What tastes better, the saké or the sophisticated dishes accompanying it? We go on a taste tour through San Francisco’s izakayas, where Japanese cuisine is currently experiencing a boom
The saké master plumps down on the upholstered bench. He is wearing patterned Converse Chucks and a short blue kimono with a belt. “Oh, this is just a promotional gift from a brewery I like,” says Stuart Morris laughing. The stocky American is one of only a few westerners who has passed the official exam for Kikizakeshi – saké sommeliers –in Japan. He embodies the cultural mix that the restaurant in San Francisco’s banking district, where he works, likes to reflect.
The sophisticated business meeting-place: Pabu
“Pabu” says the sign above the entrance to a skyscraper in California Street. It means “pub” in Japanese. The place you meet friends, or pass by after work with colleagues to grab a bite to eat, and above all to have a civilized drink. An “Izakaya” is the Japanese version of a Spanish tapas bar or an Italian enoteca. It roughly translates as: “saké store in which you can sit.” It is where you indulge in one or more drinks of rice wine, and share small dishes with friends, for example skewered meat, silken tofu with side dishes, or just some soybeans.
California is home to the largest Asian community in the U.S., and in Ed Lee, San Francisco already had a mayor of Chinese descent. Demographers predict that in a few decades there will be more Asian-Americans living here than Caucasians.
Japanese cuisine outside of Japan has traditionally meant mostly sushi. That is in the process of changing. The izakaya scene is growing and with it, Japanese cuisine in the diaspora is experiencing a boom. While sushi and sashimi are, of course, being served in the izakayas, they are only a few of the many sakana available – the snacks you can have with your saké. The fact that an izakaya like Pabu, which is more of a sophisticated restaurant than a local watering hole, has opened right in the middle of the financial district is an indicator of this change. “I don’t want people to think that saké is just another kind of booze,” says Stuart Morris. He pours the saké, which he has chosen to accompany the tuna bites, into a wine glass and rich aromas of quince, white chocolate and citrus fruit waft through the room. “It is the world’s most misunderstood drink,” believes the sommelier. Too often, it is just carelessly knocked back, instead of being savored, he says. “I hope that at some point, saké will be served with your meal just as naturally as beer or wine.” Incidentally, saké goes phenomenally well with Tex-Mex chicken and mashed potatoes, he adds.
At 6 pm, Pabu is crowded. It is a huge room that gives onto the street, reminiscent of an atrium spanning two floors. The walls are decorated with delicate cherry blossom paintings. Some bankers have finished work early due to the time difference with Wall Street. They roll up their sleeves, and receive hot towels to start off their evening refreshed. The guests sit in groups on upholstered benches at large tables, or crowd around the bar. They are bent over their small plates and bowls. The dishes that the diners pass to each other across the table cost between seven and 20 euros: for example chawanmushi, a kind of hearty, creamy egg custard with a smoky caramel flavor; red crab legs seasoned with ginger and lime – spicy and refreshing at the same time. For dessert, gourmets treat themselves to a black sesame sponge with red bean ice cream, and a carefully selected saké with pineapple flavor.
Those who are lucky are taken by Morris to his inner sanctum. Through the kitchen, past the small colorful origami birds that someone has glued to the walls, into a cold storage room filled with bottles whose labels are so artistically designed that you will want to publish them in a book. Those who are really lucky are allowed to sample the odd bottle. With a slightly raised blood alcohol level and feeling certain that we are turning into izakaya fans, we continue on to the Mission neighborhood. The area features a mix of narrow residential houses with bay windows and street level stores that invite you to explore. It is home to cult organic supermarket Bi-Rite, the bakery and café Tartine, which has a long line out the door even at 8 am, and the knife shop where many of the local chefs have the tools of their trade sharpened.
Vegan and amazing: Shizen
It is one of the city’s most recently opened izakayas and without doubt the most unusual. Everybody is talking about Shizen, which is Japanese for “nature.” The place looks so unassuming that you could easily miss it driving past. Here, they serve vegan sushi, created by owners Casson Trenor and his business partner Kin Lui. Apart from Shizen, the former Greenpeace activist and the chef run another three sustainable sushi joints in the city. “At our places, we want you to be able to eat without feeling that you’re doing something wrong,” explains Trenor. He has a shaved head and skull buttons on his shirt, and is sitting on one of the long benches. Chef Kin Lui turns things like eggplant, or burdock roots from the local market into dishes so delicious that no one misses the taste of seafood. Many items on the menu are gluten-free. The vegetables are strictly “in season” and are fermented, marinated, cooked and fermented again in order to create constantly new flavor nuances.
So why are izakayas so popular in San Francisco? “The places have a casual atmosphere,” says Trenor. “Everybody is sharing their food. I believe it is a reaction to life on social media and to everyday digital life in this area.” The down-to-earth approach and love of nature are both impossible to ignore at Shizen. There are the moss and birch bark collages on the wall, stools made from scrap wood and the ceiling which is reminiscent of the inside of a ship’s hold. Business is booming. They do not take reservations, so guests have to stand in line if they fail to arrive by 5 pm. A guy with a Ramones T-shirt enters the restaurant, followed by a lady with blue highlights in her hair and a Louis Vuitton bag. Grinning, Trenor pushes another plate across the table. It is one of the establishment’s specialty rolls: “Colonel’s Pipe.” It is pink, green and yellow, nutty and crunchy, yet also velvety smooth with avocado, and has hints of vanilla and seafood – everything is incredibly harmonious. To finish off with: six maki slices topped with a delicate circle of beetroot enveloped in lemony miso paper, garnished with faux-caviar. “It is called ‘surprise ending,’” says Trenor. “One of the slices contains chili sauce.”
Traditional delicacies: Yuzuki
The saké scene in San Francisco is small. Located only five minutes away by bike is a light and airy, unpretentious corner restaurant called Yuzuki. This izakaya has already been around for four and a half years. “I missed the food of my Japanese homeland,” says owner Yuko Hayashi. In 2011, she swapped her life as an accountant for that of an izakaya owner. While her sommelier is preparing little trays with four different types of saké behind the bar, she is serving what must be the creamiest, nuttiest and most refreshing tofu in the world in a small bamboo bowl. It is homemade and seasoned with sea salt. With it, she serves a fruity Junmai saké. “It took us six months to perfect the texture.” The chefs work for two days soaking the soybeans, squeezing them, boiling the soymilk and continually straining it through cloth. You can watch them working in the open-plan kitchen with jazz playing in the background.
I missed the food of my Japanese homeland
Yuzuki’s goal is to recreate the dishes with which Hayashi grew up as faithfully as possible. Anyone you ask will say that this is the most authentic Japanese cuisine in the city. That is also the only explanation for the delicious and delicate chawanmushi accompanied by saké that smells like a freshly mowed meadow. Or for the bliss you experience when dipping ever deeper into the silky-smooth seaweed salad with your chopsticks while savoring the saké, whose taste is reminiscent of candy apples from a carnival.