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Hard-Core Sushi 

Sebo raises the bar for quality and variety

Wednesday, Aug 1 2007
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Sushi bars fall into two rough categories. Some put the emphasis on the bar, with loud music, louder customers, fusion-y hand rolls with silly names, wisecracking chefs in tasteless T-shirts, and tabs where the booze adds up to more than the fish. A classic exemplar of that style was Midori Mushi, which had a very popular run on Grove Street before closing a couple of years ago.

At the other end of the spectrum, it's all about the fish. The most extreme current example of that style is Sebo, opened last year by Michael Black and Danny Dunham, the former chefs (though not owners) of Midori. Before that, Black helped set up and worked the raw bar at House in the Sunset.

For maximum quality, the fish is flown in daily, mostly from Japan. It's almost all wild, though that's noted on the menu only in the case of items that are typically farmed. For maximum variety, the restaurant has standing orders at markets around Japan for rarely available items, such as wild Hokkaido scallops, or anything of extraordinary quality. Consequently, the chefs regularly get obscure delicacies they've never seen before, and their supplier gets on the phone to top sushi chefs in Japan for advice on how best to prepare them.

Sebo is more sedate than Midori was, but it's not at all stuffy. The decor runs to glossy dark wood, subdued reds and greens, and backlit rice-paper panels. A skylight over the bar provides lovely natural light earlier in the evening this time of year. Seats are comfortable and the music is lively but quiet.

Put that all together and you've got the kind of hard-core sushi extravaganza people used to complain you could only get at the other end of a long plane ride. Such quality and variety mean Sebo's more expensive than your average neighborhood sushi joint — most nigiri cost $6 to $8 per pair, and they're smaller than elsewhere — but it's still affordable compared to more upscale places. On one visit, we ordered omakase — that is, let the chef decide — and the tab before drinks was a surprisingly reasonable $30 a head. On another visit, we ordered whatever looked good without paying attention to the prices, and the tab before drinks came to $50 a person — not bad at all given the quality.

Putting yourselves in the hands of the chef means you'll get a well-considered sequence of dishes, building from simpler dishes with restrained flavors to bolder, more highly seasoned ones. Our omakase meal started with two beautiful lacquered bowls with three kinds of sashimi, all pale white, served on a whole shizo leaf and thinly sliced cucumber, garnished with radish sprouts. There were thinly sliced strips of firm, delicate plaice (ishigarei) rolled into the shape of a flower bud, from which we peeled off petals; a wild Hokkaido scallop (hotategai), cut into four blocks, sweet with a hint of seaweed; and surf clam (aoyagi), very thin, firm, chewy, and briny.

Next up was sunomono, a salad of long, thin strips of big-fin reef squid (aori ika) and cucumber on a bed of sushi rice. This presented a great contrast of textures and flavors: soft salmon roe, chewy squid, crunchy cucumber, crunchier flying fish roe, and nutty black sesame.

Then out came a handmade, beautifully glazed, long rectangular plate with two rows of six nigiri in a progression from milder to stronger flavors: big-eye tuna, delicate red meat; amberjack, similarly delicate white meat; striped jack, like the amberjack but more flavorful; giant clam, a bigger, stronger-tasting cousin of the surf clam; horse mackerel, the most delicious blue fish I'd ever had — the chefs cut the fish and salt it whole for less than an hour; and finally sardine, even better than the mackerel, prepared the same way but salted for only five minutes. This plate also included a dollop of real wasabi paste made from fresh wasabi roots (most sushi bars use an imitation made from powdered horseradish, mustard, starch, and green dye). The chef said they import the paste from Japan, since importing whole roots is prohibitively expensive and the wasabi grown in the U.S. doesn't have the same flavor.

The fourth course was a loose, sloppy roll not on the menu: a wide, shallow cylinder of nori (the seaweed wrapper used in maki rolls), with a thin layer of sushi rice plugging the base, topped with a soupy mix of monkfish liver (ankimo), chopped fish, and who knows what else. There was no way to pick the thing up or split it in two — how do we eat this, we asked the chef? "Just dig in." So we went at the thing with our chopsticks, like crows fighting over a piece of food.

We asked about some interesting-looking sauce the chef was dabbing from a small bottle with a Japanese label onto another customer's nigiri, so he made us a pair, too. This tasty treat turned out to be blue-banded sprat (kibinago), a little anchovy-like fish, with a dollop of yuzu kosho, a condiment made of yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit), chile peppers, and salt. And that was it: We'd had our eyes on another item in the cooler, but were too full to continue.

On my other visit, when we ordered à la carte, the highlight was Hokkaido sea urchin (uni). This was a revelation, far sweeter and more delicate than I've encountered elsewhere. Much the same went for the wild Japanese freshwater and saltwater eel (unagi and anago). A slightly different sunomono had the squid cut into wide strips that highlighted its startling creaminess, some chewy tentacles (tricky to eat), and lots of salt plum (ume). After eating one of the few cooked items, ayu shioyaki, a whole freshwater sweetfish salted and grilled with its innards left in (the chef offered to clean it, of course), I finally understand what the Iron Chef judges meant all those times they talked about "subtle bitterness."

Sebo's as hard-core about sake as it is about fish. The short, all-Japanese list is curated by Beau Timken, proprietor of True Sake across the street at 560 Hayes, the only store in the world that sells nothing but sake. His descriptions are as over-the-top as any wine writer's — Narutotai Beau-Shu has "a nose of strawberry, watermelon, sweet rice, and cinnamon" — but, in fact, some of the obscure sakes he imports have far more depth and complexity than I've encountered previously, and I did smell and taste some of those notes. Stop by True Sake (open noon to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday) for a free flier that briefly explains the various types of sake and some of the geeky terms used in Sebo's list.

Following Timken's advice, Sebo's sakes are, unless you insist otherwise, served just slightly cool for maximum flavor. When we went the omakase route, the chef paired six sakes to follow the progression of the meal, which was great fun and educational — as well as enough alcohol to mandate public transportation or a designated driver.

There's only one thing wrong with Sebo: I'm never going to be happy with my local sushi joint again. Not unless they just received a shipment from Japan.

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Robert Lauriston

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