Akamutsu (wild Japanese deep sea grouper).
Salmon and ito kake (bonito flakes).
Ikura (in delicious nori).
Australian wagyu nigiri.
Kabosu fried chicken wings.
I’ll be honest—every time I hear about yet another crappy little sushi place opening in the city, I want to say a prayer for all the unagi, hamachi, ebi, toro (did you really just offer me that? Criminy.), and other unsustainable and endangered seafood that will be served. It’s depressing. It’s gotten to the point where sushi places need to be limited, like liquor licenses. There are, of course, a few exceptions that blip on the radar that we can all get fired up about. And ~ICHI SUSHI~ is definitely one of them. BEEP!
But before we dive in here, it’s full disclosure time, darlings. Chef-owner Tim Archuleta is married to Erin Archuleta, whose byline you will occasionally see on my column’s hardhat pages, and she was tablehopper’s first intern extraordinaire. My review would be exactly the same with or without the relationship, but I wanted to mention it in case someone decides to get all fussy and think I’m pulling a fast one. And I paid for my dinner (and boy did I). Okay? Onward.
Let’s just say Bernal Heights is extremely stoked, yes, stoked, to have this addition to the ‘hood. In fact, they’re freaking lucky as all hell. As for the rest of us, well, you’re gonna have to haul your ass on over there. Upon first impression, the place is not what I’d call a looker, with dangly lights hanging in the front windows. The interior is simply decorated, with a blond sushi counter (a re-sanded holdover from the previous Yo’s), ceramic-slate tile floors, and suspended lights chef Tim made from sake bottles—the little neko-cat chopstick holders are a mighty cute touch, meow.
If there’s room (no reservations, by the way), you definitely want to pull on up to the sushi bar, because the jovial chef Tim has some things he’d like to show you. The menu has some classic nigiri selections and rolls on there, but I say put that menu aside and let chef Tim drive the bus. Just tell him “omakase,” and you can give him a ballpark budget. I failed to do that last bit, because sometimes when I’m seated at certain sushi counters, there’s the evil voice in my brain that commands, “Screw the budget. Let’s do it up!” Sound the trumpets.
The sushi Tim is preparing here is phenomenal. He’s getting deliveries daily, and it’s a total Tsukiji bounty. Seasonality and sustainability are big components to his sourcing, so you don’t have to worry about whipping out your Seafood Watch card before falling in love with something pretty in the case.
With a few wet sweeps on a bamboo leaf, chef Tim will place the leaf before you: it’s your plate for the evening. I was blown away with the nigiri combinations he placed upon it, like the hiramasa (Australian kingfish, $5.75) anointed with yuzu juice, yuzu salt, and Meyer lemon zest. It tasted like—I daresay—what seasonal San Francisco sushi should taste like.
The siego (Japanese striped bass, $7) that we had first out the gates featured a kicky combo of brown rice vinegar, white soy, yuzu ponzu gel, and momiji oroshi (chile daikon), with a petite crown of sliced green onions. Pow. The combinations all beg of you to forgo any self-administered additions of wasabi and soy sauce—give it a rest. Don’t worry, chef Tim will tell you if you should add anything.
He even managed to turn the beat around on a fish I never order (salmon): the rosy slice of Shetland’s Best Scottish salmon ($5.75) got zhoozhed up with battera kombu (pickled kelp), ponzu gel, aka yuzu kosho (Japanese yuzu zest fermented with a Japanese red chile—I need to get some in my fridge stat, what flavor), and thin shavings of ito kake (bonito), which gave the salmon a lightly smoky taste—hey, it’s Japanese lox!
Overall, the flavor combinations were spot on, modern, and show such creative flair. Our meal was like an elaborate tasting menu of one-bite wonders, and could have been at a very high-end sushi restaurant. Instead, we are on Mission Street, hanging out with young and fun diners, listening to Girl Talk, drinking beers (there are three on tap), sampling sake (14 to choose from), and making jokes with chef Tim all night. Not a whiff of formality, chilliness, or sushi Nazi vibe here.
But don’t get me wrong: the guy is a pro (he has 15 years under his belt). You’ll encounter beautifully cut fish and prepared rice, with so much care taken in how he supplies his arsenal of ingredients—with one bite of the sublime nori that wrapped our bite of ikura ($5.25), I was like, “Wow, Tim, this nori!” He’s like, “Yeah, it’s expensive. [Quotes some number that I don’t remember because I was busy drinking my Hitachino.] But it’s the good stuff.” Bring it on.
My hands-down favorite fish discovery of the evening was akamutsu ($12.50), wild Japanese deep sea grouper. He served it simply, no adornment. I think I have found my replacement for toro. It’s worth the expense, trust. Tim’s like an Upper East Side lady with an expensive shoe fetish—he can’t help buying the Jimmy Choos of seafood. So the least you can do is see what he has in his closet, and join him in his bad habit. Go ahead, try them on.
Oh, and don’t miss the seared Australian wagyu ($8.50), served as nigiri. It’s a magenta slice of rare, steaky goodness, spruced up with a ponzu of apple vinegar and white soy, plus a sprinkling of yuzu salt and a little prickle from the green yuzu kosho on top. Beef nigiri, sign me up.
So even though I mostly stayed in nigiri land—and it’s a wonderful place to live—there are some other finds on the menu as well. Like, oh, the kabosu chicken wings ($9.50)! These juicy babies go through quite the prep: he “power marinades” them in kabosu juice (a Japanese citrus), plus soy, and “burnt” (reduced) sake; sous vides them for an hour; and then fries the wings in potato starch. The starch gives them a flaky, almost crumb donut exterior, as my friend noted. They’re sick. Yes, succulent. And they’re a little rosy inside, but don’t freak out. They’re cooked all the way through—they’re just not the desiccated pieces of chicken you’re usually encountering elsewhere.
Another item of note: the oysters on the half shell ($2 each) are a good place to start—I know Tim is a big fan of oysters, so there’s no way he’d serve anything but beauties. These are Cranberry Creek oysters from Washington, served with white soy, brown rice vinegar, yuzu, ponzu sauce, a hit of green yuzu kosho, and a smattering of tobiko on the ice that you can try to scoop up and add to your oyster. I know that sounds like one hell of a complicated mignonette, but it all comes together swimmingly.
A recommended place to wrap up your sushi tour de force is with Tim’s stellar tamago ($4.50), made with Jidori eggs. I have always enjoyed eating tamago last, a final note of something savory-sweet to end the night on, and this custard-y execution is a new benchmark.
I’m thrilled to see Tim have his own counter. After years of working at Tokyo Go Go, doing catering, having his ICHI deli counter at 331 Cortland, and serving sushi at happy hours around the city, he finally has his own control board. And he’s funny, friendly, and welcoming, so he’s already earned a full dance card of regulars and devotees. This place, in a word, rocks. It’s the neighborhood gem you’ll wish was in your ZIP code—and even if it’s not, it’s so worth the trip to go see one of San Francisco’s rising stars.