It has been a while since I last ate at Takara in SF Japantown. While this was tagged as a Zagat and SF Chronicle perennial favorite which may turn off a lot of hounds, I still find the food one of the best overall, and I suppose the key to maximizing the experience is to know what to order.
On one of the Sundays not too long ago I found a rare opportunity to sneak out into the city for an errand, only to be distracted by the empty stomach and craving for sushi (yet again). As I was not too far away, I stepped on the gas pedal and went straight to J-town and into a familiar haunt, Takara.
I had remembered seeing a sign outside the restaurant when I was last in SF J-town (for a birthday dinner at Ino back in January), walked by Takara and saw it closed with a sign that said "under new ownership".
I wasn't sure what to think when I walked through the entrance, but on that Sunday it was as busy as ever. All tables were full, but the sushi bar was empty. Before going through the doors I noticed a very good sign of a full tank of live prawns outside (meaning that the ama ebi will be of great quality as usual).
As I sat down I noticed the familar face of the itamae, Yuki-san who still looked the same since I last saw him a few years ago. The only new thing I noticed was his Japanese assistant.
As I sat down I asked Yuki-san what was good today. Unfortunately I don't recall what they were exactly, but I remember them not being anything exotic, but he did recommend the toro (which most people like). I suppose if you are interested in the more exotic items you need to drill down and see what is available. Then I proceeded to ask what hikarimono (silvery fish) he had today, to which he revealed aji and kohada.
I didn't take notes, so a lot of this is from memory.
Tai - I should have asked what kind of snapper I had, and it was very nice. He served it with the skin on top. For some reason the skin on the surface was in some sort of criss cross/overlapping like pattern. Wish I took of photo. As old school as this place is, he didn't serve it with shiso, or try the lemon + salt preparation like some places do.
Hirame - Yuki-san was nice enough to ask if I wanted ponzu sauce on it, so I replied by letting him know, one piece with, and one without. It was a good way to tell the quality, texture, and flavor of the fish as is. It turns out both preparations were just as wonderful. The ponzu sauce was not overbearing in one direction (too sour or too salty) but was a perfect combination of flavors with the fish and the green onion and minced ginger that was placed on top. The fish by itself (no sauces/condiments) was one of the nicest pieces I've had in a while for a SF sushi restaurant.
Kohada - This was a little bit of a disappointment. It seemed to be a little bit over marinated, but not anything like Ino-san's versions (which are much heavier in vinegar marination). Not dry, but not soft/delicate either. I guess once you have Sushi Tomi or Sakae's versions it is hard to beat. Anzu might do a better one?
Aji - Ahh one of my favorites. Of all the times I've had aji at Takara, there were at least 3 visits (including this one) where I got 3 pieces of nigiri instead of the usual pair (one time I got 2), so I don't know what was the reasoning behind the quantity, but I ate it all up. This version was very enjoyable, almost as good as Ino Sushi's preparation (delicate, smooth) and larger sized pieces too.
I saw that kazunoko (herring roe) was available, but did not order it.
Ama ebi - Ahhh what I've been waiting for! I didn't get a chance to see if this came out of the live tank, but these prawns were pretty good size and had a very bright color with a nice light red hue to it (even after the shells were removed). Most ama ebi I've had in many places were on the slimy and soft side, with more whiteness than red. This version was not only sweet but tasted very meaty and toothsome. Maybe this kind of texture is not for everyone, but I found it very enjoyable. I regret not asking where the prawns came from, as they are so different from what I've had elsewhere. Fried heads come with the ama ebi, and these too taste very crunchy (like a good shrimp chip). A definite highlight of the meal.
Bincho - When you ask for this by name and not albacore/shiro maguro/tombo, Yuki-san knows specifically what you want. I've mixed messages from different itamae when you ask for bincho (most of the time you just get regular albacore sushi), but if you play it right with the right chef, the results are fantastic. I think Yuki-san dished up a superb albacore belly cut (seared) and garnished it with the usual ponzu sauce + green onion/minced ginger on top. This was a superb melt in your mouth experience, literally no need to use teeth to chew the fish part (though with the rice it does put your teeth to work).
Out of all the albacore sushi I've had in many restaurants, I would say Takara/Yuki-san's bincho prep is #1, way surpassing Akane Los Altos's version (though that one might be best for the South Bay/southern Peninsula).
Natto maki - Decent version, but doesn't match up to the home made kind at Kitsho in Cupertino. I'm beginning to think everyone uses the same prepackaged squeeze tube of hikwari natto everywhere. I wish I knew where to find that, but supermarkets don't sell that very tube.
Uni - Nice creamy, very slight briny taste, a little sweet. Sadly not as good as the kind Ino has next door.
Toro - A bit meaty, decent piece but not oily or melt in your mouth.
Tamago Yaki - average egg flavor (not eggy enough for my tastes), moist and pretty bouncy texture, but not sweet enough. Decent overall but not something I would order again.
I think I had a little more after what I've listed but this was what I had remembered. The highlights were the aji, ama ebi, and bincho. The bill was a little high admittedly ($80 ish) but I did splurge and had a great time.
Despite a few items that didn't click that well, it was still a superb meal in general. Most sushi bars are closed on Sundays (lunch or dinner), so for those needing a nigiri fix in SF, look no further than Takara J-town for that.