Aji (part of Ryo Sakai’s omakase menu). All photos: © tablehopper.com.
McFarland Springs trout belly.
Mendocino wakame, ikura, clam in a smoky dashi.
Ryo Sakai doing his magic.
Manila clams with lamb chorizo, winter squash, miso dashi, kombu butter, black garlic shoyu, pickled shallot.
The kombu focaccino, with Benton’s country ham, burrata, eggplant caponata.
Menchi katsu with smoked tonkatsu sauce, hot and cold cabbage, plum-pickled ginger, onion agrodolce.
The casual dining room, with the sushi counter in the back.
Some folks color outside the lines, and naming your restaurant something like ~PINK ZEBRA~ is your first clue things will be tweaked here. Like chef Jesse Koide’s previous kitchen HQ (Mission Chinese Food), Pink Zebra is a Mission restaurant within a restaurant (Tao Yin). His menu is a funky mash-up of mostly Italian and Japanese flavor profiles, reflecting his varied cooking background (Bar Tartine, Farina, Blowfish). The wiry, tattooed, and wild-eyed Koide—who looks like he doubles as a drummer for a metal band with his ever-present pink zebra headband—and his band of merry pranksters have zhooshed the space with groovy artwork, and I ended up getting turned on to an amazing album thanks to the choice selections they’re playing on the hi-fi. Selector alert!
And then there’s the sideshow: a petite five-seat omakase sushi counter in the back, with the exceedingly kind Ryo Sakai (Domo) preparing some of the better sushi you can hope to find in the city, and certainly one of the most engaging counters to sit at. I went with two friends for my birthday dinner, and we were talked and walked through the preparation and provenance of each course, from the white sea bass that has been curing in kombu for two days to my favorite experience: watching Ryo skillfully prepare the different parts of a live butter clam from Oregon, learning about the siphon, mantle, and sake-poached foot.
Sakai proudly features local ingredients (sardines, wakame, wasabi from Half Moon Bay) alongside incredible masaba he sources from Tsukiji, and you’ll see his creative flair in touches like micro shiso powder. And just wait for the tamago at the end, which he lovingly makes in his special tamago pan. It’s a scintillating journey (around 15 courses) for $85 or so, just make a reservation for the counter in advance.
Start with some quality beers (Echigo, Mikkeller), or sake, and you’ll note it’s not your usual wine list either, with Spanish sparkling (a brut nature at that), tempranillo, and more. Mull over Koide’s inventive main dining room menu with the hurricane popcorn ($6) on your table, a snack storm with fried pig ears, furikake, and lime (total chef food). If you’re leaning to the Japanese side, order some yakitori, like the al pastor-esque spice-rubbed chicken hearts ($5) and pickled pineapple, or pork and anchovy tsukune ($6).
Cold night? Get the umami-rich local Manila clams ($16) with lamb chorizo and a miso dashi, spiking the complexity meter with kombu butter and black garlic shoyu. Deep, complex flava in yo’ face! Stoned/hungover/hangry/a linebacker? The menchi katsu ($18) is for you: thin layers of pork katsu layered with Gruyère in between, all fried in panko and served with a smoky tonkatsu sauce. Boom. You’re not going to be able to move a lot afterward—you will feel like a contented seal.
And then there’s the kombu focaccino ($16), a total f*ckshow of warm nori-kissed bread topped with a scoop of burrata, Benton’s country ham that melts like lardo—it’s sliced so thinly—and vibrant eggplant caponata. Whut. This dish! It’s a hot mess of delicious.
Fortunately the dishes are built to share, so you can graze around—there are about nine of ‘em, ranging from $13-$18. No, things aren’t perfect (the veal in our kimchi gyudon was chewy, the pacing of dishes one night was crazy fast) and the eclectic menu can be hard to parse for some, but I dig the patchwork quilt craziness of it. It’s very San Francisco, the apparent breeziness of it all here, but underneath, the cooking is rooted, skillful, and cares about quality. And community. And flavor country. And fun.
This review was based on two visits.