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 experience of transcendental, near-orgasmic quality.
Consumed by the notion that somewhere in the immediate vicinity someone was waiting to serve me the world's most flawless morsel of salmon, I drove. And drove. And drove some more. To just about every sushi restaurant from Burlingame to Mountain View. For the sake of this exercise, I'll use those geographic bookends as the working definition of "Peninsula." While that may seem arbitrary, it happens to coincide with the distance I'm willing to travel for lunch.
Why do this exercise at all? I can't explain the hunger or why it seized me so powerfully. It is probably the same driving force that impelled me to eat barbecue for 22 consecutive days some years ago. The same force that led me to amass the largest collection of bottled hot sauces on the West Coast. (see http://www.emeraldlake.com/hotsauce.html)
If there's some interest, I may archive this document on my Web site. But restaurant information, like sushi, is satisfying only when it is very fresh. And I'm just not sure I'm able to sustain this mission over the long haul. For now, the best option seems to be posting it to Chowhound, the online forum where I've learned so much lately. The collective intelligence of the Hounds is a source of great amazement to me. This beginner is grateful for the wisdom of some hardcore sushi geeks.
ABOUT THE LIST
Below the rankings I've included a summary of each restaurant. In some cases, these notes are a distillation of a more detailed report I previously posted to Chowhound. 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 running 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. To paraphrase Guide Michelin, each in the top tier is worthy of a special trip. 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, etc.). In most cases my judgments are based on just one or two visits. Your mileage is going to vary substantially.
As for the bottom tier, I would not return to any of them. For most of these places, it's a matter of poor quality or poor service or both. But others have earned the dreaded stinkeye because they represent poor value in this hyper-competitive market. The extreme example is Tomi in Mountain View, which has quality sushi at prices much higher than those of comparable restaurants. 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 return to a mediocre or overpriced sushi bar. 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.
One more word on value: There is little correlation between price and quality. I would guess maybe three-quarters of the middle- and upper-tier restaurants buy most of their fish from the same San Mateo wholesaler. 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, including a 20 percent tip. The second number is the price for my average plate of two nigiri sushi. (Remember, this isn't the average from the 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 No. 2 and No. 3. As of spring 2006, my average solo lunch tab (with no beverage other than tea) was $33.28. And my average nigiri plate was $4.42. (Note: Both of those figures were calculated without Sakae, the one radical outlier on the list.)
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 long 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
1) Sakae, Burlingame. ($113/$8)
2) SushiYa, Palo Alto. ($38/$4.60)
3) Higuma, Redwood City. ($43/$4)
4) Yuzu, San Mateo. ($39.50/$5.50)
5) Sushi Sam's Edomata, San Mateo. ($50.50/$7)
6) Naomi, Menlo Park. ($48/$5.60)
7) Bonsai, Redwood City. ($39/$5.50)
8) Koma, Menlo Park. ($29/--)
9) Akasaka, Menlo Park. ($32/$4.40)
10) Fuki Sushi, Palo Alto. ($41/$4.25)
11) Ganko, San Carlos. ($30/$4.50)
12) Masa, Mountain View. ($39.50/$4.65)
13) Sushiko, Los Altos ($22/$3.60)
14) Akane, Los Altos. ($30.75/$4.30)
15) Sushi Main Street, Half Moon Bay. ($28/$3.75)
16) Yokayama, Redwood City. ($16/$3.40)
17) Ocean Garden, Redwood City. ($33/$4.50)
18) Miyake, Palo Alto. ($29/$2.75)
19) Sumo, Los Altos. ($28/$4.60)
20) Tomi, Mountain View. ($46/$6.50)
21) Narita, Belmont. ($29/$4.80)
22) Isobune, Burlingame. ($35/$3)
23) Tomo, Palo Alto (University Ave.). ($17.50/$2.75)
24) Tomo No. 2, Palo Alto (El Camino Way). ($16/$2.75)
25) 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 orthdox, traditional experience of unparalleled quality, Sakae's top chef Jun Ozawa is the mack daddy.
The whiteboard of daily specials features a staggering selection of fish -- often more than 20 varieties, some seldom seen outside Japan. Most of these are Fed-Ex'd 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.
On the day I stopped in, the special Hokkaido scallops, the kanpachi (best-grade yellowtail) and the masu (ocean trout) were personal favorites. Sakae also had the best premium bluefin tuna I've ever tasted. It usually comes in three types. The two toro grades (fatty belly cuts) ran $18 and $21 for two nigiri pieces. The akami, at $8 per two pieces, was a delicious, budget-conscious alternative.
380 University Ave.
This always-busy shop is about the size of a single-car garage. Most days at noon it's not easy to find a space at the seven-seat bar. Everything about SushiYa bangs my gong: friendly chefs, a traditional orientation and a homey vibe. Expect top-quality nigiri with an average price. The sake (salmon), hotate (scallop) and ikura (salmon roe) are personal favorites.
540 El Camino Real
A small, traditional shop with a great atmosphere and 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). Most remarkably: The crab gunkan maki (battleship) on each of my visits was fresh, *local* and bursting with flavor, with a glop factor of zero. 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.
54 37th Ave.
A small, traditional shop with a seven-seat bar and top-quality fish at a fair price. Kanpachi (best-grade yellowtail) could be compared only with that found at Sakae. The umi-masu (ocean trout) and seki aji (Spanish mackerel) were also outstanding. A longtime Chowhound aficionado swears 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 on the question of value, Sam's relatively steep prices really work against him in this competitive market.
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 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.
Hits and misses: I'd be wary of the kani. What was billed as "crab" on the printed menu was kamaboko (fake crab, a.k.a. surimi). The umi-masu (ocean trout), like most everything else I tried off the daily white-board, was excellent. One of the few local shops to regularly offer tai (sea bream) similar to snapper, but with a silkier texture. One small irritant: I had to flag down a waiter to get a mug of agari (green tea) and flag him down again to have it refilled.
3401 El Camino Real
This is a relatively new and somewhat problematic location for an operation that ran for many years on Jefferson Avenue in downtown Redwood City. (This stretch of El Camino is essentially a highway with zero foot traffic and cars zooming by the front door at 45 m.p.h.) The itamae (Kenji, a.k.a. Mike) is very friendly and knowledgeable. Consistently excellent nigiri, but certainly no bargain. Best bets include sake (salmon), hotate (scallop) and chu toro (medium-grade tuna belly).
211 El Camino Real
This is one-third of the Menlo Park triumvirate of very good, small, neighborhood-oriented bars. One of the best scallops anywhere.
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, and the memorable kanpachi (best-grade yellowtail). Overall, quality fish and fair pricing, with excellent service in a cozy environment.
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 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.
1131 Cherry St.
A mom-and-pop operation with a basic, no-frills menu. Everything I've ever tried here, including rolls, has been of decent quality. However nothing has stood out as being particularly memorable. Just a rock-solid middle-of-the-road choice in San Carlos.
400 San Antonio Rd.
This midsize shop has the feel of a corner diner. Lots of Asian seniors hanging out in the booths over inexpensive bento box lunches. Service is good. The standard nigiri is nothing special. 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 young, Korean-run place appeared to be a lowest-common-denominator neighborhood shop at first blush, with a limited selection of fish. But there were a couple of surprises that seem to hint at ambitions well above the ordinary. Aside from the ho-hum standards -- farmed sake and ebi on the al dente side there was a very nice kani (snow crab) plus huge cuts of decent hamachi.
Mr. Park, the itamae/partner who was working the bar, *misheard* my inquiry about masu (trout). He thought I said "mussel." The New Zealand green-lip mussels were served chilled on the half-shell, with a very hot signature marinade. And, out of the blue, marinated engawa (minced halibut fin muscle) garnished with green onion. The mussels were a home run. The engawa was not. Bottom line: Good value and the potential for some big surprises if you take the time to ask.
250 Third St.
While Akane is very highly regarded among others who know sushi much better than I, my one experience there was far from stellar. A very downbeat scene with three itamae at the eight-seat bar grunting and grimacing their way through the lunch rush. With the exception of very good kani (big, big pieces of flavorful snow crab) and bluefin, what I got was just plain mediocre fish. Overall, an experience that left me cold.
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 hounds who happen to be passing through, 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 special 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 the day I rolled through, there was no kani (except the 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 prawns. Interesting, though, to note Yokayama seems to serve a much higher proportion of sushi to cooked items than the average place, with relatively few customers opting for bento specials and other items from the kitchen. 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.
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 if it came down to Sumo vs. Miyake in the Battle of the Boats, I'd bet on Miyake to prevail, both for variety and fish quality.
635 W. Dana St.
Chowhounds and Japanese expats aren't the only people who really love this place. This cramped storefront is flat-out mobbed for lunch on any given weekday. Plan on coming early or loitering on the sidewalk outside the front door. Whatever the special attraction is here, it totally eluded me. I didn't taste anything memorable. The best picks were the ebi (prawn) and kani (crab). Although there's quality here, overall, plate-for-plate, it adds up to a very poor value.
1001 Alameda de las Pulgas
An utterly skippable experience. The plasticized faux food in the front window should have been a tipoff. 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 inadvertantly 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). The sushi rice was a bit on the sour side for my taste.
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.
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 tipoff 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. (Dear God, may I please live long enough to witness the second coming of Higashi West ...)
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.
Aya, 1070 Holly St., San Carlos. (650) 654-1212.
MoMoYa, 570 N. Shoreline Blvd., Mountain View. (650) 967-6166.
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.
TALK TO SUSHI MONSTER