I think many of us must secretly like masochistic dining and drinking experiences. How else to explain the popularity of Bruno the "Martini Nazi," the former owner and bartender at Aub Zam Zam in the Haight? (RIP Bruno--in my mind, the tables will always be closed.) And you can feel a certain level of accomplishment when being granted entrance to Da Flora in North Beach (the not-so-secret keys to the kingdom: don't be a fanny pack-wearing tourist in shorts, have nice manners, and make a reservation), let alone if you manage to make it through a dinner at Pizzetta 211 without getting squawked at. Heck, you're lucky if you get a pizza.
There is perhaps no better setting for abuse than at sushi restaurants: you're at the mercy of the chef, who can be as controlling or crotchety as they want to be, and there is a myriad of persnickety house rules you can break (to wit: Tekka on Balboa), and let's not forget all the nuances of Japanese sushi bar etiquette. (You did NOT just rub your chopsticks together? Doh!) The sushi-eating scenario is rife with possibility for shame.
Did all this talk get you excited? Ready to play maguro master and sushi servant? Off to ~INO SUSHI~ we go. The husband and wife duo here have been holding this tiny and tidy little room down for something like 30 years, if my memory serves me well (sometimes it doesn't). How tiny? Well, there are only eight seats or so at the bar, and just a few tables. It may be intimate, but chef Ino-san's poor wife has to handle the entire room herself, so don't expect quick or attentive service. And getting her attention is, uh, challenging. Just pretend you're fishing--sometimes you might nab her, other times she will get away. But I do think she's quite charming, and hustles as fast as she can in and out of the room in her kimono.
Definitely request a seat at the sushi bar (you made a reservation, right?). Be sure to make some eye contact with Ino-san, and if you're smart, you have a Japanese-speaking friend with you who can bust out some proper salutations, like "yoroshiku" (please treat me kindly). Yeah, here's hoping!
Actually, I have not had the tough time here that some friends have suffered--fortunately I have picked up a little bit of sushi bar etiquette over the years. I know, smell me.
Whether you're a pro or not, let's help you out with some basic house rules anyone should know before dining at Ino:
• Wait until Ino-san gives you the signal to order some sushi. He won't wave a flag or anything, but he'll let you know when he's ready.
• This is an ideal place to do omakase (chef's choice), but there are too many specific dishes you can't miss, like the haunting ikura (salmon roe, $5) with the tang (I think) of sake, and some of the best ankimo (monkfish liver, $4) in the city, second only to Sebo's--you will want to order this three times over. It's a brilliant, creamy, decadent execution, total Japanese foie. And don't ask for ponzu, yo.
• I also went nutty over the Oregon sardine he had on the menu one night, the super-fresh uni from Santa Barbara, and I love the ikura so dang much I ordered it again with a quail egg (you can thank me later--this was sushi nirvana).
• Don't freak out when your gari (ginger) is plunked directly in front of you on the wood counter, without a plate. And plonk! There is your sushi too! Surprise! The wood is clean. Don't ask for a dish. Really, it's cool.
• Do NOT ask for wasabi. This is probably the biggest thing that sticks in Ino-san's craw. He has a heavy hand, and will place a plentiful swipe of wasabi in your nigiri, don't you worry your pretty little head about it. Feel that tingling in your nose? Yeah, it's like you just tooted some whup-ass Colombian. Ino-san has got you covered. And then some.
• Don't go crazy pouring a lake of soy sauce into your bowl. Ino-san will totally arch an eyebrow at you. Waste not, want not.
• Don't dip your nigiri sushi rice side down in the soy sauce, or Ino-san will scold you. Fish side down, and just for a heartbeat.
• Don't even think about dipping your scrumptious unagi in the soy sauce--it's sublime as is. In fact, if you're not sure if something should be dipped in soy, ask Ino-san. Unless, of course, you like to be berated in front of your fellow diners. Maybe you do.
• You did not just order a caterpillar roll. Oh my god, you did. You are so in the doghouse!
• Do not bring your bratty kid, your loud friend, or your Crackberry-addicted stockbroker friend from New York.
• No sake bombs. There are some nice sakes to choose from, ask Ino-san what he recommends. And ask if perhaps he'd like to join you.
• A good way to begin your meal is with some sunomono, and you'll find there are more kinds to choose from than the usual simple cucumber presentation--there's also cucumber with octopus, prawn, or eel ($10), or all three for $12. Delish.
• Be sure to try one of the miso soups too, like the enoki mushroom ($3.50) or clam version ($4).
• More than anything, just be polite. Pretend he's your parole officer, or your great aunt with the plastic coverings on all her furniture, whatever it takes. It's the single most important thing to remember.
So you're wondering to yourself, hmmmm, is it worth blowing some money here, with all these rules, and the ever-looming possibility of getting bounced, schooled, and embarrassed? Hai, my friend. The quality and traditional presentation of the fish is quite notable--there are all kinds of little touches, from Ino-san's wonderful toasty nori, to the stellar marinade on the unagi. The experience is authentic. And did I mention the ikura and ankimo? Oh yes I did.
In fact, I admire Ino-san's attempt to keep things under control, shipshape, and in line. It's his house, these are his rules, and don't you even think about picking up your cell phone while he can see the whites of your eyes. Our society is coming apart at the seams, and I really appreciate this last bastion of tradition and manners.
Like in most good sushi places, the bill can climb precipitously, but since Ino Sushi is now my second favorite spot for sushi, in my mind, it's so worth it. Just please don't beat me!
22 Peace Plaza, Suite 510
(off Post St.)
Cross: Buchanan St.
San Francisco, CA 94115