Sometimes I am not the sharpest hocho on the bar. For example, I tried four times to get a seat at the very cozy and very popular Higuma at between noon and 1 p.m. before being forced to concede the odds were consistently going to leave me frustrated. Today I finally made it at 11:30 sharp and was the first customer in the door. I couldn't have been more pleased with myself and with the experience that was to follow.
Higuma, at 540 N. El Camino Real (just south of Whipple) in Redwood City, can be a tough place to find a seat at any hour. It's an unpretentious and thoroughly traditional operation with just five bar seats and 12 deuce tables shoehorned into the front of a very old white brick house which now looks comically out of place on the commercial strip. (It's next door to the old Argilla Boscacci. And if you know what I'm talking about, congratulations, you earned your local stripes decades ago.)
Much like SushiYa on University in Palo Alto (which it resembles in many ways), Higuma is a highly orthodox sushi experience, without giving the customer the feeling of being in a gastronomic shrine.
The bar meets my three basic requirements for a top-tier sushi operation: all the fish are clearly on display, you can watch the itamae work and talk to him about the product and the process. The first positive sign here came within five minutes, as the next people in the door were a young Japanese tourist couple who'd driven down from San Francisco for lunch. (The restaurant does get its share of Japanese ex-pats working in Redwood Shores and Foster City, but it also gets mechanics from the auto dealership across the street, baby Chowhounds from Sequoia High down the street and other locals.)
As for the nigiri (which were all modestly sized, plainly presented and delivered on salad plates): The sake (salmon) was Canadian farm-raised. The hotate (scallop) was small and mild. The ebi (shrimp) and ami ebi (sweet shrimp) were both slightly more flavorful than the ho-hum default product. Smoked salmon was the only miss in my modest 18-piece lineup. It was some nova-type Atlantic product lacking the bright, clear flavors we're accustomed to here. The toro was visually unappealing, but full of flavor. There were two big surprise hits: The crab gunkan maki (battleship) was fresh, local and bursting with flavor. It was served plain with a "glop factor" of zero for once! and it was in a whole different league from most everything else that passes for crab lately. The other out-of-the-blue hit: There was a small, bright red filet I couldn't identify in the cabinet. It looked as if it might be a special type of toro. I asked the very helpful itamae and he said it was an "ocean trout" (!!) from Australia. "Umi-masu." It was delightful, a unique taste that doesn't correspond with any other trout I've had.
The total came to $36 for 18 pieces of nigiri. Add tax and tip and you're not looking at a cheap lunch. Bottom line: Higuma is nothing cute and nothing fancy. Expect top quality fish at fair prices, served in traditional style. Oh yes, -- expect to be prompt or be sorry.