Battle Sushi

There is nothing on this Earth that I adore more than sushi, or just about any seafood prepared in the tradition of the land of the rising sun. In fact, I have two theories on the matter: that 1) raw, fresh fish is a perfect thing in itself, and, like the paradise of Christian lore, can only be spoiled by human meddling; and that 2) raw, fresh fish is a perfect thing that can, in fact, be improved far beyond the bloodless illusion of the ideal, through the addition of seasonings, the combination of ingredients, the use of heat, black magic, side orders of forbidden fruit, et al.

And the perfect sushi restaurant — if such a thing exists — would cater to both my theories, which, of course, contradict one another, the way theories often do. But then again, as Walt Whitman once said, “I am large, I contain multitudes” — not my favorite line of his, but certainly in the top five. Which is still saying a lot considering what a magnificent writer Mr. Whitman was before his time on Earth came to an end. Just as yours will, and mine, and everyone's, for that matter. So please, enjoy while you can.

Now that I've thrown that out there, I should say it must be difficult to open a sushi restaurant in San Francisco. Given the many fabulous — and often convenient — options available to residents of this fair city, a new place has to offer something special if it hopes to lure people away from their favorite haunts. But all the same, new sushi restaurants do keep popping up, which prompted me to spend an extended weekend visiting three that opened within the last year or so, to determine those most worthy of the public's hard-earned bucks.

For the sake of comparison, I rated the restaurants on a scale of 1 to 10, designating the very adequate We Be Sushi on Valencia and 22nd as a 5. A 1 represents Fred's Sushi in North Platte, Neb. (stay away from the Bass Roll), a 10 the mythical Best Sushi in San Francisco. Which I may have found, or, then again, may not have. And if I did, I might not tell anyone about it, since that would be a secret worth keeping. See, isn't sushi fun?

I began at Tokyo Go Go, where everything, put simply, is beautiful. The décor — a sort of Austin Powers-looking setup — is gorgeous. The waitstaff is ravishing. The patrons are quite fetching. My date shimmered with loveliness. Hell, even I was feeling pretty. Located on the Mission District's über-trendy 16th Street, Go Go was packed to the rafters when we arrived at 9 p.m. The wait for two seats took exactly the amount of time needed to down a pair of margaritas at Dalva across the street, then order a third from Go Go's full bar. How convenient.

With its upbeat soundtrack (house, rock, and salsa) and eclectic menu, Tokyo Go Go isn't exactly your traditional sushi house. For example, our first dish, the salmon salad ($5.50), featured smoked salmon, capers, red onions, and baby spinach over a crispy potato cake, which was quite tasty, but more Californian than Japanese. The sashimi combination ($12.95) proved a step above average — three slices each of fresh salmon garnished with lemon, the always exhilarating yellowtail, and dark red trapezoids of ahi, as well as a roll of thin-sliced halibut garnished with diced scallions and a very pretty sprinkling of tobiko (flying fish roe).

Tokyo Go Go has been packed both times I've visited — a Tuesday and a Friday — which causes the service and consistency to suffer. The first time I ordered the miso-marinated Chilean sea bass ($12.50) with pickled potatoes, the dish was as salty as a Dead Sea mackerel (which I kind of liked), while on this occasion it needed a touch of soy sauce to achieve the same effect. Though the sea bass was still good, we preferred the soft-shelled crab stuffed with tiger shrimp ($8.95) — four ample halves of that most naked of crustaceans, accompanied by dollops of sweet mango chutney.

As for the sushi: The Dynamite Roll (baked scallops with wasabi tobiko, $4) was interesting, though not as spicy as the name implied, while the Tuscan Roll (salmon, basil, sun-dried tomato, cucumber, and capers, $4) could as easily have been a salmon roll, since the seasonings didn't really come through. The vegetable futomaki (asparagus, shiitake, cucumber, burdock, and, my personal favorite, gourd, $4) proved delightfully crunchy, and would have made a nice end to the meal.

Except we'd also ordered the Go Go Roll (shrimp, cucumber, and garlic croutons, $6.50), which arrived about five … no, make that 10 … or, actually, 15 minutes after the veggie roll, by which point we were more than ready to leave. Topped with what appeared to be dabs of ranch dressing, the roll tasted like … a salad. From Sizzler. Where I could also have piled on some tomatoes for good measure. So while the food was definitely better than mediocre (and the cooked dishes in particular were good), I decided to penalize Go Go a point for poor service and give it a 6. But then I remembered that Sizzler offers all-you-can-eat salads, a much better deal than paying $6.50 for one roll.

Make it a 5.

Yoshi-san's Monkichi proved a bit more low-key, a quiet, very brightly lit beacon of sushi happiness set amid the Richmond District's dark and tranquil avenues. You won't wait long to get into the as-yet-undiscovered Monkichi — only two other tables were occupied when we arrived. After two hearty bowls of miso soup with tofu, carrots, and sliced daikon radish ($1.50), we began with the one dish that had me quaking in my boots going in: the monkfish liver ($6), which a higher-up had advised me to order upon suggesting Monkichi. Fortunately, the liver proved exquisite — a sort of cool, creamy pâté that tasted a bit like smoked salmon and was bathed in a tangy soy-vinegar sauce.

I had also been advised to try the white tuna tataki ($10.50), which is some of the best counsel I've ever received. Featuring lightly seared strips of albacore over shredded daikon, sprinkled with scallions, sesame, and brilliantly luminescent tobiko, the tataki was bathed in a light special sauce so impeccable it made me want to leap up, seize the gentleman behind the sushi bar (Yoshi himself), and proclaim that dear man Yoshi-sama!

No one advised me to order the seafood and vegetable tempura ($12.75), though someone should have. In addition to a perfectly cooked medley of vegetables (broccoli, green peppers, onion) and the ubiquitous shrimp, the tempura also came with a few unidentifiable bits of seafood, forcing us to put our faith in the chef and bite. Our trust was rewarded each time, however, as we cooed, “Oh … salmon! Ah … squid!”

Monkichi offers exactly 20 “special rolls.” The Boston Roll (crab with mayonnaise and salmon, $4.75) was hearty, the Canadian Roll (salmon and asparagus, $4.50) quite austere, and the Dragon Roll (shrimp tempura, eel, crab, avocado, and tobiko) downright spectacular. My favorite, however, was the very intriguingly named My Back Yard Roll (asparagus, cucumber, carrot, and avocado, $3.80), whose ends were left untrimmed so that this fine, fine maki really did resemble someone's back yard.

All in all, the service at Monkichi was polite and well-paced, the atmosphere relaxing, and every dish well-prepared, warranting a score of a definite 8. Which I upgraded to 8 1/2 because of the list of appetizers as long as my forearm (hamachi cheek, “dinosaur feet,” clam butter soup) and the very creative names given to rolls I'll have to try when I go back: the Tootsie Roll, the Swamp Roll, and the Poison Caterpillar Roll, certainly the most interesting use of words I've seen for some time.

Until I got to Moki's Sushi and Pacific Grill, that is. After taking a day off (a person can only eat so much sushi), I followed up on the suggestion of one of our readers, who recently asked how this newspaper could be “blind to the best sushi in the city.” Well, when an assertion like that hits SF Weekly's offices, all hell breaks loose — emergency meetings are called, attorneys consulted, crack teams of experts flown in from around the globe, and with a swiftness that amazed even me (OK, I did visit the other two places first), I slid down my bat pole and sped toward Bernal Heights' increasingly Noe Valley-like Cortland Avenue.

As its name implies, the smallish, somewhat tiki-themed Moki's offers more than just sushi. Though the Thai-style crab cakes with red curry ($7.95) were unforgivably mushy, the spicy corn fritters ($5) with Indonesian soy sauce were magnificent, as were the dayboat scallops with sour-mango coleslaw ($7.50), the scallops seared to an elegant crispness.

The specialty rolls were likewise well- prepared and brilliantly named — the Tahitian Sunrise Roll (salmon and avocado, tempura'd, with scallions, $6.50), the J.D. Roll (salmon skin, shrimp, scallions, cream cheese, and mintlike shiso, $5.75, and OK, maybe that name isn't so slick), and the very clever Salmon Reunion Roll (salmon skin, salmon, shiso, daikon sprouts, topped with salmon roe, $6.75). As alluring as these maki were, however, they couldn't compare to the Ecstasy Roll (ahi, albacore, avocado, tobiko, and scallions, $7.75), which was tempura-fried, whole, for what must have been about three seconds, giving it a delicate, golden skin that made it the best of the dozen rolls I'd consumed over the course of three nights.

The sashimi combination ($17.25) was beautifully arranged, and featured salmon, mackerel, ahi, yellowtail, a lone sweet shrimp, and three gorgeous slices of octopus. And the sterling salmon ($10.75) was even better — an ample slice of the above, topped with mango-cucumber sambal, served with macadamia pilaf and a side of sautéed spinach.

To top it off, our hot sake was served in charming glass decanters, and the check came with, to my delight, a pair of Hershey's kisses. So I guess what I'm saying is, Moki's beat Tokyo Go Go like an old, dusty rug, and edged out Monkichi by the slightest of margins. An 8 1/2, plus the tip of a single grain of rice. As for that “best in the city” claim — well, I'm not going to stick my neck out that far, though I do hope to keep investigating, and reader suggestions are, of course, welcome.

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