A FISH STORY
One day in mid-February, I awoke hungry. Very hungry. This in itself is not remarkable. The day I am *not* very hungry will probably be the day I wake up dead. No, the curious thing is this: I absolutely had to have sushi that day, and lots of it. Whereas ordinarily I would be quite happy with a big plate of anything from goat tacos to dim sum, on this day nothing but sushi would suffice. The following day, the hunger hadn't abated. Nor did it dissipate the day after that. And so began what amounts to a culinary odyssey on the San Francisco Peninsula, a personal quest for a sushi lunch of transcendental quality.
WHAT'S NEW FOR v. 2.0
After six months and hundreds of additional miles on the odometer, the list has grown from 25 to 34 restaurants. The total coverage area has expanded to stretch from Millbrae to Cupertino. (In practical terms, I'm defining "Peninsula" as the distance I am able to drive for lunch.) I consider the list to be comprehensive. Although I'm aware of a half-dozen low-end places I intentionally skipped, they are not in any way significant to the overall picture.
In the months since v. 1.0, eight of the restaurants in the top ten were revisited at least once. Several of the top ten were revisited between five and eight times each. In the middle tier, nine restaurants were subject to at least one return visit. These second, third and fourth looks resulted in some significant moves up -- and down – the rankings. For example, Akane in Los Altos went from No. 14 to No. 8 based on breadth and value. Bonsai in Atherton dropped from No. 7 to No. 16, largely because of new, stronger competition for slots in the top tier. Ganko in San Carlos took the biggest hit – from No. 11 to No. 27, based on poor value and quality.
In addition to Chowhound's San Francisco board, this list will now be permanently archived at www.emeraldlake.com/sushilist.html. If you're going to link to the list, please use that URL to insure you're getting the most current version.
ABOUT THE LIST
Below the rankings I've included a summary of each restaurant. In almost all cases, these notes are a distillation of a more detailed report I previously posted to the San Francisco discussion board on Chowhound.com. You can find the full reviews by using Chowhound's improved search function. (Bear in mind the Chowhound reviews reflect the initial visit to an establishment, whereas the summaries below incorporate everything I've seen on return visits.)
My personal biases are thus: I like a traditional, classic sushi meal, which means nigiri (fish on pads of seasoned rice). I don't concern myself with cutesy rolls or cooked items. I prefer small shops where the owner/chef is behind the bar.
The picks in my top tier are uniformly excellent. You can go to any of them on any day and be assured the quality is going to be there. Considering the multiple return visits I've made to denizens of the top tier, I'm dead certain on the conclusions I've drawn. After a half-dozen meals, the chance of some significant element being a one-time anomaly is virtually nil.
To paraphrase the Michelin folks, each establishment in the top tier is worthy of a special trip. Seven of them have home runs – items that are the best in their class. And the remainder are there because they represent outstanding overall value. Within that elite group, don't read too much into the nominal ranking. It would be sheer folly to say "SushiYa is better than Higuma." The ranking is a matter of my personal preference and a summation of the total dining experience (food, service, atmosphere, my dialogue with the chef, overall value, etc.). Your mileage is going to vary substantially.
As for the bottom tier, my opinions are based on either one or two lunches -- and I would not return to any of them. Some people I respect say nobody should ever weigh judgment on a restaurant based on a single meal. My take is this: Life is just too short to eat bad sushi. On the Peninsula, blessed with some of the best restaurants in the state if not the country, higher quality or better value are almost always just down the street. Avoid the restaurants in the bottom tier.
One more word on value: There is little correlation between price and quality. I would guess at least 80 percent of the restaurants buy most of their fish from the same two dominant wholesalers, IMP and True World. Each restaurant's pricing probably has more to do with its lease than it does with the fish.
On the list below, next to each entry you'll notice a pair of numbers. The first number is the total tab for my solo lunch, with no beverage other than a mug of tea, and including a 20 percent tip. The second number is the price for my average plate of two nigiri sushi (also factoring in the 20 percent tip). Remember, this isn't the average from the entire menu, this is the average of the stuff I actually ate. It's instructive to note that the lowest-ranked restaurant – the McNastiest of the nasty – was more expensive than of my top ten picks.
As of spring 2006, my average solo lunch tab was $33.28. And my average nigiri plate was $4.42. As of fall 2006, my average solo lunch tab was $33.75, a 1.4 percent increase in six months. My average nigiri plate was $4.77, a 7.9 percent increase in six months.
There is enough good $5-a-plate sushi on the Peninsula to feed all the sushi monsters in Shikoku. Most notably, Higuma, Hotaru and Akane offer very high quality at better-than-reasonable prices. Given that kind of competitive environment, anything around $6 per plate better be stunningly good. And north of $6 better be cause for the heavens to open up and a choir of angels to descend. Several sushiya which are highly regarded by others – Tomi, Koma and Kitsho among them -- deserved a severe downgrade in my estimation because they are so grossly out-of-step on price.
TEN SIGNS YOU MAY BE IN THE RIGHT PLACE
I would never reject a restaurant solely because it lacked some of these elements. But here are 10 hallmarks that I've found to be common among the best sushi bars:
1) When you enter the restaurant (probably by passing under a heavy linen banner) the itamae (chef) greets you with a shouted "irrashai!" which is short for "welcome."
2) After you are seated at the bar, an oshibori (hot washcloth) materializes immediately.
3) Followed by a mug of agari (green tea).
4) The bar itself is either bare wood or very plainly finished. The fish are on display in the refrigerated case in front of you.
5) At the bar, you order sushi directly from the itamae, never through a waitperson.
6) There is a whiteboard listing the special fish of the day.
7) The whiteboard and the menus are in both English and Japanese (an indication the restaurant has a significant Japanese clientele).
8) At the bar, the sushi is served on plain wooden planks rather than plates.
9) Even the most mundane detail shows an awareness of aesthetics -- the arc of the fish over the pad of rice, the proportion of rice to fish, the placement of a tiny piece of scallion, etc. Sushi is simple food, and at its best it is simply beautiful.
10) A sushi bar is not a formal dining venue. It's the original fast-food joint, with a centuries-old convivial tradition. There is a certain warmth and clubbiness to the best sushi bars that corresponds roughly to the homey feel of British pubs or Mediterranean cafes. Aside from the quality of the fish, perhaps the one sure sign you're probably in the right place is when you find yourself thinking: "Gee, this is really nice. I feel very relaxed here."
SUSHI MONSTER'S PENINSULA LIST v. 2.0
1) Sakae, Burlingame. ($113/$8)
2) SushiYa, Palo Alto. ($36.10/$5.20)
3) Higuma, Redwood City. ($31.50/$4.60)
4) Yuzu, San Mateo. ($49.10/$6.10)
5) Sushi Sam's Edomata, San Mateo. ($50.50/$7)
6) Naomi, Menlo Park. ($42.25/$6)
7) Koma, Menlo Park. ($34.60/$5.90)
8) Akane, Los Altos. ($41.25/$5)
9) Akasaka, Menlo Park. ($31.20/$4.80)
10) Hotaru, San Mateo ($33.50/$4.20)
11) Kanpai, Palo Alto ($65.70/$7.30)
12) Fuki Sushi, Palo Alto. ($41/$4.25)
13) Sushi Kuni, Cupertino ($57.75/$6.60)
14) Kitsho, Cupertino ($71.50/$7.95)
15) Momoya, Mountain View ($34/$4.90)
16) Bonsai, Redwood City. ($37.10/$5.50)
17) Masa, Mountain View. ($34.50/$4.40)
18) Sushiko, Los Altos ($30/$4.20)
19) Tomi, Mountain View. ($49.60/$6.80)
20) Tokie's, Foster City ($60/$6)
21) Sushi Kei, Millbrae ($58.30/$6.10)
22) Sushi Main Street, Half Moon Bay. ($28/$3.75)
23) Yokayama, Redwood City. ($16.50/$3.45)
24) Ocean Garden, Redwood City. ($33/$4.50)
25) Miyake, Palo Alto. ($29/$2.75)
26) Aya, San Carlos ($33/$6.60)
27) Ganko, San Carlos ($40/$6.60)
28) Sumo, Los Altos. ($28/$4.60)
29) Narita, Belmont. ($29/$4.80)
30) Isobune, Burlingame. ($35/$3)
31) Kaigan, San Carlos. ($20/$4)
32) Tomo, Palo Alto (University Ave.). ($17.50/$2.75)
33) Tomo No. 2, Palo Alto (El Camino Way). ($16/$2.75)
34) Liquid Sushi, San Mateo. ($39/$5)
240 Park Rd.
Of the several dozen sushi restaurants I've patronized on this side of the Pacific Rim, nothing beats Sakae. (There are two in Vancouver and one in Los Angeles that come close, but the airfare these days will kill you.) On the Peninsula, Sam's in San Mateo and Kaygetsu in Menlo Park are working at a comparable level. But they are very different in focus. When it comes to providing an orthodox, traditional experience of unparalleled quality, Jun Ozawa is the man. Sakae is the total package – the best fish, the best itamae (chef), the broadest selection and the best overall experience.
The whiteboard of daily specials features a staggering array of fish -- often more than 20 varieties, some seldom seen outside Japan. Most of these are shipped directly from Tokyo's two main fish markets. Given unlimited funds, you could eat the entire whiteboard from top to bottom and never have an ordinary, ho-hum morsel. It's just that good. If you come to Sakae, leave any financial concerns at the door. Lunch for two cost Sushi Monster Sr. $226. If you choose to partake of the many high-end sake offerings, your total could easily get into the $180-per-head range.
The special Hokkaido scallops, the kanpachi (young yellowtail) and the masu (ocean trout) are personal favorites. Sakae also has the best premium bluefin tuna I've ever tasted. It usually comes in three cuts. The two toro grades (fatty belly cuts) ran $18 or $21 for two nigiri pieces. The akami, at $8 per two pieces, was a delicious, budget-conscious alternative.
380 University Ave.
This University Avenue landmark is about the size of a single-car garage. Some days at noon it's next to impossible to find a space at the seven-seat bar. On those days, it's louder than bombs and reminiscent of the kind of alley haunt you'd find in New York or Tokyo. And other days it's just the opposite. Timing counts for a lot. Everything about SushiYa bangs my gong: exceptionally friendly staff, a traditional orientation and a warm, homey vibe. Expect top-quality nigiri with an average price. Although you won't see a lot of variety, nor a selection of hard-to-find items, the sake (salmon), hotate (scallop) and marinated ikura (salmon roe) are rock-solid hits. The hotate is best-in-class. Skip the mediocre hamachi and saba.
540 El Camino Real
A small, traditional shop with top-quality fish at a better-than-fair price. If you don't get in before noon, expect to wait for an opening at the five-seat bar. My perennial favorites here include the kani (crab) and the umi-masu (ocean trout). Remarkably, the crab gunkan maki (battleship) is fresh, *local* Dungeness in season and Alaskan king some other months. It's bursting with flavor, with a glop factor of zero. (When you have perfection, there's no need to camouflage it with mayonnaise). The aji and marinated ikura are usually good picks. The hotate can occasionally be a home run. The fact that Japanese emigres drive a long way to eat here is a good sign. Piece for piece, Higuma is the best value of the entire list. The itamae isn't exactly warmth personified, unless you speak fluent Japanese. But you can't fault the product.
54 37th Ave.
A small, traditional shop with a seven-seat bar and top-quality fish at a fair price. Kanpachi could be compared only with that found at Sakae. The umi-masu (ocean trout) and aji (Spanish mackerel) are also outstanding. Some epicures swear by the yuzu tobiko (the restaurant's signature version of flying fish roe, marinated in Japanese lemon). Arima-san is an artist. Although you're not going to see the vast variety you would at Sakae (Yuzu's sister operation), the quality is there.
Sushi Sam's Edomata
218 E. 3rd Ave.
Other sushi aficionados would place Sam's at No. 2 on the Peninsula, behind Sakae. I will buck the conventional wisdom here because I found the value proposition to be lacking when compared with the smaller mom-and-pop operations in the No. 2 to No. 4 slots. Flat-out, Sam's is unquestionably great sushi. Nobody in the Bay Area is doing more than Osamu (Sam) Sugiyama to push the art forward with bold, innovative flavor combinations. (There is no need to season anything here. Any modification you might make in the way of soy or wasabe is only going to detract from what Sam's doing.) But Sam's relatively steep prices really work against him in this competitive market. If you are absolutely sure he's second only to Sakae you'll pay the painful tab and not give it a second thought. The rest of us may hesitate somewhat.
This is a very busy 10-seat bar. Plan to show up early for lunch or expect to wait. My personal favorites: The kanpachi (best-grade yellowtail), and the "special" Japanese kani (snow crab). The baby lobster, garnished with tiny roe, is intense beyond words -- and something you will not find anywhere else. The aji can be best-in-class. The sayori (halfbeak) is as beautiful as a piece of Dale Chihuly art glass.
1328 El Camino Real
I don't know what the Japanese equivalent would be for "haimish." That's the word of my tribe that translates roughly as "homey," "warm," "comfortable," or "cozy." That ineffable quality is what makes Naomi Sushi stand out within the top tier. This midsize operation (two dining rooms and a 12-seat bar) has heart. As a legion of intensely loyal locals will attest, there is something about Naomi just feels right, a vibe that puts people at ease.
If you want a safe, predictable lunch here, you can certainly get it. But if you crave variety and the thrill of the unexpected, you can get that, too. The partners (one of whom is always behind the bar) seem to delight in springing surprises on unsuspecting customers who they think might appreciate them. Sometimes they hit, sometimes they don't, but it's always entertaining, from mekajiki (blue marlin) and kingfish to engawa and ariboko.
As far as consistent hits, the umi-masu (ocean trout) is a sure winner. The toro (at $4 apiece) is a flat-out steal. The kanpachi is usually a good call. The sake can be heavenly. (The best nigiri plates I ever had here were a compare-and-contrast set of side-by-side wild Alaskan and farmed Atlantic salmon, both lightly torch braised.) In front of the bar, service tends to be uneven at best. I've had too many visits here where I had to practically assault a server for a cup of tea.
211 El Camino Real
This is one-third of the Menlo Park triumvirate of very good, small, neighborhood-oriented bars. The whiteboard specials tend to be expensive – and worth it. King crab at $7 a plate is the only consistent home run. Sockeye, when it's available, is great. My best experience here: Catching the itamae at a slow time when he could cut me single pieces of fatty-grade and standard-grade hamachi and sake to compare and contrast. Hotate (scallop) is a bankable hit all the time. Despite the low-key neighborhood vibe, this is top-quality sushi at a commensurate price.
250 Third St.
I've logged both hits and misses at this eight-seat bar. Overall, it seems to get better with each return visit. (At this rate, it'll be the best sushiya south of San Francisco by 2008.) There aren't any home run nigiri, but good value and better-than-usual variety on the specials board.
On any given day you may (or may not) find very good kani (snow crab), toro and aji. For reasons that are utterly beyond me, they are in the habit of substituting fish – beautiful, bright masu (ocean trout, from New Zealand) pinch-hitting for the typical sake, tairagai (penshell clams) subbing for hotate, etc. Perhaps they believe their customers either don't notice or don't care. Skip the forgettable ikura.
925 El Camino Real
Sandwiched between Naomi and Koma, Akasaka might be the least-celebrated of the three Menlo Park neighborhood bars. Like the other two, it offers very good value in traditional nigiri, with a friendly itamae running the show. You'll find a notably smaller variety of fish than at Naomi up the road. Best calls: the sake (farmed Alaskan salmon) with outstanding silky texture, hamachi and the memorable kanpachi (yellowtail). Katsuo (marinated bonito) is the house specialty. Service can be inconsistent at peak hours. Overall, quality fish and fair pricing, with excellent service in a cozy environment.
33 E. Third Ave.
This very authentic outlet for Japanese "homestyle" cuisine offers outstanding value, although the nigiri seem to be overshadowed by the extensive menu of cooked items. Cardboard signs above the bar announce more than a dozen cooked lunch specials, with only a couple of special nigiri fish. Indeed, most of the really interesting stuff (such as braised salmon cheeks) was coming from the kitchen. The fish case had no toro, no kani, no aji, etc.
Don't believe "homestyle" means crude in any way. Although the bustling atmosphere is somewhat reminiscent of a corner diner, the craftsmanship and presentation at the five-seat bar is on par with other top-tier sushiya. I am coming to believe there is a correlation between the proportion of Japanese customers and the emphasis on proper presentation and visual appeal. In this *very* Japanese section of downtown San Mateo, the clientele demand quality presentation, no matter how informal and "homey" the setting may be. Among my standard items, the hotate, sake and hamachi were all solid base hits. The ikura had some walloping marination, almost akin to sherry. The sushi rice is so good that even people who wouldn't ordinarily take note of the rice itself are probably going to mention it. On any given day, be prepared to wait for an open seat.
330 Lytton Ave.
This new 48-seat, up-market sister to Naomi is the most attractive sushiya on the Peninsula, bar none. The room appears quite deliberately designed as a clone of the prototypical big-city , white-tablecloth sushi restaurant, right down to the gorgeous exotic woods, the flashy back-bar and the artful pin-spots suspended over the 15-seat bar. The message is pretty obvious: This is not our beloved-but-homey neighborhood sushi joint. For someone who came out of Nobu (New York's legendary temple of sushi) Kaneko-san is an amazingly unaffected, easygoing cat. If there's a single common thread between Naomi and the new operation, it's the tone of easy conviviality and relaxation set by the men behind the bar. The overall effect is elegance without stiffness.
Don't expect the impressive range of seldom-seen fish Naomi usually stocks. But as with Naomi, the melt-in-your-mouth toro here is a steal at $4 apiece. The masu (ocean trout) was delightful, very much like smoked B.C. sockeye. (They also have smoked salmon nigiri on the regular menu). While the standard hamachi was just OK, the fatty belly cut was silky and delicious. The other two standouts: The sweet hotate (scallop), torch braised with Japanese sea salt, and the marinated ikura. On the downside, both the aji (horse mackerel) and Spanish mackerel were just ho-hum. And the overly dry sushi rice needs some fine-tuning. The average price per plate here is way out of line with the competition. If price wasn't an issue, Kampai would be a top ten contender.
4119 El Camino Real
The granddaddy of all Peninsula sushi restaurants (dishing it out since 1978) still delivers the goods. These days it is probably known equally for the quality and depth of its cooked menu as it is for the quality of its sushi. It's a big, well-oiled machine, with four itamae working the 14-seat bar at lunch. Nothing warm or homey about this place. The nigiri were of consistently good quality. The sake (Alaskan, farm-raised salmon) was far above average in both texture and bright, clean taste. And the hotate (scallop) had a very fine melt-in-your-mouth texture and mild taste. The only truly memorable item, though, was the spicy salmon roll with Fuki's signature maki sauce, a bargain at $4.95.
10211 S. De Anza Blvd.
A small, traditional shop that commands a strong following from both tech workers and Japanese ex-pats. When it's good, it can be *very* good – particularly the Hawaiian "Kona" kanpachi and the hotate. Other good calls include the aji and the ikura. Kuni would be a top ten contender if it was consistent. But the toro ($5 apiece), sake and even the kanpachi can disappoint on an off day. Avoid the kani and saba. The chefs aim to please, but tend to get caught up in the rush to turn out big rolls and platters. That means the nigiri can sometimes suffer from ragged cuts, sloppy construction and lax presentation. Avoid the beat-up kani and saba. On the right day, this place has the potential to be exciting. But it's a poor value relative to the marketplace.
19541 Richwood Dr.
There is no question that this mid-sized restaurant just west of Vallco shopping center has consistently high quality sushi fish. Kitsho has distinguished itself by having what's probably the broadest selection of nigiri in the South Bay, from live uni to tiny baby herring rarely seen in these parts. The standout items on the consistently strong roster include kanpachi, marinated ikura, and aji.
The real question here is one of value. At an average of $7.95 per nigiri plate, one would expect a near-orgasmic experience, a culinary thrill ride on par with the best sushiya in the country. The reality here fell far, far short of that mark. What we found at a weekday lunch was a full house – including the bar -- and agonizingly slow service. Service was uneven and the overall experience was downright frustrating. With a total lunch tab of $70-plus per person, something doesn't add up here.
570 N. Shoreline Blvd.
At first blush, Momoya would appear to be another iteration of the generic, no-frills sushiya set in a suburban strip mall – an assembly line turning out serviceable, cheap rolls, the standard teriyaki bento box specials and little else. All too often, these places descend to offer the lowest-common-denominator fare that their clientele demands and abandon any greater aspirations for quality, artistry or innovation. While MoMoYa will never set the pier on fire with artistry and innovation, the quality is usually above average for a neighborhood joint. The nigiri are Korean-style – which is to say huge cuts on modest pads of sushi rice. Momoya doesn't stock a wide variety of fish (and the only specials on the small whiteboard were three special rolls). But the standard offerings are of decent quality and represent a good value, particularly when you factor in the three-bites-per-piece scale of these monsters.
3401 El Camino Real
This is a very attractive venue in a most unlikely location – a remodeled pet-food store on a stretch of El Camino that's essentially a highway, with traffic zooming by the front door at 45 mph. There are no bargains to be had here, at what must be the longest sushi bar in the region. And no specials board – just a somewhat limited selection of standard nigiri. (On a typical weekday you may find no aji, kanpachi, bluefin, masu, etc.) Avoid the kani. The only memorable item isn't nigiri, but rather an off-the-menu baked NZ mussel, served on the half-shell and garnished with sriracha sauce and tobiko.
400 San Antonio Rd.
This midsize shop has the feel of a busy corner diner. Lots of Asian seniors hanging out in the booths over inexpensive bento box lunches. Service is fast and competent. The standard nigiri is the picture of mediocrity – neither terrible nor memorable in the least. If you have people in your group who want a large variety of cooked offerings, this might be a value-priced alternative to Fuki Sushi.
4546 El Camino Real, No. A4
This relatively new Korean-run place is homey and low-key. Fish selection is limited and quality is hit-or-miss, with hamachi and kani the safest bets. Avoid the toro. Overall, a thoroughly mediocre experience with little to recommend a return visit.
635 W. Dana St.
This cramped double storefront two blocks south of Mountain View's main drag is flat-out mobbed for lunch on any given weekday, with a very loyal Japanese clientele. Plan on coming early or loitering on the sidewalk outside the front door. Whatever the special attraction is here, it continues to elude me. What I see is superior grade fish often presented in sloppy, uncaring fashion. Hamachi and aji are both good bets here any day. Ikura can be excellent. Although there's quality here, overall, plate-for-plate, it adds up to a very poor value.
1058 Shell Blvd.
This friendly operation, hidden in the back of a half-vacant strip mall, has been around long enough to become something of a neighborhood landmark in Foster City. Indeed it seemed that everyone else at the very large (20-seat) bar had a longstanding friendship with the three itamaes. Service here is outstanding, even at the height of a Friday lunch rush. It's easy to see how regulars could feel very comfortable coming here week after week.
As for the sushi itself, it's passable, but a poor value. More than half of the 10 plates I inhaled were poorly constructed or lacking in aesthetics. Hamachi was the best call. Smoked salmon and aji were also good. The toro, at a very reasonable $7.50 a plate, was just OK. Avoid the tired ikura. Overall, 10 plates of mediocre quality for $60 is not a compelling proposition.
This homey storefront on Millbrae's main drag (a block west of El Camino) has a loyal Japanese following. The nigiri is of consistently good, but not outstanding, quality. While the craftsmanship is good, the cuts are stinting at best. The consistently heavy-handed application of wasabe pretty much renders the quality of the fish moot. For a small shop, Kei has better-than-average variety, with very good kanpachi and aji. The farmed abalone (at a very reasonable $6.50 per nigiri plate) was just passable, and only noted because it's so rare to see any sushiya around here stock it regularly.
The reason I won't be back: An itamae who did everything possible to make me feel unwelcome. While his Japanese lunch regulars may feel very relaxed here, I instantly found myself with exactly the opposite vibe. This was not a language problem. His non-verbal cues were unmistakable in any language. "I am just barely tolerating having you sit at my bar." Simply inexcusable and utterly unwarranted.
Sushi Main Street
696 Mill St.
Half Moon Bay
Decent sushi in a novel atmosphere. Elaborately carved dark wood everywhere, high ceilings and interesting bric-a-brac of a sort usually found in Berkeley home-salvage junkyards and other resting places for esoterica. Sushi Main Street's aesthetic isn't Japanese at all. It's much more Indonesian saloon-meets-Trader Vic's.
Given that Sushi Main Street carries a longstanding good rep among both Coastsiders and day-tripping foodies from over the hill, I came in with high expectations. The restaurant seems to be positioning itself as a destination. Everything I had was OK, but no home runs. The one memorable factor: The Phantom Itamae. We were seated at a long bar with three glass cases for an hour and we never saw him. We ordered through the waiter, and I have to believe the actual assembly took place offstage in the kitchen. Not once did we see any action around our section of the bar. Not good. Not bad. Just strange. I didn't see anything here that would merit a return trip.
This large, zero-atmosphere operation on a nondescript section of Broadway two blocks south of downtown Redwood City does astounding lunch business with office workers and people from the Kaiser campus across the block. By 12:15 I found a full house of maybe 50 patrons, with just one harried itamae holding down the bar. The fish is undistinguished and cheap. The service is efficient, even at the peak of the lunch rush (particularly if you sit at the bar).
The main drawback here is the extremely narrow range of fish. On any given day you may find no kani (except faux crab), no trout, no bluefin, no hotate, no ikura, no mackerel, etc. As the good-humored itamae explained, his regular lunch mob doesn't seem to care for anything more adventurous than salmon, tuna and par-boiled prawns. If you can live on nothing but sake, ebi and yellowfin, it's not a bad deal: Average quality fish and very good service at a bargain price.
30 Woodside Plaza
Another case of things just not adding up. A "bar" with no fish on display and no itamae. You have to wonder what's going on if they hide everything behind the kitchen door. Forgettable fish that's not nearly cheap enough. This is probably the only place on the list where I'd say stick to the basic rolls rather than the nigiri. The salmon rolls and spicy scallop rolls were passable. Zero atmosphere. Your best bet would be to call in a to-go order -- and be prepared to wait at least 20 minutes, even during slack hours.
140 University Ave.
A high-volume operation in more ways than one. Big sound system and disco lights lend this boat moat a date-night party atmosphere on Friday and Saturday nights. The value proposition: A relatively inexpensive choice (most nigiri plates under $3), with better-than-expected fish quality for a kaiten. Avoid the kani (crab) gunkan maki, a big tube of glop. Skip the boats altogether, if you can, and order directly from the three itamae. While the nigiri selection is bare-bones, there are a staggering five *dozen* too-cute novelty rolls and a surprising number of veggie options on the maki side of the menu, if that's your thing. Very kid-friendly and open 7 nights a week until 10. A reliable last-ditch sushi fix when all else is closed. Think of Miyake as a compromise between supermarket sushi and "real" sushi. On the quality spectrum, this is the demarcation of the end of the civilized world -- the final, minimally palatable waystation before the rocky road to nigiri hell (see below).
1070 Holly St.
Ragged cuts of poor quality fish. Korean-style (read: huge) nigiri presented artlessly. No matter what other variables change, that's all you really need to know. The hotate – nearly the size of a plum – managed to be slightly gamey and flavorless at the same time (quite a feat). The sake was al dente. The hamachi was fatty but also lacking flavor. And the kani was the same tired, beat-up snow crab.
Aya, which has been running 10 years in the corner of this gritty little convenience-store strip mall at Old County Road and Holly Street, has been consistently slammed by others for abysmal, clueless, indifferent and downright hostile service. On this particular day, service was excellent. But as long as the quality of the fish remains mediocre I won't be back. Bottom line: $33 for five plates of big, slapped-together nigiri is not a good value.
1131 Cherry St.
A mom-and-pop operation with a basic, no-frills menu -- lowest-common-denominator fare to meet neighborhood demand. Utterly forgettable – and a poor value to boot. The biggest drop ever recorded on this list – 16 slots.
355 State St.
This substantial-scale boat operation offers poor-to-middling quality at prices that aren't necessarily as cheap as one might assume. While the meager selection of plates circling the moat are marked at $2.20 to $3.50, ordering most items direct from the chefs (which is the preferable course) brought my per-plate average up to $4.60. In other words: Not cheap enough. The tuna hosomaki and the kani were both of decent quality. The hamachi, ebi and the generously sized (eight-piece) Alaska roll uramaki were all short on flavor.
So, why bother with Sumo at all? My occasional lunch partner, Sushi Monster III, digs the maki. As a matter of fact, being three years old, she enjoys the whole kaiten fish-go-round scene. And the people at Sumo do a *great* job making small kids feel comfortable, which is something rare in the sushi business. This is perhaps the most kid-friendly place I've encountered. Although in the battle of the boats, I'd put Maru in Sunnyvale far and away at the head of the class, followed by Miyake, with Sumo a rather distant third.
1001 Alameda de las Pulgas
An utterly skippable experience. The plasticized faux food in the front window should have been a tip-off. They do a brisk lunch trade and big volume take-out. Atmosphere is non-existent. Chow down and get out. This was the only time the language barrier between myself and an itamae became a real problem. Through miscommunication, I inadvertently ended up ordering an overpriced ($5.75) underwhelming baby scallop nigiri, which turned out to be a mayo-garnished flavorless mess served gunkan maki style (in a nori battleship). A very bare-bones selection of nigiri offerings with no daily specials. The best calls of a forgettable lunch were the ebi (prawn) and kani (crab).
1451 Burlingame Ave.
This large (42-seat) boat moat is a suburban sister to the Isobune in San Francisco's Japantown. Best choices among the relatively limited offerings are sake (salmon) and tiny shrimp gunkan maki. Like Sumo, it's kid-friendly – and not as cheap as you might expect.
773 Laurel St.
After dismal experiences at Ganko and Aya, I suspected the San Carlos/Belmont region was a black hole for sushi between the major constellations in San Mateo and Menlo Park. One visit to this deserted, depressing little mom-and-pop sushiya solidly confirmed that.
First off, I'm facing a fish case devoid of fish and a bar with no itamae anywhere in sight. When he did miraculously appear 15 minutes after my arrival, things went downhill: Tired fish served without any craft or care. Order mistakes on the itamae's part. Bottom line: Too depressing for words. Mom and Pop have my deepest sympathy. With any luck the Darwinian hand of the restaurant trade will put them out of their misery before long.
201 University Ave.
OK – this is cheap. And that's about all that can be said for this thoroughly unappealing fast-food-style sushi dispensary. Zero on atmosphere. Zero on service. A C-minus on fish quality. Again, when you cannot order from the itamae or watch him work, that should be a tip-off something's not right. Foolishly, I tried one of the 44 specialty rolls – a teriyaki salmon roll. It was mealy, chock full o' bones and downright nasty. That's what Sushi Monster gets for ignoring his own guidelines! Given the intense competition within just a few blocks, there's no reason to give Tomo a second thought.
Tomo No. 2
4131 El Camino Way
A very limited selection of poor quality fish in a boat moat. With Fuki Sushi directly across the street, why bother?
1750 S. El Camino Real
This three-year-old operation hermit-crabbing in an old Lyon's at the intersection of Highway 92 and El Camino Real is grossly overpriced and utterly forgettable. The hotate and unagi were flat-out bad. The large dining room (a 20-seat oval sushi bar, at least 30 tables, plus a Benihana-style grill room off to one side) is singularly weird: Imagine if the Jetsons ran a pancake-house-slash-disco and hired a Filipino interior decorator to hip it up. Kitschy in an un-ironic sort of way. An uncommonly bad value.
NOTED BUT NOT REVIEWED:
Kaygetsu, 325 Sharon Park Dr., Menlo Park. (650) 234-1084.
Bluefin Party Sushi, 2327 Broadway, Redwood City. (650) 361-1160.
All Season, 2432 Broadway, Redwood City. (650) 298-9828.
Sono, 357 Castro St., # 3A, Mountain View. (650) 961-9086.
Yakko, 975 W. Dana St., Mountain View. (650) 960-0626.
Tsunami, 209 Castro St., Mountain View. (650) 965-0114.
Okane, 1789 El Camino Real, San Bruno. (650) 872-2218.
Osho, 102 S. El Camino Real, Millbrae. (650) 692-7787.
TALK TO SUSHI MONSTER