With a staggering 4,200 Yelp reviews, Nopa is — and for the foreseeable future probably always will be — the anchor tenant for the Divisadero dining corridor. But under Yelp's pricing scheme, it's got only three dollar signs, one shy of the top tier. Until a few months ago, when Ijji Sushi opened at the southern end of the strip, Divis lacked even one four-dollar-sign eatery. But now that Ju-Ni has opened on Fulton half a block west of the strip, it has two, meaning that the street's transformation into Valencia 2.0 is really moving along. (Do regular patrons of Popeye's realize how symbolically loaded the survival of that franchise is getting?)
Ju-Ni, which means “twelve” in Japanese, refers to the $90 tasting menu of 12 nigiri (to which there are plenty of supplements), as well as to the number of seats. I haven't been to Ijji yet, but since yet another omakase — helpfully called Omakase — opened last summer in SoMa, it's worth noting the similarities. Both are small and spare: 12 seats for Ju-Ni, and 14 for Omakase, with the same minimalist Japanese décor in both. Both source a great deal of their fish from Japan, so the tasting menu can be mercurial — grim pun unintended. But Ju-Ni seats diners only twice a night, at 6 and at 8:30 p.m., and strips down the service compared to Omakase's overall plushness. (No complimentary glass of Krug served by bowing women in robes here.)
The best thing about Ju-Ni over Omakase was the light touch that the former's chef had with the torch. At least two or three times, a delicate piece of fish flown in from Hokkaido to Omakase tasted mostly like residual butane; at Ju-Ni, that didn't happen once. (I asked Chef Geoffrey Lee about his method, and his gnomic response led me to believe he wields the flame by feel, without thinking about it much. The wood he sears fish on is cedar, though.)
Beyond that achievement, the highlights were many: the baby firefly squid, the palate-cleansing white fish bone consommé, the extraordinary A5 Wagyu beef that was an 11 out of 12 on the Beef Marble Score (because Ju-Ni felt that a 12 was overdoing it), learning all about which wasabi that Chef Lee prefers. A fat pile of ikura (salmon roe) marinated in soy sauce, sake, and honey and slathered with shaved ankimo (monkfish liver, the foie gras of the sea) that's stored in a “super-freezer” to keep it chilled far below zero was by far the highlight of my night, made more so by the admonition to eat it right away, in one bite. And the Kokuryu Junmai Ginjo Black Dragon sake ($18) blew my mind with its coffee notes and surpassingly clean polish.
In my less-than-extensive, never-once-set-foot-in-Asia experience with the top end of Japanese cuisine, dessert is always the weakest link. But here there was a bulge: After devouring piece after piece of fish, I'd forgotten I'd checked off a toro hand roll ($17) on the menu. When presented with a fat cone of albacore, it felt faintly monstrous after all that came before, more super-sized than truly indulgent (although the nori had a particularly intense snap of seaweed flavor, and to be fair, it's important to leave full.) Also, as with Omakase, you do your best to savor every morsel, but it rapidly becomes impossible to remember the order of courses after awhile. You can pummel the chef with queries or construct a memory palace out of tuna and bream, but it's dizzying. Even with obsessive note taking, I still managed to miss one completely.
That may also be because I witnessed one of the strangest things I've ever seen in my life. A woman from the North Bay who claimed to be a nurse — as well as an occasional writer, “for Tim and Nina” — began talking more and more loudly. She was clearly intoxicated, demanding the names and life stories of everyone within earshot (i.e. half the restaurant) and telling us all about herself.
When closing your eyes and placing an expensive piece of uni in your mouth, you want the space to appreciate its saline richness without hearing loud whispers like, “That Pete's a tough nut to crack,” and “Hey, Pete, get off your phone!” She went on from there for almost two hours, and it wasn't at all limited to me. It was a bizarre culture clash: an Ugly American acting so boisterously that if we were on a flight she might have gotten it diverted, and Asian-American staffers determined to handle her outbursts with aplomb no matter what it took.
That was how I thought about it at the time, anyway. But in hindsight, the staff's non-intervention feels deliberate. Was it part of a gross phenomenon whereby name-dropping big spenders can misbehave in restaurants because they think they've earned the right? Rich people acting boorishly is a fact of life — but I was driven to near-total distraction while eating there, and at least five other people were cringing throughout. I don't really care who it is, letting someone — anyone — come that close to ruining an expensive dining experience for the bulk of the other patrons is unacceptable, especially when we're talking about a quiet restaurant with a glacial pace of service that's overstaffed by design with (presumably) highly trained employees.
Thus the central conundrum: I loved Ju-Ni's food but not the experience, and — assertive movie-theater shusher and Muni etiquette stickler that I am — if I'd been paying over $200 out-of-pocket, I probably would have gone supernova. Four dollar signs have arrived in the Western Addition, with everything that entails.