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Sinking Sun 

Ozumo

Wednesday, Jul 25 2001
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Nothing could be more annoying than having a meal begin with a white man saying, "Konbanwa" (Japanese for "good evening"). OK, maybe a few things could be more annoying -- say, if a meal began with a white man (or anyone) kicking me in the shin, hitting on my date, or showing me a picture of President Bush's face. Beyond that, "konbanwa" just threw me, because I couldn't see why a waiter who obviously speaks English would address me, a fellow English-speaker, in any other language. In Japan it might make sense, but this was Ozumo, a swank new Japanese place on Steuart Street. My friend Leah also found the choice of language distracting.

"Kanpai!" ("Cheers!") said our waiter as he delivered our drinks. "I think he just said, "Campari!'" whispered Leah.

Looking back, I don't blame our waiter for the linguistics, likely the standard policy at Ozumo. (Then again, if he was freestyling the Japanese, the man should be stopped.) If you ask me, such gimmicks are a bit hokey, smacking of an establishment that's trying to replicate authentic Japanese dining the way Las Vegas casinos try to simulate visiting Paris or New York. It might work in Iowa, but this is San Francisco. Most people I know here already have a favorite regular Japanese restaurant, a favorite special-occasion Japanese restaurant, a favorite new-school Japanese restaurant, perhaps a favorite Japantown restaurant, and, if they're truly dedicated, a favorite place to buy Japanese groceries. Japanese people staff most of these places.

In other words, Ozumo is trying to fill a niche that, for many people, has already been filled. I'd consider that a problem, but the real trouble lies elsewhere: The food veers from quite good (only occasionally) to mediocre (all too often), and the prices are absurdly high. I don't think I've ever been gouged so ruthlessly. The money we spent on dinner could have fed us twice at most of the city's top Japanese places, all of which outshine Ozumo, or paid for one delicious meal at Boulevard, a mere half-block away.

Ozumo opened in May in the shell of the old Harry Denton's, and it's certainly an ambitious project. A glass-fronted facade leads to a dark, tony bar area where a bronze-hued wall plays off muted black tones and gorgeous, low-slung, spindle-back chairs. Step deeper into the restaurant and you'll pass a glass-enclosed sake tasting room and an open kitchen on your way to a brightly lit dining area with pale wood tables, sweeping bay views, and a sushi bar manned by a squad of black-shirted chefs. Even the restrooms are chic, although I was a tad dubious of the recorded Japanese tutorial. (I'm all in favor of learning foreign languages, but would prefer to do it in a more appropriate setting.)

Ozumo's seven-page menu is promising, if lengthy. We started with a decent stamina-shu (sho-chu, a Japanese liquor, and Red Bull) for me and a nonalcoholic gomishi-shu (a wild berry tonic that, according to the menu, is therapeutic for fatigue, coughing, asthma, and depression) for Leah. I'd love to describe the second drink, but by the time I looked over the small plate/ salad/soup section of the menu, then the sushi roll section, the nigiri section, the robata grill section, and the extensive list of sakes and their accompanying descriptions ("Ohyama: stable and solid, like an old friend"), Leah'd finished it. What did it taste like? She wasn't sure. Did she feel happier? "No," she said, "but I have to pee."

Another problem, at least on the night we visited, was that Ozumo had run out of several starters by 7 p.m. -- no crumbled tofu over fresh vegetables, no oyster risotto, no dashi (bonito stock) with spring vegetables. Still, the first dishes we tried made us think we were in for a wonderful meal. Organic red miso soup was full-flavored and satisfying, while the kani no yubamaki paired warm, luscious Dungeness crab rolled in soy paper with a light wasabi mayonnaise. The shiitake to enoki sarada salad was even better -- tender, earthy mushrooms bathed in a creamy ponzu dressing, then topped with tobiko and wisps of toasted seaweed to produce a marvelous juxtaposition of textures and flavors.

Things started going badly with the sushi and sashimi. A pair of unagi nigiri cost $7 yet tasted no better than the perfectly adequate but not particularly noteworthy $2.15 unagi nigiri at We Be Sushi. Sashimi is the best test of a Japanese restaurant, and in this case an a la carte order of ahi said it all: six slices of average-quality fish for an almost insulting $16. Ozumo offers sushi rolls, including three specialty variations (the Embarcadero Roll, the Berkeley Roll, and the Alcatraz Roll, and if those are the best names management could come up with, someone's not trying very hard). None looked particularly promising, so we opted for one of the three sumo rolls, the yokozuna -- king crab, unagi, avocado, asparagus, and tobiko rolled with rice in slightly sticky soy paper. It came across like a glorified California Roll, lacking the unity and cleverness that mark finer examples of creative sushi-making.

Somewhere along the way we began drinking sake. As mentioned above, the list is vast: You can get junmai (pretty good sake), ginjo (really good sake), or daiginjo (really, really good sake -- and no, those aren't the technical terms). They're all available by the bottle ($30-190), and some come by the glass ($7-10). The cheapest was the Masumi ("comfortably familiar with natural sweetness"), a tasty sip served in a miniature lowball. The glass was so tiny that I could have drunk four of them before catching a buzz. Leah ordered the $10-per-glass Kikuizume ("silky smooth, with hints of peach and muscat"), but received a glass of the $135-per-bottle Koshi no Kanbai ("elusive, subtle, impeccably balanced") -- the bartender's error, our waiter explained. We paid the lower price, and though the sake was divine, that exquisite sip of heaven was gone in an instant, as was an $8 glass of nigori (unfiltered) sake.

Because they're unique, the robata grill offerings should be carrying Ozumo. They're not. Your choice of meat, seafood, or vegetable can be paired with three or four sauces per category; most sauces were too bland. Grilled Japanese eggplant with spicy miso tasted like grilled Japanese eggplant, while white asparagus with sesame sauce tasted like grilled white asparagus. Both had a natural deliciousness, but at $5 a pop they should have delivered more. Two smallish pieces of tough, overcooked salmon belly were allegedly coated with lemon butter, and the teriyaki sauce on our supremely tender Kobe beef was equally lifeless. Then came the finest taste of the night -- three slices of scallop in a ginger ponzu sauce so intense it was like eating truffles. It was a fantastic little nosh that should have cost $5 -- or at the most $8 -- but this being Ozumo it set us back $10.

"That's it?" Leah asked as our plates were cleared. That was it. Still hungry, we ordered two of the fusion-style desserts -- slightly mushy, deep-fried banana lumpia served with caramelized bananas, chocolate and caramel dipping sauces, and blissfully creamy vanilla ice cream, followed by an undercooked chocolate torte served with a strange-tasting five-spice crème anglaise. Then I requested the check: a whopping $115 for food alone. Figure in tax, tip, and booze, and the only way I can picture Ozumo succeeding is if people are too ignorant to know they're getting ripped off.

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Greg Hugunin

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