Monday, January 30, 2012

Sushi on North Beach

Nigiri Sushi
Finding sushi in San Francisco is like finding a prostitute in Singapore.  Easy (so I'm told).  Finding good sushi is another story...

After some internet magic, I came upon Sushi on North Beach.  Word was they had a very good tuna and foie gras nigiri offering.  Having had a few very nice examples of how sushi and foie gras can work together beautifully, I wanted to give this restaurant a shot.

The place was small, sort of hole-in-the-wally, and the servers were pleasant.  I went a little buck wild ordering, because when I was provided the specials for the day they had a number of real winners.

The Good:  1. Hotate (Scallop) nigiri.  The scallops were large and fresh, and it was above average.  2. The special nigiri, a Hawaiian butterfish (escolar or walu), was also outstanding.  Two other real winners were the yari ika (calamari) and house special foie gras (with tuna).  3. The calamari actually stole the show, it was delicious, soft, clear white and obviously fresh, soft, not chewy, with a shiso leaf hidden underneath.  I love shiso, and this addition was a welcome surprise.  4. The foie gras nigiri were two little pieces of decadence.  Since the combination is so delicious, and works well together, I have no idea why it isn't everywhere fine sushi is sold.  I'm surprised that in a location that was also featuring otoro (tuna belly), they didn't double up on their luxurious components for a killer special.

Fresh Calamari
Hawaiian Butterfish
Tuna with Foie Gras
The Average:  The ultimate roll and spicy hotate,  1. The ultimate roll had very nice flavors, it was sort of a roll version of the foie gras nigiri.  I learned a little lesson at this restaurant, which is that when you order maki rolls, they quality and proportions are not as good as nigiri sushi.  I have been to a number of places where you don't notice as substantial a drop-off, and places where it doesn't matter (because no matter what you're never going to get anything better than average).  The concept of a place that is good, but that doesn't do a good job of controlling rice to inside goodies, and foie gras to other ingredients, is a little new.  Additionally, the obvious drop off in quality is also new.  Sushi on North Beach defined this new category.  2. The spicy hotate was not memorable, but it was nice.  The scallops got thin through the roll, but returned to more acceptable levels around the edges (where it was more obvious).  I asked the chef to add thinly sliced lemon, as much to test his knife skills as because I enjoy the flavor with scallops.  The result was, in a word, average.  Not thinly sliced enough, but not terrible, and certainly not the highest quality lemons.  3. In the non-maki category, the ikejime (wild sockeye) special was good but not great.  It was buttery, and mostly delicious, but not uber fresh like I expected, or fatty either.  I guess I should have known better than to order salmon since we live in Seattle.

Ultimate Roll
Inside Ultimate Roll, Foie Gras is barely visible

Spicy Hotate
The Bad:  Very bad.  On a whim, because it was fresh, I ordered otoro (tuna belly).  I had enough nigiri already, and the server said they made it into a nice maki with some scallion.  I said, "deal."  Well, when it got to the table, it looked a little more white than I'd expected.  I tasted the first one, and it was very fishy.  Second piece, same problem.  Third piece, I broke open.  I ate a small sliver of one piece of "otoro" and then looked at the other.  First, it was two tones.  That means, not fresh.  Second, it didn't look like any otoro I've ever eaten.  It was clearly not otoro, and not fresh.  It tasted like "white fish with scallions" that you get at any run of the mill sushi place in the middle of the country - the middle, as in, not on the coast.


Inside, where you can clearly see the color difference between top and bottom - Not Fresh!
In a rather unusual display of patronage, I called over the waitress.  I asked her, evenly, how fresh the otoro was?  She said it had come in this morning.  I pointed out it was very fishy.  She suggested it was supposed to be fishy.  I told her that the fish had two tones, clearly indicating it was not that fresh.  I asked her to inquire with the chef what the problem was.  I decided not to express my suspicion that it was actually a piece of white tuna or something else, distinctly not otoro-y.  The fact is, that chef NEVER would have served that piece of fish on a piece of nigiri and tried to pass it off as fresh otoro.

To the server's credit, she took it off the bill.  To her discredit, she tried to tell me that's how otoro was.  Little did she know that I'd had it three times in the past week.  Would she have removed it (after telling me it should be fishy) had I not spent $50?  I can't be sure, but it did come off my bill.

The final verdict.  They lost a half to a full star because of the otoro incident, and the discrepancies between nigiri and maki quality.  Unlike most solid three star establishments, I'm inclined to give them another chance... maybe...

Sushi on North Beach

Neighborhood: North Beach
745 Columbus Ave
(between Filbert St & Greenwich St)
San Francisco, CA 94133
3 of 5

For readers who might not have had real otoro before, here are two shots of real stuff.  Notice the difference.
Real Otoro (Type 1), Kuala Lumpur
Real Otoro (Type 2), Singapore

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