Kombu-cured halibut sashimi. All photos: © tablehopper.com.
Curry kabocha croquettes.
Chicken tsukune (meatballs).
Yaki onigiri (with pickled vegetables).
Almond meringue cookie sandwich.
The izakaya at the end of the night…
One of the stunning floral displays by Louesa.
Fires are always awful, but some are more tragic than others: when Chez Spencer experienced a fire in 2013, that was definitely a big loss for SF—I’m not the only one who adored that lofty industrial-chic space, all the way from when it sprung up as Citizen Cake. It always felt like a stylish oasis on that somewhat gritty stretch of 14th Street, among the parking lots and auto repair yards and tagged roll-up garage doors.
And now, with the latest business to open in that unique location, ~IZAKAYA RINTARO~, that feeling of stumbling across a little gem has returned. When you walk through the door from the street, you’re not quite sure you’re in the right place. There’s the front courtyard that is also a bit desolate, except for a lone café table (look for more seating to come in springtime). But in the back is a glowing space with people in it, and as you walk closer, you see the beautiful beams of wood. Once you open the door, you’ll see all the wild floral displays (courtesy of Louesa), the wood booths with redwood tables (made from old red wine and olive oil casks), and people crouched on stools by the open kitchen. Oh, the cedar bar (most of the woodwork was done by chef-owner Sylvan Mishima Brackett’s father—of East Wind architecture and design—who has has been hanging onto that slab since 1976)! The only thing that could make this warm space more welcoming would be if it were snowing outside.
Brackett is part of that New NorCal Craft clique, the culinary gang that has roots in Chez Panisse (he worked closely with Alice Waters for six years as her assistant, and then as the restaurant’s first creative director for one year), the OPEN Restaurant collective, the Scribe boys, the Ramen Shop crew, the Umami Mart ladies, plus others in their close-knit community, who all throw events together, riff off each other, and support one another. When Brackett left Chez, many were introduced to his sophisticated California-influenced and seasonal Japanese dishes during his Peko Peko pop-up, which included his artful bento boxes and pop-up dinners. And now at Rintaro, we get to sit near his beautiful and fascinating kitchen.
The place could easily become a romantic destination, but the upbeat music—spiked with the likes of LCD Soundsystem—keeps a lively izakaya vibe at the forefront. It feels more hip than Cali precious.
The menu is full of different sections (sashimi, fried, charcoal grilled, etc.), and you’ll want to graze your way across each. Their seafood sourcing is exquisite, shining in pristine dishes like the hirame no kombujime ($13.50), expertly cut sashimi of kombu-cured California halibut with the zip of fresh wasabi (from Half Moon Bay), and the fried spot prawn tempura ($12.50), so sweet and tiny.
The fried section was my favorite sandbox to play in (no surprise), from the teba no karaage ($10.75), juicy chicken wings (previously from Riverdog and now also from Marin Sun Farms), anointed with tare and sansho pepper, to what I think are the best korokke I have ever had: break open the exquisitely flaky and non-greasy panko coating (made from fresh Acme pain de mie) to reveal a creamy, fluffy, and lightly curried kabocha squash interior. And then there’s the recent addition of the chizu tori katsu ($12.25), a chicken breast katsu (with that same flaky exterior that borders on high art) with Wagon Wheel cheese melted inside. Dear lord.
A feature here is the ability to grill over charcoal, a bit of a rarity here in SF, but they did a lot of special measures to be able to do so. There are a number of Riverdog chicken skewers (from skin to liver to the oyster), hovering around $6.50 for two skewers. I honestly haven’t found them to be transcendent quite yet, but the tsukune meatball I had recently, browned to perfection on binchotan charcoal, got me excited again. It’s nontraditional: Brackett doesn’t use any binding agents, just sweet onions, chicken, and seasoning, like yuzu peel and sweet rice wine. One night we also scored with Sonoma Liberty duck ($7)—dabbed with yuzu kosho—that really shined, with its lightly smoky succulence.
The dashimaki tamago ($9.25) omelet will get your table’s attention quickly, the folds of creamy and silky egg heightened with deeply savory dashi notes (Brackett sourced his quality katsuobushi and has it shipped directly from a factory in South Japan, and they shave it in the restaurant fresh). You can also opt for a larger dish, from a grilled steak to rainbow trout (around $25), but I have always stuck with the smaller plates. What’s not to love about a parade of small dishes like this? And served on beautiful pottery, no less.
I like how you can end your night on a simpler note here, including the yaki onigiri ($5), sporting the satisfyingly crisp texture of rice that got a kiss from the grill, to the ikuradon ($11.50), a bowl of rice topped with delicate roe, paired with a knob of wasabi and a sheet of the fabulous nori they use here. The roe is exceedingly fresh—by the time it’s on your table, it’s probably just 48 hours old from its Washington source, Quinault Nation (which is why its cured flavor is so beguilingly subtle—Brackett only needs to lightly cure it for eight hours in salty water, sake, and seasoned dashi). There’s also funky natto ($8.50) for the few but dedicated natto fans—wait until you taste the housemade umeboshi paste.
Another time, we found a dessert on the menu: a sandwich cookie of almond meringue (with a perfect chewy-yet-crunchy texture) and Earl Grey dacquoise ($9.75, yeah, it’s a spendy one), with an almost Chez-like touch of prune and orange compote. The dishes rotate in and out with the seasons and the kitchen’s whim, something that will keep me coming back.
While the service is kind and well intentioned, on both visits I found it to be pretty scattered. After our table was pummeled with too many dishes at once the first time, I asked for our server to course things out in waves on the second visit, a request that was obviously quickly forgotten as our table piled up again with hot dishes that quickly grew cold. The oshibori (hot towel) is a nice touch, but having it show up partway through the meal doesn’t really help. We had to flag our multiple servers down for water refills, the check… But then they do something exceedingly kind like replace your friend’s spilled glass of sake without charge, and you quickly forget the fact your table was left dirty for so long.
The booths are definitely the coveted seats instead of the crowded and wobbly stools at the counter, but you can also be a bit neglected, which you wouldn’t even care about if you were on a hot date (right?). There’s also a private dining room in the back for 20. (Reservations are now accepted, FYI.)
There are about six sake selections, two shochu selections (including a drink with fresh grapefruit one evening), a few beers (Echigo, Asahi on draft), and just a couple of wines. I’d like more to choose from, especially in the wine section, since one night there was only the Scribe riesling ($12/glass) or Hudson Pick Up Sticks (a red blend for $17.75 a glass!). Hmmm. But the place has so much charm and the team such an obvious love of details (just wait until you see the beautiful washroom) that they will just keep fine-tuning as it grows into its well-feathered nest—one I will continue to fly to.
This review was based on two visits.