We all have restaurants we have been meaning to dine at foh-evah, but haven't quite gotten around to (I'll share a couple currently on my list: Café Jacqueline, Tommy Toy's [I wanna try the Executive Lunch!], and Manka's in Inverness). And up until a couple weeks ago, ~KISS SEAFOOD~ was at the top of my list. For someone who adores Japanese food as much as I do, I was a bit ashamed of how long it took for me to get around to dining at this establishment that is so locally beloved.
Kiss is situated on a sleepy corner that's a little bit removed from the Japantown hubbub, a corner where you'd expect to find a liquor store, or a dry cleaner, or some other little residential business, and not this Japanese jewel box. A pal reserved our table for five practically a month in advance; you really shouldn't try to "swing on by" because you'll just go home mad—this joint will most likely be all booked up, and it is tiny, like downright Lilliputian. Try thirteen seats: five at the sushi bar, and the remainder are at the three tables (two two-tops, and one with room for four). Next time, I am definitely going to park myself at the petite sushi bar, but for our little gathering, the table made much better sense.
The room is minimalist and almost Zen-spa soothing: white walls, a sushi counter and chairs in blonde wood, white tablecloths at the tables (nice soft tablecloths at that), quiet music (although no weird Kitaro-like strummings, thank God), and a lovely ikebana display of flowers near the entrance.
We opted for the omakase (chef's choice) dinner ($42 or $60), although you can also order a la carte. For your first time here, many would recommend placing yourself in the chef's caring hands—I'm glad we did.
One caveat for this particular write-up: while I did take some notes, ask questions, and snapped a couple pictures (say hokkigai!), this dinner was primarily about enjoying our table's conversation and the overall experience, so there are definitely some details amiss—I never even looked at the a la carte menu. I actually debated about writing this one up, but since I loved it, and everyone's experience will be different here anyway, I figured what the heck. I know some regulars out there have tried to keep this restaurant a secret, but after a recent review in the SF Weekly and the 75 reviews on Yelp, I'd say the secret is kind of out.
Naka-san (who is from Sapporo) started us off with a refreshing and textured root salad, and we then proceeded to a trio of seafood, served in a sectioned ceramic dish: a subtle tofu and uni dish seasoned with dashi, vinegar, and soy; smoky salmon eggs that popped sensationally in your mouth; and a third dish that escapes me: I recall tofu, apple, and sesame paste. I know, I'm fired, but all my attention was on the smoky ikura. It just thrilled me—I could have eaten piggy spoonfuls of it. It was satisfying the way popping bubble wrap is satisfying—this was an adult culinary version of that.
The glistening sashimi spread was a study in gradual shades of pink and cream, and included Thai snapper, baby striped bass (delightful), giant clam (a chewy presentation that I've never had before), toro (what's not to love), sweet prawn (amaebi), amberjack, and halibut (hirame). While the pieces of sashimi did not exhibit the most exacting cuts, everything tasted quite fresh. (For the record, Naka-san also has fresh-grated wasabi instead of the usual green paste, check it out.)
The layered custard of Napa cabbage, sweet onion, monkfish, and ginger was dense and mild—it came resting in a bowl of white miso sauce that was so lip-smackingly and deeply delicious we all were left desiring a spoon to finish it off, but alas, no waitress at that moment. So, hey, it's guilty secret time: we each took turns slurping it off the edge of the bowl when no one was looking—we each "blocked" each other while someone went in for a slurp. Yes, it was a sauce to drive you to poor table manners. Sorry Mom!
At this point we sent chef over his favorite beverage, a bottle of Asahi Black, a dark lager that I have never had before and am now a convert. Hallelujah. Praise be.
The custard-fest continued with a silky chawan mushi—a piping hot (and I mean hot, like hot as hell—I had to let that little puppy rest for at least five minutes) ceramic bowl of custardy delight, hiding surprises like ginkgo nuts and Thai snapper inside, and garnished with fresh Manila clams on top. Naka-san's dashi is really a delight.
The sushi arrived, a luxurious and tidy line-up of halibut, marinated tuna (in soy) that was superb, clam, wild salmon, and hamachi. We were definitely feeling good after our taste tests of some sakes (my favorite was the Kaiun, $6.50; the Essyu, $9.50, and the warm Takaisami, $6.50, also came recommended). The server is actually Naka-san's wife—while the language barrier can be a little daunting, she was charming and kind, and the timing of the entire meal was spot-on.
We finished with a woodsy mushroom miso soup, and then some (slightly overripe) cantaloupe cut into little bites was offered for dessert. While you won't waddle out of there, we were definitely sated—for the record, I was with a pack of four gents. Mind you, they were gay boys with good appetites, but not exactly hockey player appetites—if that was the case, they would probably have needed to follow up with a drive-thru somewhere. So if you're dining with someone whose alias is "The Pit," he might be left wanting a touch more sustenance.
The food was elegant, subtle, and personal—Naka-san does everything himself, which is downright impressive. While not cheap, it's a unique and thoughtful dining experience that merits the tariff. We savored the quiet and intimate room—it was a treat to be able to talk without shouting; this place would be a perfect location for an adventurous date. If you've had Kiss on your "must visit" list for some time, I say indulge the curiosity.
From a tablehopper reader: FYI-- the waitress is not the chef's wife, although common misperception. Also, Naka-san is a shortened familiar name (Japanese formality and all--his full name is Nakagawa-san). Also, he loves Anchor Steam beer--even better than the Asahi black but he stopped stocking it because he says he drinks it too fast.
1700 Laguna St.
Cross: Sutter St.
San Francisco, CA 94115
(Note: closed the first Sunday of each month.)
Omakase Menu $42 or $60
A la carte is available