Izakaya Sushi Ran closed earlier this week, another casualty of the ever-challenging Castro. To brush aside that unfortunate contretemps over its allegedly anti-homeless rainbow-painted rock (which was actually a Zen garden element redecorated for Pride month), the successor to Nomica and cousin to Sausalito’s Sushi Ran likely failed because it didn’t have an elevator pitch that jived with the neighborhood’s let’s-party feel. The Castro, as a rule, does not reward complexity and nuance — and Izakaya Sushi Ran never fully coalesced around awamori, the Okinawan distilled rice spirit it hoped we’d all become fans of. (2223 Market St. is also something of a cursed space, having chewed through at least five concepts since 2011.)
But elsewhere in the city, Japanese restaurants are thriving. Omakase in particular has found a niche, with Kibatsu settling into Lower Haight and The Shota flourishing Downtown. Even non-Japanese restaurants are edging into chef’s-choice territory, with executive chef Manish Tyagi and bar manager Jeremy Harris at Civic Center contemporary Indian restaurant August (1) Five launching ATB, a $130 experience available only at the bar.
All this leaves a bit of a void at the middle level, which SoMa’s Hakashi Japanese Sushi Bar & Grill has shrewdly rushed to fill. Not everyone has the money for rarefied sushi very often — if ever — so chef and longtime Sushi Ran veteran Julio Zapata has expanded from that starting point, in several directions. The most salient is cost: Hakashi is quite affordable, with a chirashi (a “scattered” bowl of sashimi-style fish over rice) that’s high on fish and low on vegetables topping out at $25. And a plate of pork gyoza is a mere $7. Second, SoMa being home to many thousands of people who have money to burn (relatively speaking) at lunch, Hakashi is open for lunch as opposed to just dinner.
That’s a sensible move. And honestly, do we really need more ultraluxe restaurants that are open only for five hours, five nights a week? In the aggregate, they’re starting to feel like a failure of urbanism. It’s on a lunch-centric block, too, almost flush with I-80 and next to the abominably named DarTEAling Lounge but across from Garaje, La Briciola, and Picnic on Third.
Lunch or dinner, casualness pervades. The floor is herringbone and lounge-y, black leather couches occupy one corner, but Hakashi is less about ballet service or smoke-filled cloche domes and more about a server refilling every water glass in the room at one pass. This is a good thing: If you leave work with a craving for top-quality fish without all the trappings, there aren’t enough places like this. (There should be more places like this.)
In all, it’s less a highbrow sushi restaurant with miraculous prices than a regular lunch place with an excellent chef’s counter. Depending on the day, if you sit there, you might receive a portion of fish without a word of explanation or you might be indulged with thorough explanations. One time, Zapata started explaining how he uses the break between shifts to make a quick airport run and buy fish and I started to think I was about to learn some genuine state secrets, but then he suddenly grew reticent, as if I had been sent by Mr. Slugworth to pocket an experimental Everlasting Gobstopper.
Everything starts with miso soup, of course, still the best thing ever invented to jolt the palate awake. Ordering bonito and ocean trout and giving the chef free rein to pick another two, I wound up with a manila clam in a snappy broth, a perfectly good bonito, then the trout with a dab of yuzu skin and shishito that had marinated into the perfect synthesis. Golden eye snapper followed, as did salmon belly cured in soy sauce. Hot on the heels of that, the kitchen ejected a terrific oyako-don, a mix of chicken, vegetables, and egg with dashi over rice. It’s basically a restrained sisig without the sizzling bowl. Hakashi has sake flights and fruit-forward cocktails along with the standard complement of Japanese beers, but it’s hard to envision that end of things taking off too much. This is a lunch place in a lunch part of town. It’s only that it feels as good as dinner.
Hakashi Japanese Sushi Bar and Grill, 474 Third St., 415-872-9589 or hakashisushi.com