The San Francisco Bay Area is in the midst of a sushi boom with Japanese restaurants opening up and serving the chef’s choice tasting menu known as omakase.
The latest, highly anticipated opening is the two-week-old Robin, which opened under the hype of offering contemporary, seasonal California-focused omakase in one of those new slick buildings popping up in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco.
Robin’s owner, Chef Adam Tortosa, studied under a master sushi chef and most recently honed his skills at the city’s popular Akiko’s in the Financial District. Tortosa was also the opening chef of the brief 1760 restaurant, and spent time working at Michael Voltaggio’s Ink in Los Angeles.
Scrolling through the restaurant’s website, the stylized images of the food reflect a cutting-edge approach to presenting sushi, with striking presentation and unusual ingredients combining with traditionally popular fish.
With all the buzz, and because I love sushi, I dropped in for dinner last week, grabbing a reservations at the sushi counter. When making reservations, everyone sitting at the counter has to order the omakase option, but if you reserve a table, you can order ala carte from the menu.
Robin follows the traditional approach to omakase, where you name the price point you’re comfortable with, and then the chef puts together a tasting menu based on your preferences and costs. The recommended prices range from $79 to $179, and on this night I decided to spend $120. My observation, though, is that everyone seated immediately around me seemed to get almost the same menu I ate, with maybe one or two exceptions. So not sure how widely the offerings change despite the range in pricing.
The decor of the restaurant runs counter to other Japanese sushi restaurants in town, which often goes with the minimalist, almost spa-line and zen-inspired decor of natural woods and Japanese pottery. Robin strikes the over-the-top decadence of the high-end area, with even oozing bronze-colored paint streaks dripping off the wall and onto the floor. The music pumps more club room than zen garden.
For the food, you can look over my images in this post to see every bite that came before me. Overall, there was a genuine attempt to be different, especially in the first few bites where the flavor combinations were unique that I couldn’t really put my finger on what I was tasting, such as the Alaskan trout with fresh fig or the sea bream with cayenne pepper and garlic chives.
But then much of the nigiri that followed (I got about 13 pieces overall) were simple and pristine, done similar to other top-notch omakase restaurants in the city, allowing the fresh, often-local fish to shine in their natural splendor. The meal gets some intermittent non-sushi bites with items like sashimi, soba noodles and a poached egg in broth.
For dessert, there’s only one option, which is a sake-flavored soft serve topped with fresh, seasonal fruits and pistachios. It was refreshing on this warm summer night.
Side note: While all the dinnerware fits into the contemporary Japanese theme, I did find the spoons a bit challenging to use to enjoy the food (like the broth and dessert). The spoon shape is almost like a melon baller, and the odd shape makes it difficult to scoop up much of the broth. It’s one of those design-over-function items that interfere with the dining experience.
The last bite
The professional service and hip atmosphere make Robin unique from the time you enter. The pristine food, while innovative at times (like the nigiri with potato chip and caviar or the seared wagyu beef with foie gras shavings), leans for now toward the familiar and expected. Robin needs to showcase more of its innovative bites if it intends to live up to the hype of being a contemporary omakase destination.
The rating: 3 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Robin, 620 Gough St., San Francisco. PH: 415.548.2429. Open daily for dinner, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Reservations, major credit cards accepted. robinsanfrancisco.com
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