Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane

Other delights abound, particularly among sakes like a Yaguriyama “Master’s Touch” that’s served in a wine glass seems to mature as you sip it. Taking a quick breather, a chef might demonstrate the various cuts with the help of a 3D model of a tuna. Then it’s time black cod, with a nutty cauliflower puree and toasted quinoa puffs that feel more integral than they sound.

Spanish mackerel (sawara) would usually be among the more objectionable fish on grounds of taste, but this piece of nigiri isn’t salty at all. Anago, or sea eel, is sweet and lovely even if it lacks the fattiness of most unagi. It’s a testament to The Shota’s sense of balance and proportion that a mug of akadashi broth with gently numbing sansho pepper feels appropriate after so many savory courses, and even something that can be as downright boring as matcha ice cream feels sexy and new again with a cup of unfiltered, yogurt-like Yamaguchi Shuzojo sake.

Although I was sympathetic to what City Counter wanted its patrons to get out of it, it’s undeniable that the spare, white-tiled room works better for a front-facing sushi chef than as an update of a mid-century diner. (Minimalism might be the language of gentrification, but minimalism is also the grammar of omakase.)

The biggest problem that The Shota faces is one not of its own making. The Treasury, a bar on the opposite corner of the building’s ground floor, is lively and the atrium’s tile floor makes the ambient sound intrude. The retail-techno that The Shota plays to compensate is at exactly the right level, but it might drown out the more soft-spoken workers. A later seating should obviate this. What will also help is some Tokubetsu Kimoto, a sake produced by collecting the drips from a large basin and only put into 1,000 bottles per year. Served hot, it will continue to warm you even as it cools.

This past week, a few people have asked me about something, so I feel the need to address it head-on. For the record: I have not, nor will I in the future, ever patronize, praise, or review a restaurant whose chef, management, or ownership faces remotely credible accusations of sexual misconduct or harassment. Nor would I eat at, talk up, or write about restaurants with credible accusations of stealing wages or tips from their staff. Crowing about doing the right thing does not come naturally to me, plus I would much rather write about something than write about how I write about something. But I agree that it’s more responsible to make explicit a point that I’ve always treated as a given. There are more than enough other wonderful places to eat without having to indulge awful people.

The Shota, 115 Sansome St., 628-224-2074 or theshotasf.com

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