Everybody who writes about restaurants has had the experience of somebody saying to him, “There's this amazing new place I'll tell you about, but only if you promise not to write about it, because you'll ruin it.” I'm as eager to hear about an amazing new place as the next geek (well, probably more so), but I always refuse, on principle: both mine (hey, that's what I do, write about restaurants) and the restaurateur's (what's far more likely to ruin the new find is keeping it a secret).
Not that my friend Will asked me to keep his favorite sushi place under wraps. His desire was almost completely altruistic — that I should have a good meal (and, incidentally, that he should, too). But the eccentric Midori Mushi has lots of the hallmarks of a secret restaurant. It's tiny (basically five tables for two each — that's right, seating for 10, though I've seen the staff push together two tables and squeeze five people around them, and also watched four people huddle around one table, rather optimistically); it doesn't take reservations; and it's cash only. (This last might not strike fear into your heart if you just want a couple or three plates of classic nigiri sushi, from $3 to $6 an order, but there's also the possibility of an omakase — chef's choice — meal at $40 or $60 a person. The employees are practiced at steering you to nearby ATMs.)
Midori Mushi occupies an oddly shaped, semicircular, two-story, two-room corner of a Days Inn in Hayes Valley. The downstairs is the restaurant, and the upstairs is a sake lounge, which served on the night of my first visit as a holding pen for three parties waiting for dinner. Will and I arrived just as the five tables filled up for the first seating, and we were ushered upstairs, asked to remove our shoes, and handed a sake list after we sank into a cushy couch. We chose a couple of sakes, with some assistance, and chatted away as time went by and music played. And another couple arrived. And more time passed. And a foursome of attractive young things were seated nearby. And the other couple got mildly querulous when bowls of miso were brought up for the foursome (“Well, she's pregnant,” was the explanation). And we overheard a brief exhortation for patience and enjoying the wait as part of the experience. Very Zen.
I do admit that I don't enjoy waiting for my dinner, even in as relatively pleasant a situation as this (seated comfortably in a slightly funky, slightly retro, slightly modernistic room, with sake at hand, mildly oppressive but very hip music, and a chatty companion), when I have no idea how long that wait will be. Which turned out to be a little over an hour (and explains why our sake bill was rather higher than our food one).
So it says a lot for Midori Mushi that I enjoyed our meal there so much that the wait didn't put me off, that I did manage to see it as a valuable part of the whole evening, that I was tremendously entranced by the food we shared. I thought the raw ingredients were impeccable, the “signature” dishes excitingly creative, the chefs and servers absolutely adorable.
Or maybe I was just schnockered.
No (cheap joke). We had things I've had before (uni, toro, miso soup) and things I've never had before (sea trout, Dragon Ball Z, which is fried tofu stuffed with garlic crab — yum) and things I don't remember (Will swears we had a “Martha Stewart” roll — “Don't you remember, we'd both seen Cybill Shepherd in the Martha Stewart movie; we talked about TV movies a lot that night.” Earth to Will: I didn't see the Martha Stewart movie, I just saw clips from it on David Letterman). And I loved everything we had.
The fish were all fresh and sweet, some cut perhaps a trifle thicker than a classical sushi master might, and laid atop excellent, lightly handled rice. (A note here about classical sushi masters: I've dined at the counters of so-called Sushi Nazis, who pride themselves on never making a California Roll and scream at you if you dip the rice rather than the fish in your wasabi-amped soy. No matter how excellent the sushi, I'd rather relax and enjoy myself. I noticed that several of the famous devotees of one famed San Fernando Valley Sushi Nazi were high-powered executives who probably enjoyed relinquishing control and being yelled at rather than yelling. Interesting to see that one of the specials at Midori Mushi is called the Sushi Submissive, described as, “Sit down, Shut up, and let Gerard feed you a trick or two.”)
I do remember a Speak Soft roll, a lovely, compulsively edible combination of tuna, avocado, daikon sprouts, and sesame oil. And, oops, apologies to Will, right here on the menu I tucked away is the Martha Stewart: “A few years back Miss Martha came around looking to buy a home in Bolinas. The locals chased her away with a classic Bolinite welcome. I did manage to feed her when she was in town. Anyhow, she got one of these rolls from me and a few months later it shows up as one of her recipes. Wow, Martha is a sushi chef too! Crab, mango, mint served Temaki style (hand roll).”
Does that sound a trifle over-the-top and coy to you? Or do the staff T-shirts that read “Your fish smells like pussy” seem, well, maybe a little offensive? Would you be put off that the décor is mostly photos taken at Burning Man and that among a list of 10 rules posted on the door are “No khakis” and “Don't ask us to turn the music down”? As I've said before, what I'm really interested in is the food. It was delicious. And the guys at Midori Mushi not only seemed to be having a good time, but they also made me feel like they sincerely wanted us to have one, too. There's something evangelical about their love for the fish and the sake they serve.
Despite our delightful meal, it took me a couple of months to return (yeah, something about that hour wait, plus the tiny size of the place, held me back). But when I met Eric and learned that he'd spent the past 15 years in Japan and published a couple of Japanese cookbooks, I figured he was my guy.
He was willing to meet me there at 5:45, to ensure that we'd be seated when the restaurant opened at 6. He knew that he liked clean, citrusy sake, so he went for the Sanno Esshu, which indeed had a slight flavor of apples, while I tried the earthier Rihaku. And while I was considering scallop sushi, or the Slammin Salmon crab-and-English-hothouse-cuke roll topped with salmon and broiled, or the ume tobiko (plum-marinated roe) sushi, or the kanpachi (green amberjack) sushi, listed under “rarities,” he made things a lot easier by suggesting what I really wanted: omakase. (“This is a Total Encapsulation of what we are about. A series of dishes Tailored to what you Vibe on.” And so on and so forth.)
We ate our way through seven courses: a thick slice of daikon draped with translucent pieces of aji (horse mackerel), served with a spicy dipping sauce. A soothing bowl of rice topped with chopped hamachi (yellowtail) mixed with green onions. (Eric said, “In Japan, rice would only be served at the end of an omakase meal, but I like having it now, because I'm still hungry enough to appreciate it!”) Wild salmon on a rectangle of rice, touched with yuzu (a sour citrus) and garnished with spider-web strands of mildly salty kombu (processed sea kelp). Meaty slices of wild oyster mushrooms cooked with togarishi (a hot red Japanese pepper), entwined with madai (sea bream) sashimi. A salad of baby greens and ethereal sashimi of white tuna, sprinkled with tobiko (flying fish roe). A lovely dish of rosy-tuna-and-avocado tartare covered with thin, pounded circles of ivory scallop. And a nori-wrapped roll containing house-cured saba (another kind of mackerel), by which time I was seriously full and could only eat one of the two chunks allotted to me.
Afterward we happily reconstructed the meal over rich, punnily named desserts at Citizen Cake, conveniently located just a block away for those who like to finish their meals with something sweet. (There was no ritual offer of green tea, red bean, or ginger ice cream at Midori Mushi. I doubt the place needs or possesses or has room for a freezer, since the menu proudly says the kitchen shops for its amazing variety of seafood daily.) I was slightly shocked when Eric said he probably wouldn't eat there again.
He found the music too loud.