“After placing the fish on rice and seasoning each one for maximum effect, he places the three pieces on a square slate slab around a small bowl of cherrywood chips. Using a blow torch Toshi ignites the chips and quickly places a glass dome on top. When it’s ready, he removes the lid.”
— San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer in a review of Kinjo’s $120 omakase
I’m amused and slightly horrified by the sudden obsession with omakase, where diners leave their meal in the hands of a capable (preferably master) chef who prepares sushi and small plates in courses. The phrase actually means “I’ll leave it to you.” While glass domes of smoked fish and an upswing in high-priced omakase offerings is a relatively new phenomenon, the tradition of omakase is not. While I appreciate a good omakase, I am a capable enough sushi connoisseur to select a la carte.
I’ve been eating raw fish and shellfish as long as I can remember, starting with cherry stone clams and uni with my grandfather in Rhode Island. I learned long ago that you don’t have to pay $500 for a blissful sushi experience.
Here are my favorite sushi spots that won’t break the bank. Keep in mind sushi is seasonal and weather dependent, so check with your server and the ubiquitous “Fresh Today” specials board for availability.
Okane (669 Townsend St., San Francisco, 415-865-9788, okanesf.com)
Okane, a casual neighborhood izakaya serving sushi and Japanese comfort food, is the sister restaurant to the neighboring Michelin-starred Omakase, and sources its fish from the same world-renowned Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. The delicate, velvety jidori egg chawanmushi (custard) is well worth the 20-minute wait, and the shinjuku roll — snow crab and avocado topped with torch-seared A5 wagyu beef — is an addictive signature, as are the crunchy lotus root chips with wasabi mayo.
Not to miss: Ocean trout, mirugai, barracuda, live uni, Santa Barbara uni, Sake lees (sakekasu) cod, jidori egg chawanmushi, shinjuku roll, lotus root chips.
Sushi Sam’s Edomata (218 E. Third Ave., San Mateo, 650-344-0888, sushisams.com)
I discovered Sushi Sam’s 20 years ago, and it’s my favorite sushi restaurant in the Bay Area. I’m not alone — famous chefs like Thomas Keller also make the drive down the Peninsula for incredibly fresh and often unique offerings. Before omakase became trendy, I was enjoying Sam’s omakase — for under $100.
Not to miss: Baby lobster, kani salad, ocean trout, toro, unagi, baby hamachi, Sam’s omakase.
Sanraku (704 Sutter St., San Francisco, 415-771-0803; Metreon, 101 Fourth St., San Francisco, 415-369-6166; 925 Blossom Hill Rd., San Jose, 408-363-2110, sanraku.com)
With three locations, menus vary, but Sanraku is a bit of a hidden gem — particularly their newest Silicon Valley restaurant, which serves multicourse omakase menus for both lunch ($40) and dinner ($80) skillfully prepared by chefs from Japan.
Not to miss: Omakase lunch or dinner, mirugai (raw or tempura), o toro, uni (raw or tempura), steamed abalone, Japanese ikura, anago, Japanese scallop, buta kakuni (braised pork belly served with soft boiled egg).
Ebisu (1283 Irving St., San Francisco, 415-566-1770, ebisusushi.com)
Owned and operated by the Fujii family, Steve and Koko and their sons, Eric and Charlie, this Sunset District jewel has been one of my top spots for many years. I love to sit at the bar and watch the chefs work their magic on notable dishes like live local uni served in its spiny vessel, and live scallop presented sashimi style in the shell, accompanied by the scallop muscle tempura fried with onion strings. Ebisu also offers reasonably priced sashimi omakase for one to two people ($28) or three to four people ($60) — everything is sparklingly fresh while the chefs are classically trained and extremely talented.
Not to miss: Sashimi omakase, live uni, live scallop, mirugai, tsubugai, ocean trout, amaebi, toro, unagi, hamachi.
Isobune (Japan Center Mall, 1737 Post St., San Francisco, 415-566-1770, isobunesushi.com
That’s right — the boats (sorry, Michael Bauer). This is my go-to for fast-food-style sushi lunch. Tip: Go early, and ask for sushi with “no wasabi” so they have to make it fresh (otherwise they’ll just pluck it off the boats). If you go when it’s busy (which is most of the time), items move quickly. Because they do such volume, everything is fresh and they often have unique, harder to find delicacies like blue shrimp and whelk clam (tsubugai). But my favorite Isobune plate is the kani salad — real snow crab with just enough Japanese mayo to bind it. It’s also great in a California temaki (hand roll) with perfectly ripe avocado, tobiko, and crisp cucumber spears.
Not to miss: Kani salad, California temaki, spider temaki, amaebi, tsubugai, oysters on the half shell, torch-seared salmon belly, toro, shrimp with spicy cod roe, Isobune Special (unagi, crab and avocado with tobiko).