“How do you guys feel about an uni intermission?”
That was the question that preceded what was either the 12th or 13th course one evening at Robin, Adam Tortosa’s highly awaited contemporary Japanese restaurant in Hayes Valley. I was sitting at the chef’s counter with a friend when it was asked, and our answer was, “Yes. Good. Please.” It has stuck with me, for several reasons.
First, some context. Robin has been in the works for a long time. Way back in 2013, Tortosa opened Polk Street’s 1760 with members of the Acquerello team, but later left San Francisco for Los Angeles, where he toiled under Katsuya Uechi at Kiwami and at the master sushi chef’s other restaurants. Six weeks ago, Eater SF chronicled this errand into the wilderness and back as part of a comprehensive examination of what it takes to open a (high-end) restaurant in S.F.
Read it, and you’ll learn that Tortosa pulled together nearly $700,000 for his dream, which is basically a comeback. He spent $48,000 on rent before Robin restaurant even opened, plus $14,500 on a slate sushi bar and unspecified thousands on the gold-rose resin that adorns the walls. A city bureaucrat’s random clerical error cost him $2,000 in wasted time. Tortosa also paid a sort of liquor-license fixer a $5,000 fee to, among other things, mail out 586 letters of intent — one for every San Francisco resident within 500 feet of 620 Gough St.
All of this went into the creation of a setting, a mood, a context for which the question “How do you guys feel about an uni intermission?” doesn’t feel as absurd as it unquestionably is. (I immediately thought of “Let’s all go to the lobby / To get ourselves a [crazy-expensive] treat.”) But it works. Robin seduced me, or maybe ravished me. Of the 400-plus meals I’ve eaten for this gig, this was the only time I actively had to fight the urge to blurt out — and not to Tortosa, but to a chef who had the words “mise en place” tattooed on his neck — that “I am reviewing this restaurant and you’re doing everything right, I love you, thanks.”
The spirit of Robin is one of carefully unspooled decadence on which much depends, like a fishing line weighted with a heavy sinker that could easily tangle up as it drops through the ocean. And it’s for the lucky few, no doubt. You choose (in vague terms) between $79 and $179 per person for an omakase — which is to say, chef’s choice — experience, then sit back and eat nigiri and other delights one by one. They are many: a whitefish sashimi with mermaid’s hair seaweed from Monterey and a sliver of serrano; sea robin with ponzu, grapefruit, and basil; fluke aged in soy sauce with caviar.
Some things, like a simple plate of albacore from Half Moon Bay, never step out of the shadows their opulent predecessors cast. And there was only one genuine flop, a piece of A5 Wagyu tartare with diced pear, pickled shallots, Japanese seven-spice, and a nori chip. It had no dominant note, and the flavor was almost mute. Otherwise, it’s mostly a parade of one beautiful piece of fish after another, bounty that would be numbing if the quality weren’t so consistently extraordinary. You could order à la carte, but it would probably only leave you wanting more — plus the loss of control is half the fun. (“Omakase” essentially means “to entrust.”)
A “seafood double-whammy” made of Hokkaido scallop with uni on top melted in the mouth in three distinct phases. Hamachi with horseradish-infused soy sauce and house-preserved lemon wasn’t so much brightened by citric acid as transubstantiated via aromatic lemon oil. A ramen salad with sesame noodles and shavings of Italian truffles preceded a bit of Mendocino uni with emulsified jidori egg yolk — an intermission that makes you wish the second act never starts.
But it does, with New Zealand salmon and Thai basil that’s basically a warm caprese on a fish. Another jidori egg arrived, this time soft-boiled in dashi broth, followed by a rapid succession of bluefin tuna prepared various ways.
We’d gotten a late seating, so by the time satiation arrived, it was 11 p.m. or close to it. The restaurant had emptied out, but the chef kept going, joking all the while. He served us hamachi hara with a Granny Smith apple and wasabi, followed by two more portions of Hokkaido uni and the grand finale of more A5 Wagyu, this time seared with shaved, frozen torchon snowing down on it. We downed the last of our sake and left, thanking the cleaning crew. The next day, I thought a lot about the depletion of worldwide fish stocks and how at least one fish on Robin’s menu — the shortspine thornyhead, or idiot fish — is listed as endangered. In that light, an “uni intermission” feels almost as tone-deaf as circumnavigating the globe in a chartered jet by yourself, then saying Hillary wasn’t progressive enough.
There are plenty of other omakase restaurants in San Francisco, and while I haven’t been to them all, I think Robin has debuted closest to the city’s zeitgeist. It’s as divorced from the strictures of tradition as California is from the weight of history. You can go to Roka Akor and have a glitzy, Vegas-y dinner — and I love Roka Akor — or you can go to Omakase and laugh along at Chef Jackson Yu’s theatrics and dry wit. But at Robin, you’ll have local sake — Sequoia Nama is brewed in the Bayview — and combinations of ingredients you’d never get if you flew to Tokyo and feasted on whatever came into Tsukiji Fish Market that morning. It’s relaxed and fun, full of jazzy tilework and art depicting masked cats riding skateboards in kimono. It’s so hip, you can’t even call the restaurant; you can only text it. Yet it never ceases to be fish-centric. Unlike places where chefs intimidate through monastic silence or servers in teams of two drop off enormous platters, you will always know what you’re about to eat.
It might be the compact space, the price point, or just my statistically irrelevant subjective experience, but omakase seems to attract assholes at their most boorish. A perfectly lovely dinner I once ate at Ju-ni was ruined when a drunk patron started bragging about how she knew the owners and demanding that everybody in the room regale her with their life stories. At Robin, the couple next to me got very drunk, spilling much of a full bottle of sake on the bar. (Realizing they’d hit their limit, they gave some to the chef, and later, some to me.) They were amiable, kindhearted, and ultimately harmless, but sitting right next to people like that can make me very tense until you realize they’re all right. The fact that I loved Robin as much as I did anyway suggests that that $700,000 was well spent.
Robin, 620 Gough St., 415-548-2429 or robinsanfrancisco.com