A FISH STORY
One day a little over a year ago, 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. 3.0
As of spring 2007, the list stands at 45 restaurants (up from 34 in v. 2.0 and 25 in v. 1.0). The total coverage area spans Millbrae in the north through select pockets of Cupertino and Sunnyvale in the south. (In practical terms, I'm defining "Peninsula" as the distance I am able to drive for lunch.) I consider the list to be comprehensive from Burlingame through Mountain View. To the best of my knowledge, there are only three sub-standard bars which I intentionally skipped. Barring new arrivals on the scene, this version may be my definitive last word on Peninsula sushi. Having spent north of $7,000 in solo lunch tabs just to get this far, I have no plans to extend coverage into San Francisco or further into Santa Clara County.
In the six months since v. 2.0, nine of the restaurants in the top ten were revisited between two and 12 times apiece. This resulted in a big shake-up of rank within the top tier. Most notably: Akane in Los Altos shot from No. 8 to no. 2 based on selection, value and consistent quality. The venerable warhorse Fuki in Palo Alto went from No. 12 to No. 4 based on superior service, selection and consistent quality. SushiYa in Palo Alto, formerly my much-beloved No. 3, is slated to close in the coming weeks and was thus dropped entirely. Several others in the top tier were downgraded slightly -- not because of slipping quality but because of poor value relative to the market. Several top-tier restaurants were also bumped down slightly because of relatively poor selection. The comments on each establishment have been revised to reflect the most current information available.
This list is permanently archived at http://www.emeraldlake.com/sushilist.... 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
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. I value variety and favor restaurants that offer a substantial daily whiteboard of special fish.
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 of the conclusions I've drawn. After a half-dozen or a dozen lunches, the chance of some significant element being a one-time anomaly is virtually nil.
Most of the restaurants in the top tier have at least one home run – an item that is the best in its class. Within that elite group, don't read too much into the nominal ranking. It would be sheer folly to say "Sam's is better than Yuzu." The ranking is a matter of my personal preference and a summation of the total dining experience based on many meals. The quality of the fish and rice is always the top consideration. But the selection, the special atmosphere the itamae creates at the bar and the level of service are also in the mix. Your mileage may vary substantially, depending on the day of the week and the particular itamae who serves you at the bar. (These reviews are *only* for the bar, never for table service.)
These rankings are based on quality *and* overall value. If you want very fine fish and money is no consideration, Sam's, Yuzu, Tomi, Kitsho and Kuni will probably rank higher in your estimation. They all serve top-quality nigiri. Their ranks here reflect relatively poor overall value when weighed against the top-tier competition. Most notably, Higuma, Hotaru and Akane offer very high quality at better-than-reasonable prices.
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 overhead than it does with the fish. It's instructive to note that the three lowest-ranked restaurants – the McNastiest of the nasty – were all priced within a dime of my No. 2 overall pick.
In the middle tier, you can find decent quality and good value – if you have patience and time. But most of the denizens of the middle tier are not consistently solid performers day after day. Within the middle group, you're far less likely to find a good selection of special fish or an itamae who is properly skilled.
As for the bottom tier, I would not return to any of these establishments. 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 and better value are almost always just down the street. Avoid the restaurants in the bottom tier.
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, again including a 20 percent tip. Remember, this isn't the average from the entire menu, this is the average of the stuff I actually ate.
As of spring 2006, my average solo lunch tab was $33.28. And my average nigiri plate was $4.42. As of spring 2007, my average solo lunch tab was $39.50, a 19 percent increase. My average nigiri plate was $5.75, a 30 percent increase. (I think this sharp run-up is due to my heavier emphasis on restaurants in the top half of the rankings during the last period.) For v. 3.0, in an effort to develop a more timely value snapshot, I've recalibrated the price data for the most heavily revisited restaurants to reflect only the four most recent visits to each establishment.
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 geta (plain wood 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. 3.0
1) Sakae, Burlingame. ($113/$8)
2) Akane, Los Altos. ($45.20/$5.10)
3) Higuma, Redwood City. ($34.60/$5.50)
4) Fuki Sushi, Palo Alto. ($58.80/$7.40)
5) Sushi Sam's Edomata, San Mateo. ($58.90/$7.70)
6) Yuzu, San Mateo. ($58.00/$7.05)
7) Koma, Menlo Park. ($55.15/$7.00)
8) Hotaru, San Mateo. ($29.10/$4.40)
9) Sushi Maru, Sunnyvale. ($43.90/$3.55)
10) Sushi Kuni, Cupertino. ($57.75/$6.60)
11) Kitsho, Cupertino. ($71.50/$7.95)
12) Tomi, Mountain View. ($49.60/$6.80)
13) Naomi, Menlo Park. ($49.05/$7.05)
14) Akasaka, Menlo Park. ($37.25/$5.50)
15) Kanpai, Palo Alto. ($65.70/$7.30)
16) Momoya, Mountain View. ($34/$4.90)
17) Masa, Mountain View. ($34.50/$4.40)
18) Sushi Tei, Mountain View. ($44/$6.30)
19) Bonsai, Atherton. ($37.10/$5.50)
20) Tokie's, Foster City. ($60/$6)
21) Sushiko, Los Altos. ($30/$4.20)
22) Kisaku, San Mateo. ($48/$6)
23) Hanamaru, Sunnyvale. ($33.05/$4.70)
24) Jun Sushi, Burlingame. ($45/$5)
25) Sushi Kei, Millbrae. ($58.30/$6.10)
26) Sushi Main Street, Half Moon Bay. ($28/$3.75)
27) Yokayama, Redwood City. ($16.50/$3.45)
28) Ocean Garden, Redwood City. ($34/$5)
29) Miyake, Palo Alto. ($30/$2.90)
30) Aya, San Carlos. ($33/$6.60)
31) Ganko, San Carlos. ($40/$6.60)
32) Sumo, Los Altos. ($28/$4.60)
33) Joy Sushi, San Mateo. ($16.70/$5.55)
34) Narita, Belmont. ($29/$4.80)
35) Isobune, Burlingame. ($35/$3)
36) Tsunami, Mountain View. ($25.60/$6.40)
37) Yamo Yamo, San Mateo. ($21.85/$4.40)
38) Kaigan, San Carlos. ($20/$4)
39) Tomo, Palo Alto (University Ave.). ($17.50/$2.75)
40) Tomo No. 2, Palo Alto (El Camino Way). ($16/$2.75)
41) Seasonal Sushi, Redwood City. ($19.15/$4.80)
42) Suisha House, Redwood City. ($32.15/$5.35)
43) Shiki, San Mateo. ($30/$5)
44) Kyoto, San Mateo. ($25.70/$5.15)
45) Liquid Sushi, San Mateo. ($39/$5)
240 Park Rd.
Given the abundance of quality sushi on the Peninsula, the question arises: Why would a value-conscious sushi monster ever lay out $8 per plate? Anyone who professes to really care about sushi should sample the best at least once – if for no other reason than to establish a baseline point of reference for quality. In other words, you're in a much better position to parse the good from the very good once you've tasted the truly great.
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.) When it comes to providing an orthodox, traditional meal of unparalleled quality, Jun Ozawa is the man. Sakae is the total package – the best fish, the best itamae, 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 and the masu are personal favorites. Sakae also has the best premium bluefin tuna I've ever tasted. It's usually available in three cuts. The two toro grades ran $18 or $21 for two nigiri pieces. The akami, at $8 per two pieces is a delicious, budget-conscious alternative. Partaking in the toro could ruin you. As Calvin Trillin would probably say, after you taste this stuff, you will want to throw rocks at other people's toro.
250 Third St.
I could be perfectly content to eat lunch once a week for the rest of my life at Akane. Like Sakae, it is the total package – absolute top quality fish, a staggering selection of special daily offerings, a master itamae and a traditional focus. Unlike Sakae, there is tremendous value to be found here. No matter who's behind the bar – Shin-san or his No. 2 man Shu-san – Akane is an absolute paragon of reliable quality, day after day.
Akane is my best example of great sushi experiences being built on relationships and trust. The first few times you sit in front of these highly skilled itamae, you may get just a hint of all the special things they have to offer. (There's a *lot* more than what's on the whiteboard.) Over time, as they become more familiar with your taste, the relationship will grow and your experience will just keep getting richer and deeper. These guys are the only ones who know me well enough that I would feel comfortable going omakase (chef's selection) there. From what I've seen at the bar, there are a lot of other people who feel exactly the same way. If you eat the full range of what Akane has to offer, in six months you will know more about fine nigiri than any of your sushi-snob buddies.
My usual lunch lineup includes: seared sake (or masu), seared hotate (with lemon and coarse salt), hirame and engawa (the best engawa anywhere), hamachi belly, kanpachi or shima aji, aji, oysters and ankimo. If they're available, the aoyagi scallops and mirugai can be excellent (order one of each for contrast). Skip the unmarinated ikura and the kani.
Given the intense devotion of its regular fans, Akane does just fine although it's semi-hidden, on a sleepy block in the heart of downtown Los Altos. (A frequent lunch partner of mine grumbles that it's *too easy* to find and too many people know about it already.) The lunch rush can be unpredictable. At noon, you may be looking at a long wait for a bar seat – or you may have the bar entirely to yourself. The greatest selection of fish seems to come in on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
540 El Camino Real
This tiny old brick house, so comically out of place on today's El Camino, is home to 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. The fact that Japanese emigres drive a long way to eat here is a good sign. Piece for piece, Higuma is second only to Akane for value.
Selection has never been Higuma's strong suit. But toward the end of 2006, they did add a specials board. You should make a point of asking the itamae directly if he has any special fish that day. My perennial favorites here include the masu, the kani (Alaskan crab served gunkan maki style, with a "glop" factor of zero) and marinated ikura. Aji is usually a good choice. So is toro if it's on the specials board. Hamachi quality and cuts can vary.
Unlike other highly traditional operations, Higuma isn't really set up for ordering a few nigiri at a time, which is a pity. You order your entire set on the standard checklist and get it all at once on the geta. Particularly at the height of the lunch rush, it may be a while before you get the itamae's attention again. Neither chef is particularly gregarious, unless you're fluent in Japanese.
With all due respect, things may have slipped just a tiny bit in recent months since Eiji-san hired a No. 2 itamae. The new man's aesthetics, knife skills and sense of proportion (too much shari, not enough tane) are not exactly up to the standard that his boss adhered to. It is almost as if he was trained as a kitchen chef rather than a knife man. Still, Higuma holds onto its No. 3 ranking because this is the real good stuff at a real good price. The only high-quality sushi between San Mateo and Menlo Park.
4119 El Camino Real
The granddaddy of all Peninsula sushi restaurants (dishing it out since 1978) still delivers the goods, with a daily whiteboard of specials that's often outstanding. There is nothing warm or homey here. Fuki is a big, well-oiled machine, with four itamae working the 14-seat bar at lunch. For the best possible service, sit on the far right side of the bar (near the specials board) to be served by the senior itamae.
Among sushi aficionados, the big knock on Fuki is value. Prices are *very* high, making Fuki a traditional favorite among the expense-account crowd and those who lunch with them. Only rarely have I been able to get out of Fuki for under $60 at lunch.
If you can get over the price, you'll find the quality is there consistently. Engawa, hamachi belly, sake belly and madai are dependable hits. Aji and shima aji are very good when they're in stock. Wild sake on the specials board is usually worth getting. Skip the ikura. If you do splurge on the toro, get it minced and seared, rather than as nigiri. For the broadest selection, Wednesdays through Fridays are prime time.
Sushi Sam's Edomata
218 E. 3rd Ave.
When other local sushi aficionados compare their top picks, not infrequently it comes down to Sam's versus Sakae. Aside from the price, there really is little to compare. Both offer high-quality fish and a remarkable selection of hard-to-find Japanese specialties. But Sakae is a traditional Japanese sushiya whereas Sam's bar is a shrine of innovation and creative flair. It's almost a wasted gesture to pour shoyu into the little dish, because just about everything you're going to be served at Sam's is already garnished and perfectly seasoned.
The truly astounding thing is how Osamu-san and *three* assistant itamae crammed elbow-to-elbow behind the bar can maintain that level of quality presentation when they're slamming out orders at a go-for-broke pace. There's so much stuff flying through the air it looks like Pit Row at the Indy 500. Seating at the 10-seat bar is extremely intimate, personal space being measured in millimeters. The noise level can be off the charts. (Sam is fond of barking out orders and greetings in a voice that could be heard quite clearly by drivers out on Highway 101.) The overall experience can be a bit overwhelming -- great artistic sushi, shot at you out of a Gatling gun.
While others slam Fuki for being an uncommonly poor value, I'd lay that same rap on Sam's. By my box score (see above), the average lunch tab for the two differs by all of ten cents. While Sam's trumps Fuki (and every place other than Sakae, for that matter) on sheer selection, I find the overall quality and experience at Fuki to be higher. (As a somewhat comic aside, I should note that a San Francisco Chronicle reviewer recently showcased Sam's as a "bargain bite" establishment – entirely on the basis of *cooked* lunch specials such as tempura and teriyaki. Go figure.)
My must-haves for any visit to Sam's: his signature baby lobster tail (garnished with tobiko, almond chips and special mayo), sayori (rarely seen outside Japan) and shima aji. This is a very oversubscribed bar. Sneak in before 12 or plan to wait for a seat.
54 37th Ave.
On a good day, this tiny, traditional shop a block off El Camino can be a perfect refuge from all the world's cares – like an exclusive spa, it's a serene place to spend way too much money. Expect top-quality fish, prepared by one of the most highly skilled itamae in the region. The masu and aji are excellent. The marinated ikura might be the best anywhere. When Arima-san has special madai from Japan or wild sake, don't pass them up. Hotate and hamachi can be hit-or-miss.
211 El Camino Real
Overall, Koma might be the most under-appreciated gem in the top ten. When I refer to the "total package" – the entire sushi experience – one of the elements that's essential to me but frequently overlooked by others is the special atmosphere each itamae creates at the bar. Ideally, the bar should be an extension of the itamae's personality. Boba-san is one of those rarest of itamae, blessed with superb technical skills and encyclopedic knowledge of the business *plus* the great social instincts to make each customer feel totally appreciated and cared for. (On a related note, in the little-things-mean-a-lot category, Koma is one of the few sushiya to still offer you an oshibori upon being seated. A small gesture, but one that hints at a total-quality orientation.)
Compared to most of the other sushiya in the top tier, Menlo Park's best sushi bar is rarely busy. (As a matter of fact, I've never seen the bar full at lunch.) Like Yuzu, it can be a gracious sanctuary and a place of great indulgence. Boba-san consistently offers one of the strongest (and priciest) whiteboards on the Peninsula. The sockeye salmon is a seldom-seen find (but not a terrific value when you consider how much excellent sockeye is available year-round in specialty grocery stores). The king crab is sinfully expensive and worth it. Sake belly and hotate are both reliably good. And his marinated ikura should be the stuff of legend. Although I don't partake myself, I have it on good authority that the uni is excellent, right up there with Akane's. I always try to finish with a single piece of ankimo, the proverbial cherry on top of the sundae.
As with so many places in the top tier, it's alarming easy to ring up a $70 lunch tab here without even thinking about it. So think about it. The smart strategy at Koma is to order singles and then double back for second pieces of the things that you found most appealing. If you catch him at an opportune time, he may even give you the opportunity to compare and contrast the belly cuts of hamachi and sake with the regular cuts – another great tutorial on the road to graduate sushi monster status.
33 E. Third Ave.
It's best to think of Hotaru as a very authentic Japanese family diner that just happens to have a four-seat sushi bar. The atmosphere is loud and bright. Service is harried yet professional. (You order only through the wait staff. The two young itamae would rather set their hair on fire than actually interact with a customer.) Nigiri selection is bare-bones basic. And the wait can be 20 minutes at the peak of the lunch rush. (There's *always* some wait between 12 and 1, guaranteed.) So what's the draw? Value, value, value.
That and the fact it's the only quality sushi operation on the Peninsula open for lunch and dinner 365 days a year.
While it sometimes seems that every sansei within 20 miles of downtown San Mateo comes here at lunch for genuine "homestyle" box specials and ramen, I will make a special trip – and even (horrors!) wait in line -- for the nigiri, which is consistently wonderful. Don't bother looking for a specials board. What you see on the standard checklist is what you get. And, as the kids say, it's all good. You can't miss with hotate and sake. The marinated ikura packs a righteous wallop. The hamachi can be near-toro grade on a good day. Toro, at $5.50 per plate, can be a ragged cut, but it's a steal. The sushi rice is so good that even people who wouldn't ordinarily take note of the shari are probably going to mention it.
Don't believe "homestyle" means crude in any way. The quality of the nigiri is consistently high. I'm reluctantly coming to believe there really may be 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. Between San Francisco and Sunnyvale, Hotaru is the only bar where the words "quality" and "inexpensive" meet.
308 Town & Country Village
Frankly, Maru's in the top ten because it make so many overpriced places look so bad by way of comparison. This high-volume sibling of Maru in San Jose and Tomi in Mountain View is far and away the highest-quality boat moat in the region. Like the other kaiten, it's a no-frills room with very child-friendly service. Unlike the others, it has a great selection of quality nigiri. For a sushi snob, the quintessential Maru moment is ordering a plate of engawa, kurodai or other relatively uncommon nigiri from the itamae, mowing it down and thinking "Great godalmighty! I can't believe I'm eating that in a boat place. Yummy. And so CHEAP!" Expect that to happen a lot here.
The best strategy is to stick to the sushi, ordering directly from the chefs when possible, and avoid the many fried and baked items on the kitchen menu. Virtually everything is either $2.90 or $3.90 per plate, with only the toro, ama ebi and uni at $4.90. A big specials whiteboard (and a second whiteboard in Japanese) let's you know they're serious about variety. Clams, mussels, masu, hotate and three varieties of prawns are regularly in the mix. If you don't see it (hamachi belly cuts, engawa, etc.) just ask and they might be able to accommodate you. Ikura, sake, aji, hamachi belly, hotate, engawa, ama ebi and penshell clam were all good.
With the exception of Miyake and Hotaru, Maru is the only option for families with little kids in tow and for Sundays. (Based on experience with a three-year-old sushi monster, Maru rates higher on the fun quotient than the other two.)
On those occasions when your inner sushi monster needs to go flat-out savage – on oysters, ikura, sake, toro, whatever – this place is worth the drive. Go wild.
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. 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. Kuni has the potential to deliver a top-flight sushi experience. But on any given lunch hour, it's likely to be loud and cramped, with slow service from behind the bar. Overall, a poor value relative to the marketplace.
19541 Richwood Dr.
No question this highly regarded restaurant just west of Vallco shopping center has quality sushi. Other sushi monsters with impeccable credentials say Howard Arita has possibly the broadest selection of nigiri in the South Bay, from "live" uni to tiny baby herring rarely seen in these parts. Personally, I have yet to see it. Standout items I can vouch for include kanpachi, marinated ikura and aji. The real question here is value. At an average of $7.95 per nigiri plate – second only to Sakae -- 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. With a total lunch tab of $70-plus per person, something doesn't add up.
635 W. Dana St.
On any weekday, this cramped double storefront on the south edge of downtown Mountain View is flat-out mobbed for lunch by a very loyal, predominantly 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. Superior grade fish, often presented in sloppy, uncaring fashion. Hotate's top quality. Hamachi, ikura and aji are good bets any day. Although there's consistent quality here, overall, plate-for-plate, it adds up to a poor value.
1328 El Camino Real
I don't know what the Japanese equivalent would be for "haimish." That's the word from my tribe that translates roughly as "homey," "warm," "comfortable," or "cozy." That ineffable quality is what makes Naomi stand out within the top tier. This mid-sized 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 that just feels right, a vibe that puts people at ease.
If you want a safe, predictable lunch, you can certainly get it here. But if you crave variety and the thrill of the unexpected, you can get that, too. (The "specials" board hasn't changed in ages, so you need to ask.) From mekajiki (blue marlin) and kingfish to ariboko, there's never a dull moment with these guys. The partners seem to delight in springing surprises on unsuspecting customers. Sometimes they hit (a bowl of minced toro with wasabi sauce and scallions, crowned by a disc of ankimo *and* topped with black caviar. Good God.) And sometimes they don't. My first encounter with a natto handroll -- a lump of fermented bean paste the color and texture of snot -- was memorable enough, though. This was a cruel case of the itamae serving me something for his own amusement.
The uncomfortable experience of being taken for an omakase ride I neither asked for nor approved has had me close to blacklisting Naomi several times. But for some reason, forgiveness wins out and I keep coming back.
Masu and kanpachi are good bets any day. The toro is cheap and of relatively low quality. The sake and hotate can both be excellent, if you insist on having them seared. Often, Naomi's creative strength comes through at unexpected moments when the itamae goes back to the kitchen to pull a special trick plate: a tempura treatment for engawa or robata-grilled hotate with a light jalapeno sauce, for example. For now, those transcendent moments of discovery are balanced against all the times these guys have taken me for the proverbial ride.
925 El Camino Real
Sandwiched between Naomi and Koma, Akasaka is the weak sibling of the Menlo Park lineup. It lacks Koma's quality and Naomi's brand of thrills. This is a friendly neighborhood shop with a very limited selection of nigiri. It does, however, carry some of the best farmed sake in the region, decent hamachi and (occasionally) memorable kanpachi. Katsuo seems to be the house specialty. Avoid the ikura, hirame and tai. A cozy, convivial scene, but nothing special on the culinary front.
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 the stiffness. Masu, hamachi belly, seared hotate and marinated ikura are all sure hits.
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.
400 San Antonio Rd.
This mid-sized 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 both fast and competent. The standard nigiri is the picture of mediocrity – not terrible, but utterly forgettable. 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.
1036 Castro St.
This unpretentious and largely unheralded shop on the quiet side of Castro (west of El Camino) is about the only sane "middle way" I've found in the dysfunctional sub-sphere of downtown Mountain View sushi. On one end of the spectrum, you have high-quality Tomi, with unconscionably high prices. And on the other side, four simply awful places. Tei is the only everyday, go-to joint to fall somewhere between the two extremes.
Fish quality is mid-range, but thoroughly acceptable (there's no way the large contingent of Japanese seniors would tolerate anything less). Service, even at peak hours, is wicked fast and very cordial at this Japanese-run shop. If you want special nigiri not on the standard checklist, you'll have to press the itamae. Even then, he may well tell you he has no special fish that day. Ikura, sake and hamachi were all decent. Skip the hotate and hirame. Engawa can be delicious. (This is a somewhat cranky veteran itamae who is highly skilled and knows how to score and cut the fin muscle.) The aji cuts were huge and quite tasty. Overall, Tei is not an outstanding value. But aside from Tomi, it's the only passable sushi option in downtown Mountain View.
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 very limited selection of standard nigiri. Avoid the ikura and the kani. The only memorable item isn't nigiri, but rather an off-the-menu baked New Zealand mussel, served on the half-shell and garnished with sriracha sauce and tobiko.
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 itamae. 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.
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 mediocre experience with little to recommend a return visit.
47 E. Fourth Ave.
Nothing about Kisaku makes it stand out among a crowd of a dozen Japanese restaurants in downtown San Mateo. It is the picture of solid, albeit uninspired middle-of-the-road Japanese cuisine. Although the seven-seat sushi bar is prominent at the front of the restaurant, sushi isn't the main draw here at all. Kisaku packs them in every day at lunch for large soup and noodle bowls from the kitchen. The elderly itamae is no charm school grad. No nigiri on the specials board, only rolls. Selection is somewhat limited but if you press the matter and ask for specific fish, you may get satisfaction. Ikura was plain and briny. Hamachi and hotate both got a heavy hand with the wasabi. Hirame and engawa were both just OK. Tai and kanpachi were both ragged cuts with decent flavor. No reason for a return visit here, with Hotaru right on the other side of the block.
675 S. Bernardo Ave.
There is decent quality fish to be found in this unremarkable boat moat, tucked in a corner of a strip mall just a half-block west of El Camino. But the overall experience doesn't add up to a particularly compelling value. To put it in context with its competitors in the bargain-sushi strata, this is clearly superior to Miyake, which it appears to emulate in many superficial ways. But Sushi Maru, on the other side of Sunnyvale, easily beats it on both quality and price.
Astonishingly, this is a kaiten where most of the boats are ghost ships, captained by rubber duckies (yes) and carrying no cargo at all. The meager offerings that are on the boats are most unappetizing. Most of the patrons here seem to recognize this and wisely do their ordering directly from the three itamae. Best calls are marinated ikura and uncommonly sweet hamachi. On the specials board the three-piece oyster platter at $5 was a good value, while the toro at $8.95 was not. Overall, presentation is weak and the cuts are often ragged.
I have a high-tolerance for funk when it comes to atmosphere. A little funk is good. But Hanamaru is just plain beat-up and shabby. This is a good place *not* to impress a date. Acoustically, the room is louder than a box of M-80s, with all the hard, bright surfaces amping up the volume to the point where you're routinely shouting at the harried itamae – and they're shouting back at you. One can just imagine what a Friday night must be like here when the sake-bomb brigade gets down to business.
This sleepy, vaguely funky neighborhood shop has seen better days. The whole scene just feels tired. Hotate, hamachi, aji (from Japan), standard snow crab and hirame/engawa combo are all just OK quality. Avoid the beat-up sake and the ikura. Overall, good service and a decent fish selection are outweighed by mediocre quality. Certainly not worth a special trip, but I wouldn't rule out a return in the unlikely event I happened to find myself on this street at lunchtime.
This homey storefront on Millbrae's main drag (a block west of El Camino) has a loyal following among Japanese. The nigiri is of decent quality, the craftsmanship is good but the cuts are stinting at best. The consistently heavy-handed application of wasabi 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 anytime soon: 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.
The restaurant, which enjoys a longstanding good rep among coastside locals, features decent, unremarkable quality fish. The one memorable element: 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 selection. On any given day you may find no kani (except "krab"), masu, bluefin, hotate, ikura, saba, 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
Mediocre fish that's not cheap. 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 are passable. Service is friendly enough. Zero atmosphere. And no itamae behind the bar. Your best bet would be to call in a to-go order -- and be prepared to wait 25 minutes, even during slack hours. Note there are no lunch hours. Dinners are until 9, seven nights a week.
140 University Ave.
A high-volume operation in more ways than one. On Friday and Saturday nights, a big sound system and disco lights lend this boat moat a date-night party atmosphere. If sake bombs are an integral part of your personal sushi aesthetic, you'll feel right at home here. The value proposition: A relatively inexpensive choice (most nigiri plates under $3), with better-than-expected fish quality for a kaiten. Avoid the kani 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 it 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 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 farmed 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, my snapshot showed just the opposite. But as long as the quality of the fish remains abysmal 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. Avoid the hotate, kani, hamachi and ikura. The "pop" in mom-and-pop is a grim, foul-tempered little man who really shouldn't be in the restaurant business. Essentially, anyone who really cares about sushi seems to be regarded as a pain in the ass. Here, have a California roll and shut the hell up.
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. 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.
30 S. B St., San Mateo
A rather joyless experience overall. Bad, but not awful enough to fall into "memorably bad" territory. Judging from the rather tentative work by the 20-ish itamae, the four-seat bar sees few people ordering nigiri. This is a modest, no-frills storefront shop built on a large menu of neon-colored fancy rolls and the usual cooked fare. Service was earnest but clueless, delivering nigiri about as ragged and uneven as the average home chef might be able to muster. Two notable things about the bar itself in this otherwise-forgettable scene: It features the classic but rarely seen built-in water spigots for rinsing fingers (not running on the day I came through) and a fish case where the fish are entirely hidden behind hectares of parsley. Downtown San Mateo is blessed with some better-than-average sushiya – particularly Sam's and Hotaru. So there's no reason to bother with a below-average operation.
1001 Alameda de las Pulgas
An utterly skippable experience. They do a brisk lunch trade and big volume take-out. Atmosphere is non-existent. Chow down and get out. This was a rare time when the language barrier between myself and an itamae was a real problem. Through miscommunication, I inadvertently ended up ordering an overpriced ($5.75) underwhelming baby scallop nigiri, which turned out to be a lump of mayo-dreched flavorless glop served gunkan maki style. A very bare-bones selection of nigiri offerings with no daily specials. The best calls of a forgettable lunch were the ebi and kani. The sushi rice was a bit on the sour side.
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 and tiny shrimp gunkan maki. It's kid-friendly – and not as cheap as you might expect.
209 Castro St.
This downbeat Korean-run bar offers poor quality fish at an outrageous, that's-gotta-be-a-mistake price. I paid $6.40 per nigiri plate (including my customary 20 percent tip) for sushi that was below boat-moat quality. With Tomi's superior quality right around the corner, there is no reason to ever set foot in Tsunami.
Yamo Yamo Sushi
360 Peninsula Ave.
This sleepy operation, far off the beaten path on the San Mateo/Burlingame border, is just one more of a type that predominates in the bottom tier: A mom-and-pop neighborhood roll dispensary run by non-Japanese who have no business in sushi. There's a nice homey vibe to Yamo Yamo and I'd guess in a previous incarnation it really was the corner diner. (Think Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" and you're there.) The backbone of the menu is a slate of nearly three dozen fancy rolls. All you need to know about the culinary orientation here: The signature roll is salmon, asparagus and Philly cream cheese. Oh, that and the fact they sell something called a "sashimi taco plate."
As for the nigiri, it's a very limited selection, ranging from C-grade sake and D-grade hamachi to F-grade ebi, tai and ikura. This is one of the very few times language has been a real impediment in ordering, the Chinese itamae/proprietor being rather severely English-challenged. More to the point, he also lacked even the most rudimentary nigiri construction skills.
773 Laurel St.
After dismal experiences at Ganko and Aya, I suspected the San Carlos/Belmont region was a black hole for sushi. 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. The Korean 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 "D" 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?
The downtown Redwood City dining scene has improved markedly over the past several years. Unfortunately, when it comes to sushi Broadway is still a vast wasteland. This decidedly uncharismatic Korean-run operation, just 50 yards from the Caltrain depot, draws a decent lunch crowd, but not nearly as big as that at Suisha House, below. Most come for the large menu of cooked items and fancy rolls. The nigiri is consistently D-grade, well below decent supermarket sushi. Hotate and ikura were both memorably bad, while the hamachi and sake were merely flavorless and forgettable.
This high-volume roll factory (as in lots of plates *and* lots of noise) features substandard nigiri at standard prices. The only attraction at the 10-seat bar is watching the weightlifters from the Powerhouse Gym down the block devour one oversized fancy roll after another. The kind of patron who's most likely to appreciate this Korean-run operation is one who likes lots of mayo, sriracha and avocado in their sushi. Nigiri ranged from D-grade sake and hotate to F-grade hamachi and kani (the latter of which was extruded surimi, not crab). Fancy rolls in the $8-$14 range draw a big lunch rush of downtown office workers, and service, though well-intentioned, can suffer at the peak of the rush. The only notable feature of this thoroughly forgettable shop: A high-definition TV playing an endless slideshow of various rolls.
1332 W. Hillsdale Blvd.
There is a point where really bad quality fish meets really bad preparation, a crossroads where all the adjectives seem to run together in one amorphous train wreck of culinary misery. The name of that point is Shiki. This Chinese-run, diner-style shop in the Laurelwood strip mall off Highway 92 is the unfortunate epitome of a type: a deep-burbs operation run by people who don't know a thing about sushi, patronized by a neighborhood lunch crowd that doesn't care.
I won't bother to go into the blow-by-blow on the bad fish. Suffice it to say they're of such consistently poor quality that the alleged itamae (one of three sullen Chinese post-high-schoolers behind the bar) spritzes each nigiri piece with a sweet soy spray in a vain effort to disguise the taste. These kids really should be making fries at Mickey D's. Because they have no business behind a sushi bar. And apparently they know it. Rather than even attempt interaction with customers at the nine-seat bar, these mopes only follow what the little computerized printout box tells them. This place makes most of the Peninsula's boat moats look appetizing.
213 Second Ave.
This wasn't the worst sushi lunch on record -- but very close. Two mitigating factors to note in Kyoto's favor: The service at this Korean-run neighborhood joint is both warm and efficient, even at the peak of the lunch rush. And the room itself (which most closely resembles Kisaku a couple blocks over) is cozy and inviting.
Unfortunately, the fish quality here is abysmal, with several items sporting fishy, "off" flavors – almost certainly from being either too old for sushi or stored in close proximity to bad fish. They use the same wholesaler as many of the Peninsula's top-flight shops – which just goes to show there is no correlation between quality and a particular upstream source. To add insult to injury, thus cementing a permanent slot among the worst: It's not even particularly cheap. Three of my top ten picks are priced on par with Kyoto.
1750 S. El Camino Real
OK. You made it this far. So admit it: You really have some morbid curiosity about the worst of the worst. This sketchy operation, hermit-crabbing in an old Lyon's at the intersection of Highway 92 and El Camino Real, was both 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.
Given the robust market for sushi in this region – and in San Mateo in particular – every time I drive by I have to wonder: "How is it that a place that bad can live -- while a place as good as Palo Alto's Sushi Ya must die?" Where is the rational and unseen hand of the marketplace when you really need it to up and smack someone?
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