I am thrilled that izakaya is becoming a household word. Well, it's not quite "mac 'n' cheese" or "taqueria" yet, but based on all the recent openings in the City, it's well on its way. ~O IZAKAYA LOUNGE~ opened in the Hotel Kabuki, taking over the former Dot Bar and Lounge space. I must admit I never quite made it to the previous business, "Lord of Balls"--I wasn't very clear on the concept, and wasn't quite sure I wanted to be (I will refrain from making any vulgar comments). Anyway, since I've been happily catching more flicks lately at the awesome Sundance Kabuki, I've been exploring Japantown and the dining options around there a bit more than usual.
Normally, I wouldn't even consider dining at a "sports lounge," and as far as I'm concerned, the seven flat screen TVs playing live sports might as well be Kryptonite, an East Coast snowstorm, and the scary banjo player from Deliverance all rolled into one. (Read: not appealing.) In the future, I'm going to have to make sure there isn't a game being broadcast that night if I'm going to want some of chef Nicolaus Balla's vittles--fellow non-sports fans, you might want to follow suit. Sports fans, however, you'll be one happy camper.
The space is comfortable and not very big, with folks hanging around the round bar, and diners either parked in the spacious booths, or the smaller tables flanking the room. It's not rowdy like my fave, Oyaji but it's partly because there are more couples dining here, or solo diners/drinkers at the bar, and not as many of the larger groups like what you'll see at other izakayas around town. The wallpaper made of a print of vintage Japanese baseball cards is super clever, but the bizarre iPod mix of pop music and other random tracks needs a little reining in.
Since it's a bar, you can order a cocktail (I don't recommend the Joie de Veev--I love açai, but in this drink's case, you might as well just drink the Veev straight), or a Sapporo (on tap, hello!), or shochu or sake--there are some good ones to choose from, but I'd like to see a couple more junmai ginjo and dai ginjos offered by the glass.
To the munchables! The hamachi sunomono ($12) is still on my mind, a delicious tangy combo with pickled fennel, black radish (it looks like it's a shaving of a mysterious truffle), enoki mushrooms marinated in ponzu, and feisty kaiware (daikon sprouts). Balla is way into pickling: he also does his own kimchee, which is the star-crossed lover/partner for the pork belly ($14) that comes sliced over the top. It's a good "crossover" kimchee for those who typically fear it: his fantastic version is made with leeks, Napa cabbage, Serrano and Thai chiles, anchovy, and garlic--don't pass this dish up.
It wouldn't be an izakaya without some agemono (fried) love. The tempura crimini mushrooms ($7) come from fabled shroomer Connie Green, and have a dark batter made with Black Butte porter. They were a touch under-salted, but I liked the side dipping dish of spicy hatcho miso. Wasn't as big a fan of the butternut squash tempura ($10), which looked like a bull's-eye, with the squash and cream cheese wrapped up in nori and deep fried, then sliced up like some maki, and served with a ponzu dip and a green tea (matcha) salt. Clever, and close, but not my preferred type of cigar.
How about some grilled meat on a stick? Can't go wrong with juicy chicken thigh yakimono ($4), the warhorse of meat, but the true star is the hamachi belly ($4), delectable with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of shichimi, that addictive Japanese pepper I like to sprinkle on too many things. Oh, and be sure to try the omochi ($3), fried rice balls with a light sweetness and toothsome texture. A veiled homage to Lord of Balls? Naw.
I'd like to come back for the lauded burger ($12) that is gaining its own fan club, or one of the yaki soba ($8) choices on a foggy night. There are also some dishes like tai snapper ($14) and iwashi (broiled sardines) ($12) that caught my eye. The duck breast ($15) was tender and nicely seasoned, and came with some diiiiivine eggplant that was pressed (there was some duck fat involved too) with a flourish of red miso. There are a fair amount of vegetarian choices too.
Additional bonuses: they validate parking for diners for three hours in the Kabuki garage (!), and the happy hour is a killer deal, and a great way to come check the place out (Sun-Thu 5pm-7pm) and enjoy some specials, like yakimono for $1.50. I wish the kitchen was open a bit later--it would be a dream late-night spot (the food is built for it), but alas, they say "oyasumi nasai" (good night) a bit early here.
O Izakaya Lounge
1625 Post St.
Cross: Laguna St.
San Francisco, CA 94115
Larger plates $12-$19
Chef Nick Balla is now at Nombe in the Mission—see the review for details on where to find his excellent cooking.