My impression of izakaya – the Japanese casual drinking spots akin to a gastropub – is that of hearty dining with lots of drinking and laughing. The Bay Area has experienced an uptrend of izakaya showcasing grilled food (yakitori) and small bites, but Izakaya Yuzuki seems to break the mold.
Refined. Exquisite. Delicate. Transformational. These are some of the words that come to mind after dining at this simple but welcoming restaurant at the corner of 18th and Guerrero Streets in the Mission District. And I wasn’t all that surprised when I learned more about the chef, Saito Takashi, who worked at the Sheraton’s Kyoya restaurant and the upscale Ame at the St. Regis Hotel.
My niece, who was visiting town from Colorado, said she couldn’t get good Japanese food where she lives. So I thought I’d take her to Yuzuki, whose menu reflected seasonal ingredients of the Bay Area prepared with a technique known as koji, which is a natural fermentation method.
The menu is somewhat limited, so we ended up ordering what seemed like the majority of the menu. Every dish came out beautifully plated, using some of the most enchanting pottery to carry the food.
The flavors were delicate but expert, like the Kobe beef tataki ($12), seared wagyu beef thinly sliced and topped with onion shavings and lightly flavored with a yuzukosho miso sauce. And the three-way vegetable dish called obanzai ($12) is a great way to taste the different flavors of the kitchen, and it’s actually the first time I enjoyed eggplant (served up in the house-made miso with a bit of spice).
Along with the miso, Yuzuki also makes its own tofu. My niece ordered the Zaru tofu ($9), and I was skeptical of whether it would be that interesting. But the silken tofu was like the delicate tofu served at Chinese restaurants for dessert because of the amazing texture. At Yuzuki, it’s served simply with sea salt that you sprinkle to your taste.
Yakitori options, or the skewer section, offered up only two meat options: chicken meatballs or chicken with scallions. We just tried one skewer of the meatball ($4), which was shaped more like a hot dog but tasted juicy inside but nicely grilled with a savory and lacquered exterior from the perfect heat of the grill.
Not everything was perfect. The sautéed duck breast ($16) from the steamed section was delightfully presented in a bamboo steamer sitting on a bed of assorted vegetables. But the duck breast had a beefy texture and didn’t remind me at all of the wild and dark flavors of duck.
The yaki surume ika, or salt koji marinated Hokkaido squid ($9), was perfectly grilled but didn’t seem to offer the complex flavors of the other dishes. Even the yuzu mayonnaise served on the side as a dipping sauce seemed to be too subtle in flavor.
The Last Bite
Still, other dishes made up for those few missteps. We enjoyed the presentation and crispy edges of the yaki omusubi ($13), or grilled rice balls (really shaped like triangles) topped with uni and watercress soy butter. Our desserts were a lovely ending to our meal – ginger sorbet that captured the pungent flavor of the root, and a kojicha crème brulee that had a delicate smoky tea flavor.
The delicate dishes of Yuzuki make for a light meal (you might choose to pile up with the koshihikari rice that takes at least 30 minutes to prepare) but slowly eating each plate is like watching a flower unfold, presenting the colorful beauty and mastery of Chef Saito’s artistic dishes.
Izakaya Yuzuki, 598 Guerrero St., at 18th), San Francisco. PH: 415.556.9898. Open Mon., Wed.–Sat., 5:30–10:30 p.m.; Sun., 5:30–9:30 p.m.; closed Tuesday. Reservations, major credit card accepted. yuzukisf.com
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