Sushi just hasn't been the same since Sushi Monster Sr. and I ate what amounted to essentially the entire Japanese specials whiteboard top to bottom - at Sakae in Burlingame two weeks ago. That unparalleled exercise in gustatory excess set the bar so high that everything since then seems just ... ho-hum.
Of course, it's not every day Sr. and I have $230 to drop for a quick lunch. So what is there left to do? Go try Sakae's little sister Yuzu.
The modest storefront operation, at 54 37th Ave. in San Mateo (just a half-block to the west of El Camino and two blocks south of Hillsdale mall) does not compare to Sakae's overwhelming experience. But what Arima-san does is excellent in its own right and surprise! very competitively priced. I knew within five minutes of sitting down that this place would be on my "must return" short list.
Like all my other top-tier picks, this one has a very small (seven-seat) bar and it's wise to be prompt if you don't want to wait for a lunch seat to open up. (The Thursday I visited was a slow one, though, with just me at the bar and three couples at the deuces.) I found Arima (who I'm guessing is both itamae and general manager/proprietor) to be very accessible and well-versed in both his craft and the current market for fish.
Unlike Sakae, I didn't see a list of precious, exotic only-from-Japan items on the specials menu. But everything I ordered off the whiteboard was of excellent quality. (Arima indicated that *some* of the air-freighted Japanese fish is identical to that at Sakae, but some is sourced separately. Again, this is not a lower-priced Sakae clone.) If you are in the mood for something really exotic to American tastes, note that Yuzu serves a full selection of rarely seen Japanese-style vegetarian maki (rolls) made with everything from squash to Japanese pickles. Although I stuck to my usual ration of nigiri, I should also note that there was an affordable daily lunch special (soup, salad, kaarange chicken and seared tuna for $10.95) and a full range of the usual cooked offerings, plus four or five large fancy rolls priced at $7.50-$12.
My faves from the specials board: Kanpachi (best-grade yellowtail) with beautiful cuts, clean, clear, uncluttered flavor -- the only comparison is with Sakae's. Umi-masu (ocean trout, Australian) I'm getting to love this full-flavored southern-hemisphere offering as much as my beloved BC sockeye. Too bad it's seasonal. Aji (Spanish mackerel) the strongest-flavored fish of the day, seasoned with green-onion garnish and what might have been some sort of marinade. Potent! Glad I saved it for the end.
The ebi and the Hokkaido scallop were good but not outstanding. The seared tuna, served garnished with some sort of pickled green and a white mucous-like, flavorless substance, was just not my thing.
I have no complaints at all. The value's here. What I wish I saw was a bit more variety in the fish lineup or interesting signature treatments.
I tend not to drink sake during my sushi meals, as it seems to dull my palate. But for those who do, note that there's an $11 three-glass sampler. The by-the-glass specials menu is all in Japanese, so I wasn't tempted to go down that road. There are splits of seasonal and special offerings in the below-$50 range, for those who don't want to order an entire bottle.
Bottom line: Everything's right. Traditional orthodox style shop, really good itamae and top-quality fish at a fair price. Average nigiri plate was $5.50. Lunch total w/20 percent tip and no beverage was $39.50. That puts Yuzu right up there with my other top-tier favorites -- Higuma in Redwood City, SushiYa in Palo Alto and Naomi in Menlo Park. As for Sakae? It's safe on its own special plane.
The epic path of piscene devastation continues up El Camino to Sam's! Give me the business, sauce brother! Bring it on!