Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Bushi-Tei Full of Intriguing Possibility

1638 Post Street
San Francisco, CA 94115
Chef Seiji Wakabayashi (previously Ondine)
Dinner Tuesday through Sunday

Bushi-Tei on Urbanspoon

Tried: April 2006

The decor of Bushi-Tei is an interesting blend of modern and traditional, reminiscent of French restaurants in Tokyo, hinting at the nature of the cuisine crafted by Chef Wakabayashi. The walls are made of dark slabs of gnarly, hundred-year old wood brought over from Japan, interspersed with glass and marble fixtures and furnishings. (Speaking of modern, the restaurant even features those very expensive, automated ToTo toilet seats that do everything-- open, clean, flush, and practically transport you back to your table.) Giant vases filled with water and topped with floating votive candles line the large communal table in the center of the restaurant. A few smaller tables for parties of two are placed very close to one another in the small mezzanine area above the communal table, by the floor-to-ceiling window in the front of the restaurant, and along the hallway by the kitchen. This interesting yet odd configuration makes it difficult to discern whether Bushi-Tei is attempting to be casual or formal, a conundrum that also afflicted the enthusiastic yet not quite refined service.

Once your mindset adjusts to these incongruities and focuses on the food, the real fun begins. Interestingly, the amuse bouche-- a tartlette duo, one with salmon tartare mixed with black sesame seeds and chives and the other with mushrooms-- was rather bland with a clumsy shell, giving no clue as to the stellar flavors to follow in the five-course tasting menu (called "Waka's Omakase"). The first course, a napoleon of lobster and raw scallop, decorated with a tangle of frisee lettuce drizzled with Kahlua-balsamic gastrique, vanilla bean oil, and passionfruit coulis and topped with minced wakame, blew away my tastebuds with their delicate and complex flavors, all of which melted together as though they were always meant to be served in this combination. The raw scallop was so subtle and soft that I could not imagine why anyone would ever choose to eat this mollusk any other way. The perfectly cooked lobster tail, layered underneath the scallop, provided complementary texture and flavor in this novel presentation, but what I really loved was the decorative coil of pink-striped tender lobster meat that had been expertly extracted whole from the legs.

I thought nothing could top that first course, until the next one arrived-- a thick disk of pan-seared monkfish liver in a pool of pureed sweet yellow tomatoes accompanied by thin slices of pickled fennel. Monkfish liver is often compared to foie gras, and this presentation, with a caramelized thick sear on one surface, really played up that resemblance. The sweet richness of the liver combined with the mildly acidic sweetness of the yellow tomato puree was pure ecstasy.

Because the tasting menu is not required to be ordered by the table, we were able to sample dishes from the regular menu as well, which the kitchen expertly timed to be served in concert with the tasting menu courses. The tasting menu is $85/person, the appetizers range from $6 to $20 each, and the large plates are priced between $19-$36. I am hard pressed to pick from the appetizers which one was my favorite. The translucent white fluke sashimi on a bed of golden yellow beet disks, decorated with dots of bright magenta raspberry-umeboshi sauce, was a study in contrasting sweet flavors, ranging from the mild sweetness of the fresh raw fish, the more vibrant sweetness of the beets, to the pungent tart sweetness of the pureed raspberry and Japanese pickled plum. The miso marinated Kobe beef was rich, salty, and sweet, with charred slices of ripe camembert cheese on top and a chewy fresh-baked sesame brioche on the bottom, creating an extravant openface steak and cheese sandwich, with a few sprigs of peppercress infused with lemon-pepper oil serving as lettuce and dressing.

In contrast, the herb marinated sockeye salmon on a bed of jicama and daikon sprouts drizzled with a yuzu vinaigrette was less successful. I loved the sauvignon blanc marinated salmon roe that decorated each piece of fish and the flavor combinations were still incredible, but I could not help but be disappointed that the fish was too chewy and the ikura a bit fishy, even with the marination masking the less-than-ideal freshness. Particularly in a restaurant located in the heart of San Francisco's Japantown, with an accomplished Japanese chef to boot, such details should not be overlooked.

But oh, the seared foie gras with pumpkin pot de creme and red onion marmalade-- that one may be the dish of the year. The maple-syrup flavor of the thick pumpkin custard, accented with still slightly crunchy shreds of caramelized sweet red onion, was the perfect stage for the seared foie gras. When my spoon could no longer reach into the edges of the ceramic ramekin, I wanted to pick it up and lick the rest. This decadent dish could easily have been dessert.

The third course of the tasting menu was a piece of sauteed Alaskan halibut topped with a shellfish glacage in a sauce of carrot puree, lemongrass, beurre blanc and curry. The shellfish glacage consisted of finely diced pieces of shrimp and cuttlefish steamed with egg and formed into a miniature seafood pancake. The soft and moist halibut with the glacage was a captivating combination of tastes and varying textures. From the a la carte menu, we tried the grilled sea bass with bok choy and pine nuts in a ginger-tamari lime oil sauce. Although this was a very clean and refreshing dish, it was a bit of a letdown after all of the explosive flavors from the other innovative presentations we had experienced up until this point. I also found the fish to be slightly overcooked and chewy. After these last seafood dishes, the kitchen sent out a white tomato and yuzu sorbet, wrapped in Japanese edible transparent rice paper, the kind that surrounds Japanese caramel candies. The citrus flavor of the yuzu brought out the sweetness of the tomato, resulting in a uniquely appealing palate cleanser. This was certainly no ordinary sorbet.

The last savory course of Waka's Omakase was medium rare roasted venison loin on a bed of whipped satsuma yam, which tasted like sweetened creamy mashed potatoes. The earthy mushroom melange that accompanied the dish matched beautifully with the tender and meaty venison. It was the perfect dish to enjoy with the last of the beautiful Gevrey-Chambertin from 2001 that we had ordered.

A word about the wine list. This is one area of Bushi-Tei that I found lacking. Although I do not need a wine list to be a giant tome with every possible wine of every possible vintage from every wine region in the world, a short wine list should include thoughtfully chosen selections to match the menu. Bushi-Tei's list included less than a dozen seemingly random wine selections, mostly from California, along with a few sakes, beer, and aperitifs. The restaurant also has a separate "reserve" wine list, which is not presented together with the menu and wine list. Our server brought out this list only after he sensed I was not thrilled with the regular list, and the rationale for offering these lists separately remains a mystery. It is also noteworthy that the reserve wines, although decent, are quite pricey. Until Bushi-Tei revamps its wine list, I would recommend BYOW.

The Omakase dessert was a peach compote topped with a quenelle of vanilla ice, resting on layers of green tea genoise sandwiching a layer of raspberry mousse, with creme anglaise ladled around the genoise. While I could not find fault with any single ingredient, there seemed to be too many elements that distracted from the purity of the genoise, which was fluffy and delicate with a hint of sweetness and the aroma of green tea. I would have preferred just the genoise with the creme anglaise. The other dessert we tried, the black sesame blancmange, was very interesting. If I could only get over the overwhelming peanut butter flavor, I might have really enjoyed it.

Two more noteworthy items about Bushi-Tei. Do not miss the brown-rice baguette, which is baked at the restaurant. The toastiness of the brown rice with the chewy bread is delicious together, and quite pronounced if you try it without butter. Second, the restaurant only serves micro-structured electrolysis water with a pH of 8.5-9.5. Did this special water make a difference? Well, I liked the bread.

Our server seemed intent on regaling every customer that walked in that Michael Bauer, restaurant critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, had dined there "four times already" and was "sure to give us four stars." Even without regard to the rough and tumble albeit friendly service, I doubt that the restaurant would qualify for four stars at this point no matter how intriguing the food. I am nonetheless quite fascinated by Wakabayashi's cuisine and plan to return repeatedly to see how the restaurant develops.

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