The story: Ijji Sushi opened earlier this year on Divisadero near Haight as a nigiri-only sushi spot, helmed by chefs/co-owners Billy Kong (formerly Saru Sushi) and Kua Catuang (formerly Seiya). This month, the tiny San Francisco restaurant (17 seats) switched to an omakase-only menu, providing a prix fixe 19-course tasting (five starters and about 13 nigiri pieces) for $135 per person.
Why I went: I was invited by the restaurant as a guest to experience its new tasting menu, which is offered at two seatings per night at 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. I went with my friend Steve and we sat at the counter, where Kong shared his approach to the tasting menu. For quick reference, people call it “omakase,” which is the Japanese term for chef’s selection at a sushi counter (and omakase menus have proliferated around the city of late). But because the format is always the same, Kong says he tailored the menu to more represent the sushi bar experiences in Tokyo, which means a few starters, a parade of nigiri, and ending with miso soup.
The vibe: Because of the tiny space and minimalist decor, the vibe is quiet and a bit subdued. The simple bronze-colored walls have an earth-tone sensibility, and the general experience is very spa-like. The service is impeccable and attentive.
The booze: Ijji has a brief menu of sake, sochu and beer for you to pair with your dinner. Since I went with the recommendation of our server, I forgot to jot down the name of the sake I had. But it was a refined glass with a nice floral flavor that went beautifully with the sushi we had that night.
The menu: As mentioned, the $135 prix fixe menu is the only option, and begins with five “zenzai” or small appetizers. The menu has a name for each dish and a description of the fish or ingredient used, follow by the Japanese prefecture it comes from. The majority of Ijji’s fish is flown in fresh from Japan, with the exception of some uni from Maine and abalone from Hawaii.
The first starter called Katsuo was a brilliant red bonito fish. Most of the fish served that evening are cured using red vinegar, and it was interesting to see fresh bonito (I’ve only seen it in the dried cured form as flakes used to season broth). All the starters showcased nice technique and simple flavors to allow the natural taste of the ingredients to shine, like the abalone or braised octopus. The Suji Daikon came with a light broth with the Japanese radish flavor and pieces of cooked wagyu beef on top.
Bridging from the starters to the nigiri courses was an interesting palate cleanser called Mozuku, which is silky seaweed with vinegar. Steve found it refreshing, and I liked it although I warn that the slimy aspect can be off-putting to some. But it does do the trick to cleanse your palate for all the sushi to come.
The nigiri were all done well, with a large piece of fresh fish wrapped around the sushi rice. You can see all the pieces we had that evening in the photos at the end of this post. (I got almost all of them, I think I accidentally left one out, it was such a flurry of nigiri that it was hard to track.) Although I love sushi, I can’t say I’ve tried many types of fish, so it was pleasant to get an education of the different types of sushi fish, including a beautiful wild barracuda with its shimmery skin or the wild mackeral or “Masaba” that Kong presents in a cubed shape, giving the taste experience like eating a rice ball or onigiri. There’s also the expected like halibut and two types of tuna, and a wonderful uni presented encased with freshly toasted seaweed. Kong’s version is a mix of uni from Maine and Hokkaido, one being more sweet than the other but the blending providing a nice balance.
There’s also an emphasis on the purity of the ingredients, such as the Tamago Atsuyaki, which is the traditional egg custard or egg omelette served at sushi restaurant. They’re often served as a slice on rice, but Ijji serves it naked as a cube. Kong’s version is slightly sweet, which works out fine because it arrives near the tail end of the meal transitioning to the dessert of matcha ice cream.
My favorite dish: There were several nigiri pieces that I really enjoyed, both for the appearance of the fish and the clean flavors, but in terms of a “dish,” the starter of braised octopus from Hokkaido was a pleasant surprise, with the tender octopus pieces and just the very slight flavoring of the sauce.
The last bite: If you’re a fan of sushi, then you will appreciate this composed nigiri tasting menu at Ijji. The starters bring an interesting taste to a sushi dinner, and then the different nigiri pieces shine in its authenticity and freshness. The diversity of the fish can also serve as an educational dinner for relatively new diners. The serene atmosphere and friendly staff also make it a relaxing way to celebrate fish.
Since I was invited as a guest of the house, I’m not giving my regular rating system, but this is the kind of sushi tasting menu that I would come back for again. Thanks to Chef Kong and Ijji for a lovely dinner!
The deets: Ijji, 252 Divisadero St. (near Haight), San Francisco. PH: 415.658.7388. Open daily with two seatings at 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. (Check with the restaurant for times as the seatings may be adjusted over time.) Reservations, major credit cards accepted. ijjisf.com
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