Battle Sushi, Part Deux

Amberjack Sushi; Sanraku Four Seasons Japanese Restaurant; Mas Sake; Kabuto Sushi

Awhile back, I had the very great pleasure of reviewing three sushi restaurants over the course of four nights in a sort of head-to-head (to-head) contest that, if nothing else, proved the following: 1) Tokyo Go Go may look pretty, but the food isn't hard to beat; 2) Yoshisan's Monkichi, at 23rd Avenue and California, is quite the find; and, 3) a high-protein, low-fat, sake-rich diet does a body like you wouldn't believe.

In the end, though, Moki's Sushi and Pacific Grill in Bernal Heights edged out Monkichi by the slightest of margins, because Moki's, from its charming glass sake decanters to its almost inhumanly clever specialty maki, is pretty much what I would consider a class act from top to bottom. In fact, Moki's fits perfectly into my two-tiered theory of sushi acceptability, where the proximate (decent or better, preferably within walking distance) vies with the superlative (top-quality, worth traveling to) for the sushi lover's hard-earned bucks. Moki's, of course, is an example of the latter, and as reigning champion will serve as the namesake for our new unit of sushi excellence: the Moki. I visited four restaurants this time, with one goal — to find sushi as good as Moki's. A Moki means I did. No Moki means I didn't, and you're better off going to Moki's. After all, why settle for less?

By definition, sushi involves pretty much anything served with vinegared rice, a small eddy in the great river of Japanese cuisine in which simplicity, elegance, and, above all, freshness are of paramount importance. Of course, the possible variations on sushi are limitless, especially given the possibilities of California-style fusion, and when you throw in the non-sushi dishes most places serve, well, pretty much anything can happen. Hence Noe Valley's Amberjack Sushi, a small, quiet spot where pale hardwood floors and halogen lighting speak as much of a chic urban bistro as the traditional sushi house. Likewise, the menu places as much emphasis on innovation (salmon tartare with caviar, quail egg, fresh wasabi, and sesame oil, $8.95) as sushi, which made me wary, since I feared the quality of fish might suffer.

There was one way to find out — the sashimi deluxe ($13.50) — the true test of a sushi restaurant, as the raw, fresh fish lacks sauces or other enhancements to hide behind. Though the pickings were limited, what we got exuded the unmistakable glow of health, particularly the two American favorites — three pieces each of firm, meltingly succulent hamachi (yellowtail) and glimmering maguro (tuna). Two pieces each of halibut, sea bass, and lightly poached salmon rounded out the offerings; nothing elaborate, but easily supplemented with smaller orders (five pieces for $5.50-6.50).

Still, we got the feeling Amberjack's non-sushi dishes, as graceful as anything you'll find elsewhere, are the real focus. I died at least two deaths eating the beef negi maki ($6.50) — rolls of thin-sliced grilled beef stuffed with green onion, bathed in a decadent, almost gravylike teriyaki sauce, then arrayed like spokes around a Sonoma greens-stuffed tomato — and two more during the sakana misoyaki ($6.50), a rich, tender fillet of miso-marinated butterfish.

Meanwhile, our third appetizer, the citrus-scented hamachi and tuna tartare with lemon-pressed olive oil ($10.50), needed some rethinking, or a fork. Though the dark red tuna and pale hamachi, diced into pea-sized bits, then arranged in opposing half cylinders and topped, respectively, with green and orange fish roe, made a lovely study in color, eating tiny pellets with chopsticks proved maddening, and the fish itself was so good I would have still preferred it as sashimi.

As for the actual sushi: From the selection of four large rolls (Spider, Caterpillar, Dragon, and Rainbow, $8 each), we chose the last, a California roll wrapped with slices of salmon, squid, hamachi, tuna, and halibut. It was simple and well done, though not particularly creative when compared to the appetizers. We hoped to finish with a very intriguing dessert: poached tomato with wasabi tobiko ($3.50). Unfortunately, our waitress told us, this had been discontinued, and we realized why upon sampling its cousin, the poached pear with mango sauce ($3.50). Poaching a pear makes it mushy and bland (Lord knows what the cooking method would do to a tomato), while the mango sauce, a thick purée, conjured two words: baby food. Perhaps the Japanese aren't known for desserts, but still, I have to make a stand, and an offer: If the people at Amberjack promise to stop poaching innocent pears, a Moki will be in the mail.

Now, let's step straight through the portal. As we took our seats at Sutter Street's Sanraku, a bright, bustling place where a waitstaff of at least a dozen seems poised at any moment to either deliver something or whisk it away, we received menus, plus a card depicting rhapsody incarnate: dragon sushi ($12). Picture a sort of shallow sushi casserole, cut into bite-sized squares, like a strip of baklava. Delicately crisp unagi (broiled eel) sat atop a thin layer of rice, followed by a microthin stratum that combined shiso, smelt eggs, seaweed, and tempura flakes, followed by more rice. This was so good I'd eat it for breakfast. After we penetrated the initial crispness of the unagi, a new, more intense tempura crunchiness took over, spiked with minty shiso, underscored with smelt, a Dionysiac intermingling of texture and flavor.

Within seconds, my date and I were fucking with wild abandon.

Or maybe not, but still, it was really that good.

In fact, only one thing fell flat here, the goma ae ($3.50), a small, organic spinach salad with a blandish miso paste. Apart from that, eating at Sanraku seemed a study in how Japanese food should be prepared. The special tempura (chicken, shrimp, and vegetables, $8.95) was so crisp it rustled like dry leaves, while the sashimi deluxe ($22.95) — three pieces each of hamachi, tuna, kingfish, sea bass, octopus, mackerel, and gorgeously marbled sheets of salmon — burned with life from the first piece to the last. Vegetable dishes such as the pleasantly deceptive Ume Q Roll (pickled plum and cucumber, $3.50) showed the same mastery. Though it looked like sushi, the Ume Q's razor-sharp tartness reminded us more of a super-potent tangerine. Also, a trip to Sanraku would seem wasted without ordering traditional oshinko (assorted pickles, $3.50) — Japanese cucumber and eggplant, Chinese cabbage, carrots, and daikon radish, each pickled to a different, very precise degree of piquancy. Normally, I tape-record reviews, to better relive the moment. When I played this particular recording back, during the pickle section all I heard were moans and the sharp, poignant crunch of vegetables. [page]

In fact, one meal barely scratched the surface of Sanraku's impressively deep menu (shabu shabu, udon, donburi, teriyaki, a vegetarian section, and, of course, daily specials). Still, I feel confident summing the place up as follows: As we finished, people were waiting in the doorway at 9 p.m., and, after offering us tea (we refused, because people were waiting), our waitress packed our leftovers into a neat box, and we were off. Later, for a variety of reasons, I opened that box, and was greeted by an overwhelming bouquet of freshness — the essence of Japanese cooking, of course, and the undeniable scent of a Moki.

In retrospect, it probably wasn't fair to run the Marina District's Mas Sake (Spanish for “more sake”) through the unforgiving gauntlet of Moki-liciousness. But when I heard about Mas Sake's “freestyle sushi,” I figured the place would make a nice contrast. I'll start with the positive, which won't take long: The semicircular bar looked nice, the waitresses seemed friendly, and the hamachi approached the heavenliness of Amberjack's.

Also, the tempura batter was unique — a shade lighter than normal, which made it taste like pastry — and made a fine coating for the gooey-rich, tempura'd Intergalactic Roll (smoked salmon, cream cheese, avocado, and cucumber, $9.25). Beyond that, the dishes we tried spoke of a place people go when they don't care what they eat, nor how much it costs. The cucumber salad with tiny nubs of octopus ($5.95) was flavorless, while the tuna poke ($8.95) with chili pepper soy sauce tasted entirely of sesame, a sad imitation of the poke I enjoy every summer in Hawaii. The shrimp tempura ($7.95) was limp, the Mack Roll (tiny scraps of Cajun shrimp, avocado, and cucumber, $6.95) the epitome of cost-consciousness, while the “chef's choice” sashimi combination — three pieces each of hamachi, brownish tuna, and mushy cubes of salmon — was, for $14.95, an insult.

But enough of that. We'd come for freestyle sushi; a fusion, as it turned out, of Mexican and Japanese cuisine, hence our rolls and sushi tacos. Technically, neither of these is sushi (no vinegared rice), but whatever. The grilled chicken roll (lettuce, avocado, cheese, and chicken, $5.95), sliced to resemble a maki, tasted more like a burrito without beans, rice, moisture, or sour cream, while the freestyle sushi taco — middling bits of tuna with cilantro, onions, and lettuce ($7.95 for two) — fell victim to the tough, apparently store-bought tortilla it was wrapped in. Granted, I didn't try everything, and the tempura-fried ice cream ($2.50) was nice. All the same, these guys couldn't spell Moki if you spotted them the M, O, and K.

Luckily, there is a cure for such madness: Kabuto, a place that, like La Rondalla, Khan Toke, and Boulevard, to name a few, exudes the utterly invincible aura of a well-established San Francisco restaurant.

After nearly two decades serving what is often regarded as the best selection of fresh fish in the city, Kabuto seems beyond any concept of Moki-ness. If Kabuto would like a Moki, however, it can have one. Hospitality here begins with hot, steamed towels and runs like a vein through every meal. And as with any good sushi house, the way to really do Kabuto is to sit at the bar and ask for whatever's fresh. Beyond that, a darkish, understated dining room and small, bright tatami mat section seem welcoming places to peruse an elaborate, three-volume menu and daily specials boards.

A short review could never do Kabuto justice, so let's focus on sashimi. For $20, Kabuto had, by far, the best sashimi combination I encountered: approximately 25 slices, quivering fresh, served with a special, reduced soy sauce that made the regular stuff taste like water. If God ever forgets what color tuna should be — a combination of blood-red sunrise and purified starlight — he need only visit Kabuto to remember. We got five slices of this, four slices of hamachi, a variety of seasonal, pale-fleshed fish, plus three chunks of octopus so bursting with juice eating them was like biting into slices of navel orange.

What stood out most, though, was something I don't usually like — giant clam, which is often more crunchy than I prefer. Two thin-sliced sheets, approximately 3 inches long, set me straight. I had to chew it for a while, like gum, all the more opportunity to savor the soft, rich flesh. To finish, we indulged in a toro nigiri. At $8 for two pieces, it was a tad pricey, but then again, if the accompanying rice here was a queen-size bed, the fish itself was a succulent, double-king-size comforter.

Maki at Kabuto are simple and a bit predictable when compared to the new-school wizardry of Moki's. Kabuto doesn't do fancy names, either — the salmon out/soft shell crab in ($10) was about what you'd expect, while the shrimp-avocado out/unagi in ($10) proved more complex, a hint of lemon in the out giving way to a hearty, broiled richness as we chewed.

Of course, Kabuto also does cooked, from the monstrous, juicy, grilled spicy mussels ($4.50) in a slightly disappointing, ketchuplike sauce to our hulking tempura combination (shrimp and vegetables, $11.50), perhaps a half-degree less crisp than Sanraku's. The scallop kimiyaki ($4) was the highlight — thin-sliced scallop and popcorn-crunchy tobiko, broiled in a scallop shell with an egg-based sauce so impossibly rich it could make even a Frenchman swoon. My date's eyes widened when she tasted this, then again when I spooned the last of the sauce into a bowl and downed it like a shot of whiskey; an appalling spectacle, perhaps, but worth it. [page]

We finished with bowls of red bean ice cream (free — and yes, we felt loved), which gave me time to peruse the double-columned nigiri page –six kinds of clam, baby mushroom, asparagus, Japanese pumpkin, amberjack (yes, it's a fish), king mackerel, sardine, or, in other words, everything you've ever dreamed of and more. If you want fresh fish, Kabuto is the place to go.

As for our champion: This is my choice, and I'm sure some would beg to differ, but the next time I do this I hope to drop by perennial readers' poll winner Ebisu to see if, in one sitting, it can earn … a Sanraku.

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