Although izakaya (small plates) restaurants have been around longer in the South Bay due to a strong Japanese culture there, there have been a few of these drinking and eating esdtablishments opening in San Francisco over the past couple of years. Many of them serve the typical izakaya plates such as edamame, kushiyaki, karaage and sushi/sashimi which are also commonplace menu items in most Japanese restaurants. But Ikzakaya Yuzuki in the Mission, which was opened about one and a half years ago by Yuko Hayashi, breaks that mold and offers elegant, upscale takes on traditional Japanese food prepared by Chef Takashi Saito, formerly of Ame.
Upon being seated you will notice that there are no soy sauce bottles to be found anywhere on the tables. That is because Saito-san makes sure that each dish has enough umami flavor by preparing most of the food using “koji.” As prominently stated on the menu and their website, “Izakaya Yuzuki is the first Japanese restaurant in the US to use koji, a fermenting agent used to make essential Japanese food, beverages and seasonings including sake, miso and shoyu (soy sauce).” Naturally fermented koji is a slow-food technique that has been replaced by mass produced seasoning (such as soy sauce).
We recently returned to indulge in a multi-course meal with a couple of friends, and we were not disappointed. The dishes were as carefully executed as when they first opened.
We started with the Zaru Tofu which features silky house-made fresh tofu served with sea salt used to flavor to individual taste:
The Obanzai course always features Kyoto-style cooked local vegetables, served in three different preparations. The vegetables change with the seasonal availability, and this version featured radish greens flavored with miso and a firefly squid, asparagus tofu and sweet potato with balsamic vinegar. All three of the dishes were delicious, but the sweet potato with balsamic vinegar was a revelation:
Izakaya style started out as sake shops (sakaya) that offered a variety of small plates to eat, and the sake selection here (offered by the bottle, flights or glass) is excellent. We shared a bottle of the Hakkaisan Tokubetsu Junmai which was very smooth and paired well with all of the dishes:
The Sunomono course featured a generous amount of dungeness crab served with sliced cucumbers and a fresh naruto wakame seaweed salad. It was a deliciously healthy dish:
The Chawan-Mushi egg custard was topped with a delicate uni sea urchin and tofu-skin (yuba):
They offer a couple of Yakitori style skewers featuring chicken flavored with “Salt Koji.” The Tsukune chicken meatball version was very flavorful and tender. To add a little bit of heat, the ground chicken could be dipped into the pile of Togarashi pepper spice provided at both ends of the platter:
The Yaki Omusubi featured grilled rice triangles topped with uni and watercress soy butter sauce. A squeeze of lemon added some acidity to crispy rice bites:
When they first opened, their Karaage Chicken was made with rice koji. It wasn’t battered or quite as crispy as the chicken karaage served in many other Japanese restaurants. With this visit, it seems they have changed their karaage to the typical version, albeit the chicken was marinated in salt koji:
We ended with the excellent Kakiage, their version of the shrimp and root vegetable tempura that was served with the traditional dipping sauce and a matcha green tea salt. We all favored the tea salt to season the shrimp “nest” tempura:
Their koji fermenting technique works really well, as all of the dishes are carefully prepared, flavorful and beautifully presented. Izakaya Yuzuki’s fame must be wide-spread since on the evening we dined there we spied a large party from Silicon Valley comprised of Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook), his wife and their friends. It’s great to see that Izakaya Yuzuki has finally broken the curse of the location and is successful. We do look forward to eating many more meals there.