Until recently, San Francisco had missed out on the Japanese food trend, as many of the best Nippon-style restaurants were located outside of the City. Lucky for us, that gap has been filled by a spate of great Japanese restaurants opening over the last couple of years. The latest, opened in May, brings Michelin-starred and Sushi Samurai Champion Mitsunori Kusakabe (aka Nori-san) to San Francisco, where he presides over a 30-seat restaurant bearing his name, Kusakabe.
Having served as Co-Executive Chef at Sausalito’s Sushi Ran, where he earned the Michelin star year after year, Nori-san departed late last year to bring his special brand of Kaiseki-style meals to his own establishment, located right across the street from the iconic Transamerica pyramid building in the Financial District. Kaiseki is a multi-course meal style that is an art form in itself. The freshest seasonal — and often local– food are showcased with a balance of taste, texture and appearance, beautifully arranged and garnished. Kusakabe follows this format, offering only a single Omakase (“chef’s choice”) meal, reasonably priced at $95. We’ll apologize to the vegetarians and non-fish eaters in advance; unfortunately, this is just not the place for you.
Nori-san doesn’t serve typical sushi with a slice of fish over seasoned rice — he spends a lot of time thinking about how to elevate the experience by applying different techniques such as cold smoking, torching and using special seasoning for every piece. His philosophy and preparation is expertly captured in this short-but-educational video, Sushi for the Senses (click to view).
Once seated, you are presented with that evening’s nine-course menu. They also provide a cleansing towel and leave behind a finger washing station encouraging diners to eat the sushi with their hands. The first course, Welcoming Tea made with Kombu kelp, is served shortly after. The umami-rich flavored tea helps to cleanse the palate for the rest of the meal:
The only choice that needs to be made is the selection of beverage: beer, wine or sake. For us the choice was clear, and we selected this bottle of Okunomatsu Ginjo from their extensive Sake list. It was perfectly balanced and slightly off-dry with a pleasant lychee and pear finish. In traditional fashion, our server over-poured the sake into modern cups such that some of the rice wine pooled onto the holding plate:
Course two is actually comprised of four different sushi pieces. The first piece of Chūtoro (medium-fatty tuna belly), cured in soy sauce then lightly seared, was an excellent start:
Shima Aji (striped jack) was cold-smoked over maple wood and then seasoned with garlic-smoked salt. The delicate fish just had the right amount of intriguing smoke flavoring:
A lot of preparation goes into each piece of sushi, and the next one was no exception. The halibut was killed Ike Jime style: a long needle is pushed down the spinal cord, and then the the fish is placed in ice water to bleed out. This method results in a firmer, better texture of the flesh. The halibut in this case was also topped with chives and pieces of its own liver:
Cooked Ebi (shrimp) came temari-style topped with a key lime “hat.” The temari (colorful ball) sushi was made by placing the shrimp and rice in a plastic wrap then squeezed to form a ball. The key lime slice was slightly overpowering in flavor; however, it served as a great platter for the baby shrimp placed on top of it (double click to look closely — the black dots are the baby shrimp eyes):
There are no soy sauce bottles provided at the few tables or along the sushi counter, as every piece is seasoned to perfection by Nori-san or one of his two assistant chefs. The only exception was for the third course of sashimi, where they did bring out some soy sauce for dipping the Maguro (Bluefin tuna) and Hokkaido scallops. The sashimi slices were served on shaved ice snow to keep them at the proper temperature and accompanied by a Japanese tuber vegetable which was crisply refreshing:
The Soup course featured an excellent duck dumpling soup flavored with mitsuba (Japanese parsley) and sansho pepper:
All evening long we saw the young assistant chef use the blow torch to prepare some sushi:
The torching was for the fifth course labeled “Unique Sushi.” In this case, it was a Tasmanian Ocean Trout served Bouzushi-style (rod sushi) topped with miso, baby brocollini pieces that were cooked by the torch and chili threads:
The Warm Dish course was comprised of Agedashi (fried) Tofu coated with crispy Arare cracker made with glutinous rice, snow crab and Ikura (salmon roe). Dashi broth was poured table side:
The completed dish was very tasty with various textures and flavors:
Sushi Chic was the name of the seventh course where two seasonal fishes are featured per day. On this visit it was Mirugai (Geoduck clam) sushi:
This was followed by Ayu (Sweetfish) sushi, a type of fish we had never had before. Named after the taste of its flesh, the slightly sweet fish was tender and delicate:
The BBQ Sushi course featured a Grade 5 Wagyu strip loin lightly seared (via blow torch) and flavored with only salt and pepper. The well marbled meat was deliciously fatty and super tender:
The Sushi Finale course was an excellent piece of Toro (fatty tuna belly). The only sushi that could possibly follow the decadent Wagyu piece was this equally unctuous course:
After the completion of all nine courses, a la carte sushi and dessert menus are offered for those who still have room for more. We were quite sated and didn’t need anything else, but we took a picture of three desserts that were prepared in front of us: Soy Milk Ice Cream with kuromitsu sauce, Yuzu And Shiso-Leaf Sorbet with monaka crackers, and Maccha Crème-Brulee with caramelized wasanbon sugar:
A view down the sushi counter with Nori-san behind it shows the totally zen atmosphere (note the absence of sushi display cases):
A view of the outside of the restaurant:
Was this one of our best sushi experiences on this side of the Pacific? Definitely. Luckily, they take reservations (just make on now); these may be hard to get in the future, especially after they earn their Michelin star, which is almost a foregone conclusion. We’ve already made reservations for our return visit and look forward to coming back as often as we can.