My wife had one of those round-numbered birthdays last weekend, so we went to Japantown and climbed the stairs to Kappa. Didn't find any posts from hounds who'd dined there, so I thought I'd weigh in.
The first thing you'll notice about the place is that it's easy not to notice -- just a small sign in Japanese and a sliding wooden door one floor up from Denny's, tucked between two bars. Inside is a serene, tiny space, 10 seats at the blond wood counter plus a couple of tables off to the side.
There is an English menu, but it's brief and generic, and doesn't include the specials, which seem to change often. These, along with a couple dozen sake choices, are posted on the wall behind the counter. Unfortunately, they're handwritten in Japanese, a language I do not know, beyond some phrase book conversation and the phonetic kana. We'd be at sea here if not for the proprietor, Rumiko Kimura, who has been patient and helpful during our two visits. She's one half of a mom-and-pop operation. Her husband, Toshiaki (who doesn't speak English), does the cooking.
The idea at Kappa is ko-ryori: small dishes that complement drinks, especially sake. Unable to read the specials, my wife and I have taken the omakase route, placing ourselves in the Kimuras' hands. This has been a spectacularly successful strategy. Here's what we had last weekend:
1: Kazunoko in cold dashi: Two slices of crunchy herring roe with kombu seaweed and a sprinkling of katsuo bushi (flaked dried bonito) -- the essence of the ocean, and a promising start to dinner.
2: Crab sunomono: Sweet leg meat from a Japanese crab called matsuba-gani (similar to king crab, Mrs. K said), stacked next to thin slices of Japanese cucumber, in a tart -- a bit too tart, for my palate -- vinegar dressing.
3: Tamago yaki: A pillowy wedge of omelette of the sort sometimes served with sushi, a comforting contrast to the sharpness of the sunomono.
4: Sashimi plate: Bracingly fresh and arrayed like a jewel box, this was a highlight of the meal -- tako, both soft and crunchy; rich, buttery uni; meaty, deep red maguro; and shima aji (yellow jack), a white-fleshed fish that we'd never had, with the richness of mackerel but lighter, subtler. Completing the plate were a bright green shiso leaf, a thatch of shredded daikon and fresh grated wasabi. As much as we both enjoy wasabi, especially the fresh stuff, we couldn't bring ourselves to use very much of it with fish this good.
5: Fried shrimp: A single Mexican jumbo shrimp, 6 inches long, dusted with panko and nicely fried. Meaty, slightly sweet and served with a slice of lemon and something like tonkatsu sauce -- not the most common accompaniment for seafood, but this was substantial enough to stand up to it.
6: Fish shioyaki: Salt-grilled tsubodai -- another Japanese fish we hadn't had before (online browsing yields the English translation ``armorfish'') -- with a small mound of daikon oroshi. The white flesh was delicate, moist and perfectly cooked, the crisp skin blistered, brown and irresistible. Sometimes I use a touch of shoyu with fish done in this way; this time not a drop. One of the best fish dishes I've ever had.
7: Fried eggplant with miso: A thick crosswise slice of eggplant (Western, not Japanese) cooked until soft with dark akamiso. This was the richest dish of the evening, sweet, custardy and intense -- and maybe too much of a good thing.
8: Yuba (bean curd sheets) in warm dashi: Another welcome contrast, something simpler and subtler to signal the end of the meal. And it brought us back where we'd started, with a dish served in dashi.
9: Kuzu mochi: A soft, gelatinous dessert, drizzled with dark sugar syrup and sprinkled with kinako, or soy flour. Like most Japanese desserts, this one was not overly sweet, and thus was a good match for the excellent powdered green tea served alongside it.
Speaking of matching food and drink, we had three kinds of sake with dinner, also chosen by Mrs. K, and I'm afraid my napkin notes are sadly inadequate. The first was Uragasumi (a brewer's name, I think), the second a daiginjo (which I gather is a general descriptive term). For the third I scribbled ``suishin'' (Brand? Description? Beats me). All I can say is that they were progressively heavier (not in an unpleasant way) and more complex, and that the interplay between food and sake was fascinating, as different flavors in one brought out surprising qualities in the other. It's a subject I look forward to investigating further.
OK, probably not on a daily basis. The food came to $80 apiece, and the sake (six glasses altogether) pushed the total just north of $200. But I have no complaints. As I've noted, this was a special occasion; money was, uh, no object. More important, the food was splendid: delicious, refined, wholly satisfying. It does appear possible to dine at Kappa for much less. Not everyone at the counter, which was full for most of our visit, was in for the long haul. Some people had three or four courses, or fewer. Perhaps we'll try the same next time.
1700 Post St., San Francisco
(415) 673-6004 (best call ahead)
Dinner 6-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday