Sunday, August 13, 2006

Review: Sushi Bistro

A couple of months ago, my girlfriend and I were in the mood for sushi and decided to check out Sushi Bistro (445 Balboa Street; 415-933-7100), which was the winner of the sushi category in the Best of Citysearch in 2005. During that visit, we were wowed by the quality of the fish and the creativity in their extensive selection of sushi rolls. Tonight, we decided to go back for a return visit and again we were delighted.

Sushi Bistro is located in a non-descript building in a quiet section of the Inner Richmond neighborhood of San Francisco. It's an intimate restaurant, having seating for perhaps 35 people, including 10 at the sushi bar, where we parked ourselves tonight. Looking at the menu, you'll notice a couple of lists of unique dishes. The first list, aptly named "Something Unique", has a number of interesting starters and small bites, both raw and cooked. On our first visit, we didn't order anything from this section, so tonight we decided to try a couple of items: Hot Love (baby lobster, avocado, and crab rolled in white fish with a sweet sauce) and Mr. Brown, an inari roll with unagi, avocado, and tofu, lightly deep-fried and served with unagi sauce. Both of the dishes were good, but we felt that they paled comparsion to the items we chose from the "Chef Special Rolls" portion of the menu.

On our first visit, we went for Nemo Found, a roll with sake (salmon), unagi, cucumber, and avocado (they go through a lot of avocado there) wrapped in soybean paper (as opposed to the usual nori wrapper). We also tried the New Legend maki, with shrimp tempura, a spicy aioli, and avocado topped with seared albacore, green onions, and a spicy garlic sauce. Both of these rolls were excellent, having an interesting mix of textures and flavors. On our visit tonight, we only picked one maki roll, the Watermelon-Man, a roll consisting of spicy tuna, mango, and black sesame seed, topped with macadamia nuts and avocado (like I said, they use a lot of avocado there). Though we weren't sure about the mango, the sweet and ripe fruit went extremely well with the spicy tuna - we both enjoyed every bite.

Though we give a tip of the hat to the maki rolls, both my girlfriend and I are all about the nigiri, which shine brightly at Sushi Bistro. On our first visit, we ordered yellowtail belly, unagi, ocean trout (which was a daily special), and aji mackeral (also a special). One of the things that often gets overlooked at a sushi joint is the skill of the sushi chef. On more than one occasion, I've had nigiri and sashimi that fell well short of their potential, despite the quality of the fish, due to a poor job of slicing by the sushi chef. I've even had toro that was ruined due to the shoddy job of cutting on the part of the chef. This is certainly not the case at Sushi Bistro. The main chef, who worked behind the bar during both of our visits, did a masterful job slicing and crafting our nigiri. All of the nigiri pieces that we ate had wonderfully cut pieces of delectable fish. The unagi was wonderfully roasted and covered in a savory sauce - it was best unagi that I've had in a long time (if not ever). The ocean trout nigiri was awesome; a large cut of fish, perfectly sliced against the grain and similar in appearance to salmon, but much better. If it's on the special menu again (it was not listed tonight), we will definitely order it. The yellowtail belly was also fantastic. It was reminiscent of toro, but at $5.25 for two pieces, about a third as expensive. Like the ocean perch, it was exquisitely cut and melted in my mouth - another winner. The aji was good too, though it was a bit oily for my girlfriend's palate. On our visit tonight, we again selected the yellowtail belly and the unagi and tried out scallop and albacore tuna belly. The scallop was very good, again very finely cut for that melt-in-your-mouth experience. The albacore belly was decent, but not quite as good as the yellowtail belly. Still, it was quite nice. All in all, the nigiri, generously portioned, skillfully sliced, and fabulously priced, is definitely a highlight at this restaurant.

Lest you only order from the printed menu, we recommend that you also look at the specials of the day listed on the chalkboard behind the sushi counter. As I mentioned above, the ocean trout nigiri was fantastic. Tonight, we selected the BBQ ahi tuna, which came just lightly seared on all sides and covered with a spice rub. (I picked out celery salt as one of the predominant components of the rub - surprisingly interesting and tasty.)

Finally, I should mention that the service at Sushi Bistro is very solid. My girlfriend noted that it appeared that the sushi chefs and the servers were coordinating the orders in such a way so that each party would get part of their order on a rotating basis. In that way, no one party had to wait a long time to start getting food. Also, this allowed for everyone's meal to be well paced - instead of getting hit with all of the items that you order all at once, you would get a couple of things at a time. Despite the fact that they had a full house for much of the evening, the servers never lost track of our orders and were reasonably attentive to our needs.

Sushi Bistro is definitely a winner in our books. The combination of the fantastic food, great prices, and good service has elevated Sushi Bistro toward the top of my list of favorite restaurants in San Francisco.