San Franciscans love to wait in lines: The oft-repeated phrase is a joke, a Tumblr blog, a cliché people point to when they want to talk about the frivolity of the local food scene and the people in it. But of course it's a lie — no one, not even the most fervent San Francisco foodie, actually likes to wait in line. If you went to the legions camped out in front of State Bird Provisions every night and offered them a table immediately, not one would ask you to come check with them again in 45 minutes to an hour.
Ichi Sushi, the little restaurant down where the Mission meets Bernal Heights, is one of those places where people used to wait upwards of an hour outside in the cold for a spot at its excellent sushi bar. They're still waiting, but now in more comfortable environs. When expanding to a new, larger space across the street, owners Tim and Erin Archuleta confronted the issue head-on by building a bar inside the restaurant (called Ni, or "two" to Ichi's "one") to tame the hungry hordes. Ni Bar serves warm izakaya food like meat skewers and clams with miso and ground pork, salty snacks that go well with beer. The new space is still coming into its own, but once it establishes its own identity, Ni Bar is bound to become not only a staging ground for the sushi bar's omakase, but a destination in its own right.
Izakayas are more casual Japanese restaurant-bar hybrids where patrons can loosen their ties, drink sake, and eat small bites — they're the spiritual cousin of tapas bars — and the Archuletas designed Ni Bar to function as its own separate experience as well as a holding pen for waiting diners. Right now, its spare space at the back corner of the restaurant doesn't feel especially distinct from the front room, though you could easily make a meal from the bar's menu alone. There's some crudo — sashimi, oysters on the half shell, and chilled Tiger prawns — though no nigiri, as to not tax the sushi chefs with too much prep work. But that's fine — the warm, heartier dishes are reward in themselves, and represent a new era for Ichi, whose previous incarnation didn't have a proper kitchen.
It's worth a visit just to try the yakitori, little meaty bombs of umami ($3.50-$3.75). The beef skewers were intensely citrusy at first, followed by a hint of spice, while the chicken version was spread with a salty paste heavy on soy and chili. The best were the juicy pork skewers spread with miso and dusted with chili flakes that enhanced the meat's sweetness.
Other bites were more subtle but not less satisfying. Chicken wings ($9.50) didn't have much flavor by themselves — or maybe my palate was blown out from the preceding skewers — but had a crisp, smooth crust that trapped the large wings' juices. Marinated grilled black cod was silky and unctuous, served with a textural counterpoint of pickled cucumbers ($14.50). One of the most interesting items to order in the bar or the restaurant is the cold somen with shiso pesto ($6). The sharp, metallic sting of the shiso leaf added a whole new dimension to the thin wheat noodles, and a shower of fresh crab ($8 extra) elevated it into a light dish that showed decadence as much as restraint.
To drink, there's a short but thoughtful list of wine, sake, sochu, beer (including Almanac Brewing Co.'s special ICHIBIER, made with the bar's own sushi rice, yuzu, and shiso), and a zippy orange-ginger mead from Mead Kitchen. Only one cocktail is available now, the subtle Cat's Meow made with sochu, salted plum, shiso, and yuzu ($9), but hopefully that will change as the bar finds its legs.
Having said that, if you're waiting for a table, don't fill up too much in back, because eventually you will get seated in the main dining room. That's where the fun begins. (The restaurant also takes reservations, if you're the planning type, though half of it is set aside for walk-ins each night.) The best place to sit is always the long sushi bar, where you can talk to your chef and watch him prepare your food, but there are a number of tables for groups, all with a view of the large pop-art mural along the south wall offering a kind of bill of rights for sushi-eating: Don't add soy sauce, eat the whole bite at once, cleanse your palate with ginger at the end.
You can pick and choose sushi rolls and nigiri off the menu, but what you should do here is order omakase: chef's choice. After a short chat about your preferences and how much you want to spend ($50 a person will get you a nice spread; $100 will blow your mind), the sushi chef spreads a banana leaf in front of you, anchored with a small mountain of fresh ginger to eat between bites, and starts to work his magic. Tim Archuleta likens the omakase experience to wine tasting: A meal will typically start with the lighter fish and work its way into the heavier, oily ones.
Ichi makes Itto-style sushi, a style of Japanese sushi where each piece of fish comes pre-seasoned (hence the "no soy sauce" rule). The progression varies depending on what's fresh that day: It could start with ruby-red slices of big-eye tuna bathed in the fragrant house-made soy reduction, or snapper adorned with yuzu juice and green tea salt. Then you may progress to something like the rich, oily saba with grated ginger and yuzu, a little postcard from the sea with pops of heat and citrus. There was a truly transcendent Japanese scallop with green sea salt and yuzu juice, a soft oceany bite that melted on the tongue; albacore toro with a smoky garlic-ponzu sauce; a slice of beautifully seasoned river trout that looked like salmon; and a strip of toasted nori encasing a number of tiny firefly squid anointed with citrus and miso. Our sushi chef surprised us by serving rare waygu beef, a good piece of meat that, compared to the slippery fish we'd been eating, made the chewiness of steak feel like a new experience. He rewarded us with a small pile of fresh sea urchin and fish roe served with a spoon. And in the end, a warm, sweet slice of eel to cap things off.
So, yes, the quality sushi that drew people to Ichi is still very much present. And if the bar experience seems a little unfinished right now, I have little doubt that it will get to the point where it feels like an organic part of the whole. The best restaurant wait I've ever had was at Vij's, the famous Indian place in Vancouver that doesn't take reservations. In the small lounge next to the dining room, proprietor Vikram Vij hobnobbed with guests as we were plied with chai and fried appetizers; it felt like we'd already been embraced by the restaurant, like we were already in the meal's first act instead of waiting for it to begin. Ni Bar still has a ways to go before it reaches those heights. I'm happy to wait.