I stumbled on Izakaya Yuzuki, at the corner of 18th and Guerrero, a week ago Sunday.
It was closed, but the posted menu was enticing, and the people inside (conferring over papers) smiled up as we looked through the window. Tuesday I decided to give it a try. It was so good that I took friends back again on Saturday.
This is a special place. The food is genuine Japanese cooking. The menu includes but does not stress raw fish. The appetizers and the grilled, fried, steamed and braised dishes give the overall meal a more hearth-like than shore-like feel.
The ingredients are fresh and pure, and the chef's touch is light. The presentation is artful, and tends more towards the serene than the fancy. The result is a cuisine that tastes refined but feels comfortable.
The menu has many small plates. The kitchen and the staff know how to do this format the way I like it. We ordered a bunch of plates all at once at the beginning and asked to get them slowly -- only one or two at a time. The meal was perfectly paced and they picked an order to bring the dishes that made a really good progression.
Service was great. Our waiter JR was a joy. A very nice man who advised us well in making menu selections. And another small thing I like: whenever he mentioned a special or anything off the menu, he told us the price so we did not have to ask. We met a couple of others from the staff (and the second time, Chef Takashi came to say hello as well) and all were very nice people.
I like the atmosphere too. Low-key, good table spacing. The music was a lot of Gilberto, Billie Holiday, thinks like that. The stuff I play at home for dinner parties. :-)
Onto the food!
I went there twice, with different friends, and so I tried a lot of dishes. We did not try the sashimi plate either time. There was too much else calling my name....
--- Obanzai: Kyoto style cooked local vegetables 3 ways ---
This was three little bowls. The first we tasted was the hijiki salad, and this was very telling. Clearly home made. Perfect temperature, texture; broth made with dashi (I think) and a very wonderful umami flavor. It gave us high hopes of things to come. Second little bowl had a sesame tofu with a little dot of wasabi. Creamy and delicious, the dab of wasabi perfect. Bowl #3 had cooked potato (yam) with a black sesame sauce. Ordered this both times, a lovely starter.
-- Zaru Tofu: House made fresh Tofu with Sansho-koji Soy --
I just love fresh-made tofu. When I've had it before (Eiji in SF, En in MYC) it's been very soft with a kind of dashi sauce. This was a little firmer, kind of a 6-inch pancake. It was persented beautifully in a lovely little basket within a low ceramic bowl. Each person gets a cozy bowl and wooden spoon. Once served, you top with micro-thin sliced scalliion, grated ginger, and a really wonderful soy sauce. The sauce the 'sansho-koji soy'; It's made with koji they make themselves. (I believe Koji is kind of like the equivalent of sourdough starter for bread, or mold for a French cheese. It's a living thing they keep going that's used to flavor stuff deeply. They use the Koji in several dishes and I believe that the koji and dashi are behind a lot of the wonderful flavors here).
-- Pirikara Cucumber: Cucumber with sesame oil and shichimi --
Refreshing and tasty, I'd order it again, though this is not a standout here were so much is so good. If you must choose, go with the tsukemono first time.
-- Suji Nikomi: Beef Tendon cooked overnight in miso --
This is a very strange dish, at least to me. It is fantastic. Odd chewy-gelatenous texture, rich flavor. It was maybe my boyfriend's favorite thing the first visit. But the second time we did not even order it, as one diner wouldn't go near the idea.
-- Satsuma Age: House made fish cake with seaweed and local vegetables --
A delicous fried dish. Little clumps of fish & stuff, fried with a wonderful touch. I will order again, but on your first visit, if you like shrimp, go for the Kakiage instead.
-- Tsukemono: House made "nuka" (rice bran) fermented vegetable pickles --
As good as any tsukemono in SF. I always order tsukemono when I try a new Japanese restaurant. I find that if they are excellent, the restaurant is usually excellent also. These are house made. Very light in touch -- not pickled for very long, I don't think. Our dish came with 3 kinds: little carrots, little radishes, and cucumbers. I could eat these every day. Sublime.
-- (Yakitori) Tsukune: Grilled chicken meat ball --
Another dish I love. Delicious, but not as good as....
-- (Yakitori) Teba: Chicken Wing --
Now this was amazing. They marinate these overnight and have two wings on a skewer. I am not a fan of chicken wings, but they were so good we ordered them both times.
-- Yaki Surume Ika: "Salt Koji" marinated and grilled Hokkaido Surume squid --
I want this again right now please. The body of the squid is perfectly grilled and cut in rings. Beautifully tender. The tentacles are perfectly fried and served with the body. Oh how I love squid!
-- Grilled Mackerel --
This was a special, not on the menu. Wonderful. Flavor, perfectly cooked.
-- Kakiaga: Deep fried White Shrimp and burdock with Green tea salt --
This was my favorite fried item on the menu. Totally amazing. I've had this dish in Tokyo a couple of times, and I liked this better. Pieces of shrimp and vegetable kind of bound loosely together by threads of something starchy (don't know what) in a flat fried cake. Also, the vegetables were slightly different on the two nights. I like when a place adds small variations. Don't know whether this is because they are settling in on a menu, or if they will continue to play and change; I hope it is the latter.
-- Agedashi Tofu: Deep fried tofu dipped in sauce with salmon roe --
This was also made with their house-made tofu. Same pancake shape as the Zaru Tofu, with grated mountain yam and salmon roe on top. Delicious and unique, not the way agedashi is usually served. However, the Zaru Tofu shows off the tofu better. It's funny, we split this dish as we did all the others. I think I would like this more if I had the whole thing to myself, because in serving it the toppings moved around and I didnt' get to have every bite the way I wanted. :-)
-- Chawan-Mushi with Uni: Egg custard with sea urchin --
Unbelievable. My favorite chawan-mushi in SF. Not served in a tall skinny bowl. Lower and wider. Had this both times. Each time with different goodies buried underneath. Both times, on top, a beautiful piece of uni that was warmed but not cooked, some dashi, and a little hint of grated yuzu. The dish comes with a wooden lid, and when they lift the lid, the delicate smell with its hint of yuzu is glorious.
-- Koshihikari rice cooked in Japanese earthen pot --
We ordered this the second time. We asked for it last, to be served with pickles and miso soup. The miso soup was not on the menu, but they made it for us any way. This was how we ended the meal. It was sublime and perfect and in a way epitomizes the meal. The miso soup appeared to have a little tuft of mushrooms levitating above it; turns out it was sitting on a little sculpted bit of potato. The pickles, as I've said, are amazing. The rice. Perfect rice, totally clean with no added flavors, nothing fancy about it. Perfect way to end the meal.
We did not order dessert either time. They have some, but at a place like this, it's not my thing.
I hope the above tempts you into going. They are not filling up yet, but they get everything right and I am pretty confident they will succeed. But we need to get the word out.
Izakaya Yuzuki is new, but on a par with Wakuriya and Kiss (my two other non-sushi Bay Area favorites). And to me Yuzuki is better than some other favorites: Kappou Gomi, Izakaya Sozai, Nihon Whiskey Lounge, and Chotto,. It is definitely the place I'm most excited about returning to.
Also: They are planning a special New Years Eve menu. 6 courses for $65, I believe. I am trying to convince my friends to change our plans and go. :-)