The first thing I heard one recent evening when I stepped into Flying Kamikazes, a new sushi restaurant in the Marina, was not the hostess saying hello before leading us straight to a table in the back dining room. It was the Bay City Rollers — the ultimate teeny-bopper band of the 1970s — singing their dizzy little hit “Saturday Night.”
“So,” I thought, “they mean it about 'rock 'n' roll sushi,' the tag appearing on all menus; and they must be confident about the food if they're willing to regale patrons with that song.” The Rollers segued smoothly into the Beatles (“Come Together”) and then some Pink Floyd song, and I found myself humming along. The music was loud enough to have real timbre, but not so loud as to call attention to itself or make conversation difficult. And there weren't any commercials, or absurdly chatty DJs.
My friend the sushi connoisseur has no use for rock music, let alone the Bay City Rollers, and I had invited him to come along without making full disclosure about possible aural dangers. “New place,” I said perfunctorily. “Don't know much about it.”
A moment after we were seated, he glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the nearest speaker, as if with one piercing look he might silence it. Then a glance at me before a resigned shrug, and a long discussion about the menu.
Flying Kamikazes is like the Hard Rock Cafe, except with a certain Day-Glo style instead of kitsch (spot lighting, exposed brick, clear primary colors), and sushi instead of burgers. Excellent sushi, in fact: We agreed, after demolishing a couple of plattersful, that the food was considerably better than most sushi places and as good as Hamano Sushi, our shared point of reference in Noe Valley. Rock 'n' roll sushi sounded like a bit of a gimmick going in, but we were believers on the way out: The place is serious about fresh, inventive food, professional service, and fair pricing. And the music got steadily better, at least for me; I frequently found myself humming along, or (more embarrassing) mouthing the words, often inaccurately.
Not the connoisseur; he was busy analyzing the menu. “Whimsical,” he pronounced the specialty rolls, many of which have cute names like 49er and Steiner and include such un-Japanese ingredients as Philly cream cheese, lox, and avocado. They might have been whimsical before they arrived, but they were delicious once we started on them: beautifully sweet slices of fresh fish, wittily trimmed with various cheerful garnishes.
The rainbow roll ($9.50), for instance, consisted of a neat row of fish pieces — purplish tuna shading into creamy yellowtail punctuated by the flaming-orange comma of a prawn — arrayed atop chunks of cucumber and avocado, all of it wrapped in seaweed, the phyllo of Japanese cooking.
The Three Amigos roll ($8.50) gathered tuna, yellowtail, and eel, along with garnishes of cucumber, avocado, and wasabi (the hot mustard that looks like guacamole), within little disks of white rice. The crawfish handroll ($3.75) was a chubby megaphone of seaweed stuffed with soft-shell crawfish and tobiko, the red-orange fish roe; we ate it so fast we immediately ordered another. And the signature Flying Kamikaze roll ($9.50) wrapped slices of albacore around a pungent filling of asparagus.
The rolls were as much about color and texture on the tongue as about flavor; they drew a good bit of the latter from the dipping sauce — a base of soy sauce into which one mixed to taste hot mustard and shreds of pickled ginger. The spicy sweetness of the ginger cushioned the mustard's heat and the soy's salt, and the overall effect was a formidable one the rolls soaked up like sponges.
The small plates had more distinct identities. Crunchy fried rock shrimp and calamari with pungent, aromatic daikon ponzu sauce ($6.75) featured calamari rings that were slightly crisp, though unbreaded, on the outside while meltingly tender within. (I kept expecting a tough one that never came.) The fresh ahi and hamachi potstickers with chili soy vinegar sauce ($5.95) were satisfyingly fat and meaty. And the Hawaiian poke-style ahi with cucumber ($8.95) was perfectly seared and tender, almost like filet mignon. All the small plates were garnished with colorful beds of shredded vegetables and lettuces that were convenient for mopping up the remains of the sauces.
The nigiri sushi — the traditional, simple cuts of raw fish — were the last items to reach the table, as our waitress had forecast.
Connoisseur had warned that the sea urchin ($4.50) was not for the faint of heart. “It's pasty,” he cautioned. And he wasn't kidding; it looked like cayenne whipped cream, holding a stiff peak above the edges of its seaweed barrel. But the flavor was mild, just faintly oceanic and salty, with a creamy richness that didn't dawdle on the tongue.
Both the tuna ($3.25) and the yellowtail ($3.25) were mild: What I most noticed about them, apart from the difference in color, was their absolute freshness: not a whiff of fishy or ammonic or otherwise off odors. They tasted clean.
We talked lazily and watched the place fill up in what seemed like a few moments: group after group of astonishingly good-looking people, Gen-Xers who were post-preps with jobs instead of slackers with ripped-out knees in their jeans; people who had some money and style and discernment. They lent the restaurant a friendly, low-key glamour. Like the rest of us, the connoisseur was impressed — with the food if not the soundtrack (more Beatles, a couple of Stones tracks from the '70s: good tunes, but nasty reminders of high school. Next to smell, pop music must be the most powerful trigger of memory). My other friend, who went in with the gravest misgivings about sushi generally, allowed that he would be happy to return, if only for a few more crawfish rolls, and maybe a little Def Leppard, or Foghat. No extra charge.
Flying Kamikazes, 3339 Steiner, S.F., 567-4903. Mon-Thurs 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Fri & Sat 5:30-11 p.m.; Sun 5-10 p.m.