Yojimbo in Alameda is a Japanese restaurant named for a 1961 Akira Kurosawa film about a nameless samurai, and its rooms are filled with original artwork and images from Studio Ghibli. Home to bento boxes, ramen, and hefty portions of tempura, it’s one of the island’s classics — but it only serves beer, sake, and wine. At Kaiyo in Cow Hollow, the anime has largely migrated off the walls — with the exception of the dizzyingly cool restrooms — and into the drinks, with fairly brilliant cocktails like the Cowboy Bebop and the Samurai Who Smells of Sunflowers.
From those bathroom walls alone, you can glean that it’s a project by John Park, whose bars include the aesthetically cohesive Novela in SoMa and the more intensely art-directed Whitechapel in the Tenderloin. The concept works very well. Kaiyo, which is Japanese for ocean, bridges the Pacific to bring together the flavors of Peru and Japan, and even though Nikkei cuisine is a well-trod path, it demonstrates that that flavor nexus remains the best strain of Asian-fusion out there (probably because it’s organic, and wasn’t invented in the U.S. sometime in the 1990s).
Unlike, say, the more quietly ambitious Alma Cocina on 24th Street, Kaiyo doesn’t seem to want to be a neighborhood restaurant. It’s hip, but not too hip for its own good, since the execution is generally sterling — and also there is no ramen. What there is instead are plenty of rolls, some nigiri and sashimi, some izayaka dishes, and some artful takes on Peruvian classics, including an exceptional pollo a la brasa.
There are no pisco sours — not even a pisco punch, nominally San Francisco’s official drink. Rather, adventurous ingredients you’d expect to see originate in the kitchen pop up at the bar. Start with that Cowboy Bebop ($14). Made from Pisco Porton Acholado, a blend from the most august pisco house in the Western Hemisphere, it’s a sort of jaggedly asymmetrical wonder, honeyed and milky from the maiz cream, but sharpened with both lime and from the black salt spackled to half the rim. Or go with the Adventures in the Kanto Region ($14), made from calvados, suze, Laphroaig, and lucuma, a fruit that looks like a mango but tastes more like a sweet potato. (It’s garnished with a gooseberry, held aloft by its papery, tomatillo-like outer hull.) They’re impressive drinks, all right — and the lucuma may reappear at the end of the meal, in an airy chocolate cheesecake.
You can skip the overly gilded oysters on the half shell ($3.50 each) and probably ignore most of the rolls, too, since they don’t venture too far from the expected. But only do so in favor of subtler dishes like a black sea bream sashimi ($18 for three pieces), or else a terrific Hokkaido scallop tiradito ($18), a fragile ceviche-style preparation brightened with passionfruit tiger milk and the always-beguiling texture of chia seeds then goes on to melt in the mouth. Then there’s the anticuchos, skewered meats that include some fortifying corazon pieces ($14) that were ultimately a vehicle for chimichurri,
If you’re a sea-urchin fan, there’s uni aplenty, such as another three-piece sashimi with a spoon of caviar ($19) — a surer bet than the uni toast ($18), opulent and generously portioned but with regrettably stale bread on one visit. As Rebecca Mead wrote in The New Yorker this summer, the people of the subarctic Faroe Islands detest uni and their children throw it at each other for the splat sound, but Kaiyo keeps its sight trained sensibly on the delights of the sea. This might be one time to ditch the bread.
Chef Michelle Matthews’ bigger dishes are the more thrilling. A bowl of lobster rice ($21) topped with shredded seaweed was hot and spicy, with plenty of roe in there and lots of rice sticking to the bottom, in good nurungji (or socarrat) style. And the pollo a la brasa ($30) was expertly done, two pieces each of white and dark meat under some braised green onions and with plenty of aji amarillo to slather on it. Several of the sides are very good, too, although it’s not easy to determine what they should accompany — if anything. A cone of battered rock shrimp with lime was fine enough on its own, but the mushroom trio, while lovely, was a little too sweet to complement teither he chicken or the lobster rice.
Like a sort of Peruvian shepherd’s pie topped with a deconstructed salad nicoise, the causa limena ($17) was a stealth hit. As a potato medley, it threw me off a little, since its texture and shape looked unnervingly like something I remember serving in vast quantities at catered benefit dinners, but that was a totally inaccurate impression. A cold take on a papa a la huancaína, or a potato in a sort of potato sauce, it’s delicious. But the agreed-upon favorite was the Japanese mentaiko pasta ($18), a sensation of clams and pork and roe with plenty of parmesan to bind it into a creamy, spicy, and wonderfully fishy bowl of goodness. That’s the one to go back to Kaiyo for, specifically.
While the green lighting elements are arguably neither attractive nor appetizing, Kaiyo could probably dial back the use of edible flowers, and the TVs are incongruously sports bar-ish — it’s Cow Hollow, I know — Matthews’ overall aesthetic is sharp. Food looks right in the serving vessels, and plates shine against the underlying surfaces, particularly the bar. Possibly the strangest thing about the menu at Kaiyo, at least when you’re ordering multiple plates to share, is that it feels almost as if you should thumb through it from back to front. But if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, sometimes you have to behold things a little differently.
Kaiyo, 1838 Union St., 415-525-4804 or kaiyosf.com