In Quest of the Perfect Sushi

Blowfish, Sushi to Die For
2170 Bryant (at 20th Street), 285-3848. Open 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays, from 5 to 10:30 p.m. weeknights, to 11:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Wheelchair accessible. Parking awful days, chancy nights (try York Street); Muni service via the 27 Bryant.

1380 Ninth Ave. (at Judah), 731-2829. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner from 5 to 10 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. Parking horrible any time. Served by the N Judah, and the 6 Parnassus, 43 Masonic, 44 O'Shaughnessy, 66 Quintara, and 71 Noriega.

Xiao's Sushi House
3925 Irving (at 41st Avenue), 731-6398. Open Monday through Thursday 4 to 10 p.m. and Friday through Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. Parking easy. Served by the N Judah. Free delivery to the Sunset and Richmond.

“Fugu!” exclaimed TJ. “And Fukui too!” I answered. So began our epic Sushi Trilogy, which concluded with TJ yelling, “We found it!” and a haiku appearing spontaneously amid the roe specks on the yellow pad where I was taking notes. (Like any epic, this one begins with an ignorant novice seeking knowledge; it climaxes in a duel between a dramatic young challenger and a taciturn old master appearing from the shadows. If you habitually skip the middles of novels, then proceed immediately to the end of this review to see which sushi bar we found the best. I'll meet you there later.)

TJ is quite a good amateur sushi-maker (not a black belt, but no tyro — maybe a baby-blue belt). When three sushi bars (that we knew of) opened in one month, he insisted it was time to review some sushi. One new place, Fukui, was a self-evident lightweight, but well-sited a block from the impossibly crowded Ebisu. Another, Xiao's Sushi House, leaving a menu on our porch, was a mystery, far out in the fog — we called it Sushi X, the unknown sushi-factor. The third, guaranteed success if only by virtue of its name, was Blowfish, Sushi to Die For, located (aptly enough) a few blocks from S.F. General Hospital.

But given my rusty, sophomore-level sushi-tasting palate, I didn't feel ready to do any reviewing. First, I needed to revisit an old sushi master for study. Then I needed to compare all three new sushi bars simultaneously. To review any sushi at all, I needed to sushi-load the way a marathoner carbohydrate-loads.

For the “old master” we chose Ebisu, probably the city's most popular sushi bar, and the one where, a decade ago, I was first awakened to sushi to chew for. In sushi, you want the fish fresh and the chefs seasoned. At Ebisu, the four 40-plus chefs can handle all forms of the art, and each chef tends to several customers exclusively, interactively making suggestions or simply handing you something that will accord with the tastes you've demonstrated in your previous choices. And along with providing dinner-as-entertainment, their creations are evanescent art for the eye as well as for the mouth, little sculptures that you contemplate, admire, and then gobble down. It's religious art in a way, with the aestheticism of Shinto and the non-attachment of Zen.

Arriving at Ebisu early in the evening, there was (as usual) a 90-minute wait for a seat at the bar. We decided to obtain a few basic items from it and from its newcomer-neighbor Fukui as takeout, for a bite-by-bite comparison at home. Fukui proved to be a lovely room, with a miniature indoor Japanese garden (complete with a water wheel), sea-foam-green walls and sunny light-oak tables, room dividers, and a sushi bar, that last unmanned since the sushi is actually prepared back in the kitchen. The dinner menu (which can include a full-course dinner for as little as $5.95) consists of the usual Japanese standards (gyoza, tempura, katsu, et al.) plus some less common appetizers (clam soup with sake, grilled smelt, barbecue short ribs). Sushi prices range from $1.50 to $7.50; five takeout selections cost us $15, compared to Ebisu's $25.

We soon discovered a patent cause of the price difference: We started with my pet sushi stress-test, uni (sea urchin). In low-grade sushi bars, the uni may taste of iodine, and may cause digestive distress at dawn. Fukui's uni nigiri had a small, pale, runny piece, non-iodiny but weak-tasting, compared to the larger, firm, bicolor pink and orange piece from Ebisu, which had a rich flavor like maritime foie gras. Fukui's saba (mackerel) and mirugai (giant clam) tasted as fresh as Ebisu's, but the slices were about half the thickness, and (along with the raw sweet shrimp, amaebi) tasted blander, lacking the sea-breeze undertones of the same species at Ebisu. In addition, while Ebisu's sushi all looked gorgeous, Fukui's were ungarnished. The latter's rice, however, proved signally delicious, dressed with a slightly sweet rice vinegar (where Ebisu's is perfectly neutral). “You've gotta have good rice,” said TJ, “because that's half of sushi. The fish won't stand up by itself.” Ebisu's scallop hand roll (with bay scallops) was like a raw-fish ice cream cone, with a good mayonnaise dressing; Fukui doesn't make this item, so we tried a New York Roll (shrimp and avocado), pleasant but ordinary. All in all, we found Fukui's sushi adequate as food, peremptory as art. It's a decent fallback if you can't get into Ebisu, can't handle the latter's prices, or place highest value on a serene ambience.

Our palates tuned, we went on to Blowfish. In Japan, the infamously risky, costly blowfish called tiger fugu is sliced into the “sashimi of samurai.” (And the doggie bags thereof become the breakfast of champions.) The fugu's internal organs are imbued with a respiratory toxin — one bite and you're fish food. The flesh, though, is supposedly very tasty and benign (unless, of course, the chef's knife slips, heh heh). There are no fugu restaurants in California yet, but Blowfish promised to serve up its nontoxic cousin, the Northeast Atlantic pufferfish. The imminent August ending of pufferfish season made a swift visit imperative. This stylish restaurant, a collaboration between owner Peter Garin and 30-ish chef Ritsuo Tsuchida, has a long slick liquor bar, dark red walls with framed cutouts from Japanese manga comix, and a sushi bar at the back of the room. The moderate-price non-sushi menu is “fusion,” with items like “sushi pizza,” “chicken blini,” “tempura curry,” and “Ninja noodle” with coconut milk and mussels. There's a wide choice of sakes, including a very affordable one on tap. Sushi prices run from $3 to $10.50. However, our bill revealed submenu prices for several items, so perhaps they have an unadvertised sushi-pig discount. For our “basic five,” prices were about the same as Ebisu's.

Here, two young chefs work at the sushi bar but at different tasks; one doing nigiri, the other busily making maki and hand rolls. They don't interact with customers; you give your orders to an attentive waiter.

The rice was sweeter than Ebisu's, not as sweet as Fukui's, but also not sticky enough; it tended to flake off from the nigiri, which didn't include nori-strip ribbons. None of the nigiri came with pre-applied wasabi (I was glad, but wasabi-fiend TJ wasn't); the accompanying wasabi was fresh-ground and less violent than usual. The uni here, best of the trio, was equal to the all-time best I've had (at Kabuto): an ethereal cloud of ocean-flavor. Tako (octopus), which must be blanched before serving, was slightly overcooked and tough. Mirugai (giant clam) was perfect, sweet and crunchy-tender. Saba (raw mackerel) was atypical, lightly pickled in the leftover juices from making the pickled ginger; TJ loved it, I thought it tasted like pickled herring (which I don't love).

The scallop hand roll had heavy, spicy red mayo overwhelming the shellfish, in a terribly tough, chewy cone of seaweed. For the fancier choices, we started with Maui roll, with tuna, mango, and a dusting of minced macadamia nuts. The tuna was rather soft and overmild, and the combo struck us as kid stuff. Ritsu Maki is Ritsuo's great original: the top and sides of the slices, very thinly battered, were crisped in the tempura-fryer, leaving the interior and bottom raw. The cylinders held avocado, tobiko (flying fish roe), maguro (tuna), toro (fat tuna), and hamachi (yellowtail), all in tiny cubes. The special Blowfish Maki was very pretty, with near-transparent thin slices of raw salmon wrapped around rice with yellowtail and scallions inside — but the salmon tasted of just average quality. A sushi called Menage A Trois, however, was brilliant. Fat disks of futo maki, wrapped in nori, were topped with gleaming salmon roe, while inside was a superb combination of raw salmon and yummy, crisp salmon skin. Peppercress sprigs “grew” out of two of the four pieces, lending crisp vegetative contrast as well as a visual joke.

Finally, we ordered the pufferfish sashimi ($30). The restaurant hadn't received any from its shipper for weeks.

By now, TJ was happily saying, “I could eat sushi every day.”
“We have,” I groaned. “Please don't make me eat no more raw fish!” But we still had to try the sushi from planet Xiao. A drive-by following the Blowfish dinner revealed a small, plain-looking Asian joint. The Japanese dinner menu is ordinary and affordable. Sushi runs from $2 to $10.50, with most items under $3. We phoned in our order to a guy whose language skills were just adequate to take down our address and the numbers on the takeout menu items we were getting. (Exotic items such as uni and mirugai aren't offered.)

When the delivery came, I adamantly refused to get up from the computer. Because I would not come for sushi, sushi came for me — courtesy of TJ, flying down the hallway yelling, “We found it!” He bore a scallop hand roll. It tasted even more like a seafood ice cream cone than Ebisu's. “We did it — this is it!” I laughed back, zooming down the hall to the dining room. The delivery boxes presented the sushi beautifully; although garnishes weren't as elaborate as at Ebisu, each item had some touch of color. The rice was the best, sweet-sour like Fukui's, sticky but also tender to the teeth. The tako (octopus) was totally tender too. The sweet raw shrimp (amaebi) was sweeter than the rest. The mackerel was unpickled but intense, herringlike, and the salmon skin was crisp and flawless. All were wasabi-free, but the separate wasabi was fresh-ground and nearly gentle. The production number futo maki was the Rainbow Roll, with eel, yellowtail, tuna, salmon, shrimp, tempura shrimp, tempura batter, avocado, and a golden dusting of tobiko. It was a huge six-piece cylinder, wrapped in a multicolor spiral of the fishes; each piece looked different, ending with one from which a tail of shrimp tempura projected. I closed my eyes (didn't hold my nose), I took a bite. And a great giggle started deep inside my head: “Hey, it's the Coney Island of sushi!” Something was crunchy and sweet like Cracker Jacks. Other things were salty, or rich, or fishy. It was a whole merry-go-round of flavors. My pen found the pad and jotted:

Tiny golden gems
Glittering on my notepad —
Tobiko sushi!

Oh, and for dessert we “xiaoed down” the free lagniappe (a tradition at better sushi bars everywhere): tempura of shrimp head (with swimmerets), almost every bit shockingly edible and crisply delicious, too. And with this bite, Blowfish was blown away.

Next day, I phoned to ask how far they'd deliver (answer: Sunset and Richmond, but I'd bet you could lure them as far as Masonic). I've since found that the chefs are Yue Ying Zhang and Zhen Liang Xiao, a woman and a man. I still don't know why these Japanese chefs have Chinese names, but I do know that this pair have a black belt in sushi.

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