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Funky Maki 

Biiru Biru

Wednesday, Dec 20 2000
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One night my friend Chloe and I decided to make fresh pasta. The thing I love about Chloe is that she's willing to do these kind of things, and the thing I love about doing these kind of things (such as making pasta) is the experimental, mad science aspect of it -- there we were, with semolina flour and eggs, and somehow this was going to add up to something. It started with a pinch of salt, a splash of milk, and a whole lot of kneading, and before we knew it we had a ball of dry, leathery dough. We applied a rolling pin and did a bit of dough-stretching until we had sheets of fresh pasta, then we folded it and sliced it thin for fettuccine carbonara and also stuffed it with baked butternut squash for ravioli.

Then we said a prayer, cooked it all up, and sat down to dinner: Tough, seemingly glue-based ravioli; grainy fettuccine that looked like it was cut in the dark with a bread knife by a fingerless monkey, and sauce so thin even Scrooge would have objected. Of course, the beauty of science is that you get to keep trying, and so, a week later, I made another batch of carbonara, doubling the cream, the butter, and the egg, and using a higher-quality semolina (laced with pepper, for visual effect, and a teaspoon of olive oil, for texture) from Valencia Street's Lucca Delicatessen, where you can also buy the most succulent pancetta known to humankind. This time I pressed the knife through the pasta dough instead of slicing it, which helped. And while I imagine no dish could fail with that pancetta, when I tasted those springy, perfectly al dente noodles, dripping with cream and sweet pork savor, I took a step back, contemplated what I'd done, then realized: Holy shit, it worked!

Unfortunately, Chloe missed out on the pancettanara. But then, she did get to eat at Biiru Biru. Set on the corner of Balboa and Sixth Avenue, Biiru Biru is what you might call a sushi house that pushes the envelope, combining traditional nigiri, maki, and tempura with an almost cosmic brand of innovation that, when it hits, strikes clean and pure. The digs themselves are fairly modest -- a bright, storefront space wrought in crisp black and white tones, jazzed up with potted plants, a small lantern, and ruffled sheets of bronze. Meanwhile, an ever-present stream of house music announces that you will not be enjoying your grandmother's sushi, but rather the fusion-style creations of chef/proprietor Eddy Wong, a stylish fellow with a soul patch and shaved head who often mans the sushi bar himself.

The menu at Biiru Biru appears to be a single, humble sheet at first glance, but the type is small and the offerings are vast -- 13 small plates, 17 large plates, a half-dozen special maki, daily specials, nigiri, and your standard Cucumber, California, and Rainbow rolls. As Chloe and I soon learned, Mr. Wong is an unabashed worshipper in the temple of spiciness: We began with a small bowl of cabbage pickled in vinegar and hot peppers (free, and so good we requested a second portion), then felt the shimmer, Japanese style, with a wasabi-tako salad, one of the finest dishes I've had all year. Chewy, ocean-fresh bits of baby octopus mingled with diced cucumber and luminous, popcorn-crunchy tobiko, the whole bathed in a super-potent, creamy wasabi sauce that cleared the sinuses in one nibble. The volcano salad proved equally phantasmagoric: a pocket of raw tuna and avocado touched with chilies, topped with a raw quail egg, then set in a nest of super-thin, flash-fried rice noodles that crackled like a living creature right there at the table.

The bacon salmon -- skewered chunks of fish wrapped with rich, maple-syrupy, cured pig flesh -- drew this comment from Chloe: "People will like you if you serve this at your party." Indeed. But then, they may start making all sorts of crazy promises if you serve soft-shell crab à la Wong -- deep-fried crustacean halves with a delicate, tangy ponzu sauce, served with a very appropriate slice of lemon, the unusually thick, crisp batter giving way to rich, tender flesh.

Of course, sushi wouldn't be sushi without sake. Biiru has hot sake, small bottles of cold, lightly floral Ozeki dry sake, glasses of sweet Tamon sake laced with gold flakes, and milky, unfiltered sake from Berkeley's own Takara. Sushi also wouldn't be sushi without miso soup, such as the tofu miso at Biiru -- a cavernous bowl of mild broth and salty bean paste centered by four precisely cut cubes of tofu, then topped with julienned bamboo shoots, green onions, and a shiitake mushroom. For Chloe, sushi wouldn't be sushi without an unagi nigiri, bathed, in this case, with an excellent homemade unagi sauce. For me, new-school San Francisco sushi wouldn't be sushi without some funky maki.

Biiru offers six funky maki, and, as with other dishes, the presentation is gorgeous: Each roll comes neatly arranged on its own plate, graced with a fresh chrysanthemum. Since Chloe is a bit more of a sushi purist than I, she refuses to eat cream cheese maki. Me, I'll eat anything provided it's good, and the CC Maki (tough, deep-fried tuna with cream cheese, dried bonito flakes, green onions, and hot pepper) didn't qualify. The Wasachi Roll treated us better, offering a nice interplay of hamachi and fresh greens laced with tobiko and spicy wasabi sauce, while our Rock the Roll -- unagi wrapped around an avocado-tobiko maki -- suffered a bit under a chilled, overthickened unagi sauce.

Large dishes come in two shades: the trailblazing and the traditional.

In the case of the former, we sampled what sounded like the wildest ride of all -- Cajun salmon with sun-dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts. Unfortunately, this combination missed entirely, since the fish paled next to the fiery Cajun seasonings, and the tomatoes and artichokes didn't seem to belong. The more traditional grilled mackerel topped with garlic salt assaulted the palate with fishiness. Though this impression was not entirely surprising given mackerel's typically strong flavor, fresh garlic instead of garlic salt would have helped.

My advice is to stick with the excellent small dishes and salads, then finish with a sashimi combination. We enjoyed slabs of rich, gorgeously marbled salmon, tender red snapper wrapped around mint leaves, decent sea bass, melting hamachi, meaty, thin-sliced ahi, slivers of lip-smackingly pungent mackerel, and a pair of cooked shrimp touched with lemon juice. Or, if you absolutely must stuff yourself, try the nabeyaki udon: abundant ropes of my favorite Japanese noodle served in an iron hot pot with an acre's worth of sliced onions, plus two scallops, two mussels, a hulking tempura'd shrimp, julienned carrot, a shiitake, and a raw egg that dissolves instantly into tender, cooked shreds when stirred into the deeply flavorful broth.

Desserts at Biiru Biru are cheap and worthwhile. A deep-fried banana combines warm, savory fruit with a lightly bitter chocolate sauce and powdered sugar -- not the best fried banana I've ever had, but still a good one. Mochi wraps your choice of green tea or red bean ice cream with a thin, chewy skin of rice flour; it made for a simple indulgence, but also a nice contrast to the more daring (and for the most part enjoyable) creations we'd sampled during dinner.

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Greg Hugunin

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