Monday, March 26, 2012

Sushi @ ICHI Sushi

I rarely eat out on Saturday nights.  It is always such a hassel to get reservations at places that take them, and waits are always long at places that don't.  But it was pouring out, so I decided we'd take advantage of the fact that everyone hibernates when the rain comes out, and try out luck at going somewhere that is known to have waits.  Like sushi!  As you know, I've been on a quest to find a good goto sushi place - somewhere with really high quality fish, good atmosphere, and where I don't need to wait 3 hours.  I've been slowly working my way through my big list of recommendations, hoping to find somewhere that I can fall in love with.  It still hasn't happened, and I've hit up almost all of the recommendations I've received at this point.  I still love the appetizers and rolls from Sushi Zone, I just wish it was possible to go there and not wait 2 hours :)  And the omakase from Sushi Sam's is still my favorite nigiri, but it is all the way in San Mateo, and definitely on the pricer end (although, it comes with dessert, decent dessert at that!).

Anyway, tonight we checked out ICHI Sushi, in Bernal Heights.  Relatively new (only a year or two old).  There were a handful of tables, plus 9? seats at the sushi counter.  We walked in at 7pm and could have been seated at a table immediately if we had wanted, but I'd read a lot of reviews that all said the same thing: sit at the counter, in front of Tim, and get omakase.  The estimate for a wait was only 30 minutes, so we went to run errands while waiting, and they called us when our seats were available.  Not bad at all.

Like everyone says, sitting in front of Tim is a good time.  The chef/owner is friendly and personable, happy to tell you about the products he is working with.  He is clearly proud of his work and his ingredients, and his passion shows through.  He's sourcing ingredients from the places he truly feels are the best, but is not flashing it in your face.

The menu is very simple, yet deceiving and understated.  A few hot appetizers, a few salads, some very simple rolls (no crazy Flying Kamakazi Dragon Spaceship Rolls with mayonaise and 16 other ingredients), and some nigiri.  But there are interesting preparations hiding everywhere, just not acknowledged, like the fact that the proteins for the hot appetizers, like the Yuzu Chicken Wings, are cooked sous vide, although the menu never lists this.  Or, the tamago is made from jidori eggs, which he acknowledges are far more expensive, yet yields a better custard flavor due to the bigger yolks.  And the menu just lists it as standard tamago.  And the nigiri just lists the name of the fish.  "Tai" it will say.  You expect a piece of sea bream on some rice, perhaps a little wasabi under the fish.  Instead you get your sea bream and rice, but also a shiso leaf, and it is brushed with kabosu juice, sprinkled with green tea salt, and a mound of yuzukosho is dotted on top.  It reminded me slightly of Sushi Sam's in this way, with all of the nigiri arriving pre-sauced/seasoned, and we were instructed to not use soy sauce.  The flavors however were far more subtle than at Sushi Sam's, usually just a swipe of some kind of sauce and a little bit of garnish, where Sushi Sam's tends to bring on bolder flavors and include much larger components, a slice of kiwi, a pile of pickled onions, etc.  The fish was fresh, but no pieces had the wow factor that I've often experienced at Sushi Sam's.

I enjoyed sitting at the counter and interacting with Tim and the regulars.  This is clearly a place with repeat customers, and I can see why.  If it was in my neighborhood, I'd go back.  The fish was decent, the atmosphere casual and relaxed, and like I said, Tim really made the experience enjoyable.  It wasn't anything particularly memorable however, and I'm unlikely to trek all the way there again.

One big issue I had is that our bill didn't end up matching the prices on the menu.  Almost every item was received we were charged $0.50 - $2 more than the price on the menu we were handed.  I'm not really sure why, and didn't notice it until I went to write this post and saw so many discrepancies.  I don't think the prices we paid were unfair or anything, but it seems wrong to not actually charge the price the menu says.

We ordered the omakase, and asked for no hot foods, just to focus on sushi.  A leaf was placed in front of us with a pile of ginger, and we were off!  The ginger was really gingery.  It tasted less pickled than normal and more like actual ginger.  We weren't sure if this was something we preferred or not, but it was noteworthy.

(I somehow forgot to take photos of several pieces of sushi ... too excited to eat them, whoops!)

Cucumber Salad: Japanese Cucumber, Miso-Tahini Dressing, Sesame Seeds. $6.00.
We started with a cucumber salad.  I was actually really disappointed when I saw this, as I was expecting just to get sushi.  However, it was really fresh and tasty.  The cucumber had an awesome crunch to it, it had clearly been freshly sliced.  The miso-tahini dressing was really delicious, (I love tahini!), and the miso added more depth.  It was a tiny bit too salty, but only when I got too much on a slice.  I didn't actually care for the additional sesame seeds, I thought there were far too many and rather than adding a textural crunch they just coated the cucumber too much.

Fresh and tasty, and if I wanted a salad to start, I'd get this again, but I'd rather just eat more sushi :)

[ Not pictured, missing photo ]
Maguro, Big Eye Tuna, Philippines, $7.50.

Our first piece was a generous chunk of maguro.  Deep red and excellent looking  It was a nice cut of fish with a decent flavor, you knew it was clearly tuna.  It was brushed with white soy sauce, which I didn't taste at all.  It was my dining companion's favorite piece of the night.

(The bill said we got Maguro Zuke, a marinated version of this that we didn't actually get.  We had the regular one, which was listed at $7 on the menu.  The marinated one was listed as $7.25 on the menu.  We got charged $7.50.  Hmmm.)

Isaki: Three Line Grunt, Wild, Japan.  With shiso, yuzu kosho.  $8.50.
Next up was the isaki.  I'm not sure I've ever had grunt before!  My favorite part of omakase is that I get to explore new fish.  I didn't really care for this at all.  The fish was had a strange texture, really chewy and stringy.  I'm not sure if it is supposed to be like that or not.  The yuzu kosho (made from yuzu rind, salt, peppers) added a surprising spicy kick that I enjoyed.
Hirame Kobu Jime, Kelp Cured Fluke.  With ponzu, momiji oroshi (chile daikon), green onion. ($6.50 menu, $6 bill)
This one was really surprising, texture-wise.  My dining companion exclaimed "I wouldn't even know that was fish!" We were told it was cured, but it looked just like a normal piece of nigiri, so weren't expecting something so soft and pliable.  Such a strange mouthfeel for sushi.  I think I liked this, but I was so thrown off by the texture that missed out on the flavors.  It was certainly unique, I'd never had cured fluke before.  I'd order it again to focus more on the flavor next time!

Speaking of flavors, at this point, I did notice that the rice was really starchy tasting.  Due to the very light seasoning/saucing applied to the fish and our instructions not to use soy sauce, I felt like the rice was often taking over the flavors, rather than highlighting them.  It was also really sticky, and not particularly sweet or vinegared.  I didn't like it, and stopped including it for the most part at this point.
Tai: Japanese sea bream.  With shiso, kabosu juice, green tea salt, yuzu kosho $5.75.
Wow!  And I was just complaining that the fish wasn't all that sauced or seasoned :)  The tai was a great texture, firm yet soft at the same time.  It had a very light flavor, which meant that you tasted all of the extras that Tim added.  The shiso leaf gave a refreshing quality, the kabosu added some acidity, the yuzu kosho gave it a kick, and the green tea salt was awesome.  These flavors all combined together pretty nicely.  A good piece of fish to showcase of the sauces and seasonings.
Sawara: East coast spanish mackerel.  With white soy mirin, ginger, scallions.  $6.
I had no idea that the east coast (yes, of the US), had mackerel.  Hmm, and I grew up there!  It was interesting to see so much of the featured fish not actually being from Japan.

The fish was really soft, almost mushy.  I didn't care for it that much.  The fresh grated ginger and scallions on top were fresh and lightened it up.  I didn't really taste much from the white soy mirin.

(It is possible that this is the Aji instead, I'm missing one photo and not positive which was which).

[Not pictured, missing photo] 
Aji: Horse mackerel, wild, Japan.  With ponzu gel, fresh ginger, scallions. ($8 menu, $9 bill).

Unlike the Sawara, I loved the texture of this mackerel.  Firm yet soft, really nice to bite into.  The flavor was really light, not remotely fishy, which I often dislike with Aji.  The ponzu gel added some nice flavor, and again, the ginger and scallions on top were crisp and fresh.
Kona Kampachi: Hawaiian Amberjack.   White soy sauce, sake gel. ($6.50 menu, $6.75 bill).
Another piece of fish with a good firm texture.  The sake gel added a lot of flavor that I really liked, although it was a little strange to have such a slippery, shiny piece of fish.  The white soy sauce came through in this case, perhaps a little too strongly, as it was kinda salty.
Tuna, avocado, sesame seed salad.
Meh.  Fresh enough avocado, ok tuna, again too many sesame seeds.  Lightly marinated in something.  The tuna was a little mushy and not as flavorful as the nigiri preparation we started with.
Umi Maso: Ocean Trout, Iceland.  With shiso, yuzukosho, and Hawaiian red sea salt. $6.50.
Heh, at this point Tim noticed me not eating the rice and gave me this one without it.

This was my favorite piece of fish, hands down.  I've noticed lately that salmon and trout tend to be my favorites, which is funny, because I really don't care for cooked salmon much at all.  I love it raw, I like it smoked, but really, really just don't like it cooked.

Anyway.  The fish was perfect, nice, firm, flavorful.  And the Hawaiian red sea salt was absolutely delicious!
Nasu: Japanesse eggplant. ($4 menu, $4.75 bill).
I was full at this point, and we told Tim we were done.  But I had read in a bunch of Yelp reviews that the nasu was particularly good here.  Of course, I've learned not to trust the Yelpers, plus, who on earth gets the eggplant when you can be getting more fish instead?  Or when you've declared yourself done?  But then some regulars came in and ordered it.  I asked them how it was, and they said it was really good.  I asked Tim how it was, and he said it was great, explained that it was marinated in soy, salt, and pepper.

It was good!  My dining companion was very skeptical as he often doesn't like eggplant (too slimy, too full of seeds, etc), but he enjoyed this too.  Served hot, with a crispy skin, and a soft but not mushy interior.  I'm very glad we ordered this, it might actually have been my favorite thing of the evening.
Tamago: Jindori egg omelet. ($4.50 menu, $4.75 bill).
And if you've been reading my sushi posts, you know I always finish with tamago for "dessert".  I'm a dessert girl, and most sushi places don't offer much in the way of dessert, so this has become my goto sweet finish.  Unfortunately, I've been really, really grumpy at most of the tamago I've had lately.  It has been not sweet, too eggy, too fried, etc.  Just disappointing over and over.

But, another set of regulars ordered this.  They told me it was fantastic here.  Tim chimed in that it was just freshly made.  So, I definitely had to try it.  This was probably the most moist tamago I've ever had.  Perhaps because it was so fresh?  Not too eggy, sweet but not too sweet, just really nicely done, very fluffy.  Tim explained that the jindori eggs he uses have far larger yolks (apparently very yellow as well), which makes the omelet much richer and more custard like.  Whatever did it, this was definitely a good execution.  I enjoyed it plain, with rice, with soy sauce, and with both soy sauce and rice.  Not sure which way I preferred it the most, it was all good.
Uni: Sea urchin, Mendocino. $7.95.
Uh, I said I was done several pieces ago, didn't I?  And I'd had my "dessert".  We actually had our bill on the table, when the topic of uni came up.  Tim was telling us how he gets his uni locally from Mendocino and thinks it is the best uni in the world.  Better than Santa Barbara, Maine, Japan, etc. I've got a thing for uni, particularly these days, so I had to have some.

In retrospect, I shouldn't have ordered this.  The last three pieces I'd had were all the highlights of my meal (the trout, the nasu, the tamago) and I was ending on a good note already.  And if Tim thought it was amazing, wouldn't he have included it in our omakase?  But ... uni!  I couldn't resist, even though we no longer had chopsticks, plates, or anything, and our bill was sitting in front of us.

The uni was ... ok.  Creamy enough I guess, but not really all that flavorful.  It definitely didn't have the richness and real strong uni flavor I was looking for.
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