Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Yuzu: Work in Progress

3347 Fillmore Street
San Francisco, CA 94123
Dinner Tuesday through Sunday

Tried: January 2006

Yuzu, a new Japanese restaurant that opened in the space formerly occupied by Chaz in the Marina district of San Francisco, is highly ambitious. The restaurant clearly invested a considerable sum in remodeling the space and in creating a large menu with a substantial variety of cooked and raw appetizers, a number of both traditional Japanese dishes and less traditional fusion dishes, and an array of desserts, in addition to a sushi bar and a sake bar. The look of the restaurant is sleek and modern, vaguely reminiscent of Nobu in Manhattan (minus the tacky leopard print) with its taupe, beige, and black toned walls and bare tables. The low lighting contributes to the sophisticated atmosphere, although it does make menu reading a bit of a challenge.

Not surprisingly with such an elaborate and large scale menu, there were some hits and misses. Where Yuzu excels is with the fried items, which is often the most difficult thing to master for most restaurants. The agedashi tofu was soft with a thin layer of light golden crispy batter coating the cubes of soft tofu. The unagi (eel) tempura was delicately fried with a nice balance of saltiness and sweetness from the eel, the tempura batter, and the light teriyaki seasoning. Presented in a fried spinach wonton shell on top of wasabi mashed potatoes, the fried unagi was also visually appealing, with bonus points for such edible garnishes that actually tasted good. The crunchy wonton shell and the combination of pungent wasabi with creamy mashed potatoes provided the perfect background to showcase the unagi. The assorted tempura, consisting of several shrimp, onion rings, carrots, and an onion flower, were likewise fried to a light golden color, with absolutely no greasiness.

Among the sushi and sashimi offerings, we tried uni (sea urchin roe), otoro (fatty tuna), maguro (tuna), hirame (halibut), hamachi (yellowtail), tamago (sweet egg omelette), and sake (salmon). We were somewhat disappointed that the chef's selection sashimi platter and the chef's selection sushi platter contained virtually identical fish offerings, with the only difference being rice, of course, and on some of the sushi, a garnish of scallions or shreds of bonito or nori (dried seaweed) on top of the fish. The tamago was too sweet, a common affliction for most sushi places, but what surprised me was that soy sauce had been drizzled across the top, which is particularly odd since Tamago is not supposed to be eaten with soy sauce at all. Being a sushi purist, I was also not crazy about the toppings on the sushi, particularly the otoro, which I would have preferred to taste without other flavorings getting in the way. It seemed that there has not yet been enough traffic to the restaurant for the fish to rotate on a frequent basis, as most of the sushi and sashimi were not as fresh as they could have been. In addition, all of the fish pieces were also slightly too large and unwieldy, another sushi faux-pas. The otoro, however, was quite fresh (our server informed us that it was Bluefin from Spain) and had that characteristic melt-in-your-mouth texture that did not disappoint.

From the non-sushi bar items, our table unanimously selected the Kurobuta pork tonkatsu as the best dish, which again highlighted the kitchen's frying expertise. The pork was juicy and tender while the crisp panko crust provided a pleasant contrast in texture and another savory layer of flavor. The beef tataki was slightly too garlicky and the meat a little tough, but the sauce accompanying the tataki was nicely tart and salty. The only dish that did not come together at all was the butter poached shrimp, as the shrimp had been overcooked and the accompanying shitake mushrooms a bit too vinegary. The sliced duck breast was plain but well prepared, with a hoisin-based sauce that brought out the duck's flavor.

Yuzu came back strong with its desserts. The sour apple sorbet was sweet and tart, with a richness imparted by a sweet syrup drizzled on top. The yuzu pound cake was moist and rich, with the lemony yuzu adding a delightfully tart dimension. Last but not least, the lemongrass creme brulee was a deliciously novel Asian twist to the familiar dessert.

Yuzu also has an interesting array of Japanese microbrew beers, a variety of sakes in different grades-- including a sake flight and a number of sake cocktails-- and a short but appropriately matched and well-priced list of wines, most of which are available by the glass. The most interesting was the sparkling sake, called "Tokimeki de blanc," from Harushika, which really tasted like a cross between champagne and sake. Despite how it may sound, it was quite refreshing and delicious, with the tart fizz matching the candied ginger garnish that accompanied the creme brulee. Definitely not to be missed are the Kiuchi microbrews. If you think Japanese beer tends to be flavorless, these will change your mind.

Once they get their bearings, Yuzu has the potential to be a contender in the Marina district restaurant and bar scene. It should be interesting to see how they develop.

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