Ahhhh, hello, young grasshopper. What is that you have been eating? Spicy tuna hand rolls? Farmed salmon in April? Seattle Seahawk rolls? Maki with cream cheese? Ankimo that has been frozen for lord knows how long and then served to you like it's made fresh? The sushi travesties in this town blow my mind. Mediocre sushi places continue to rampantly open all over the city, like bad cafés, doing terrible things to fish and rice.
I remember in my twenties I was just wantonly indulging my burgeoning love of sushi (and perhaps a few other things too), happily floating along in my No Name/We Be Sushi/Ebisu state of complete and utter ignorance, losing precious hours of my life trying to score a table at Sushi Zone. I practically earned a Purple Heart for surviving countless sake bombs.
And then I had my first omakase experience sitting at the counter at Sushi-Gen in Los Angeles, and everything changed. It was one of those rare transcendent dining moments that keep me chasing the dragon. I didn't know nigiri could be so tender, and delicate, that you could actually fit the entire piece gingerly into your mouth without fear of choking (or looking like a chipmunk), or having to bite some tough fish in two. I also learned what good rice tastes like, and that it can't be clumpy, or egad, too warm. That uni is actually quite delicious, and should not taste like you are licking the bottom of the sea floor off the coast in Mexico. I was ruined and saved, all at once in a moment of toro bliss.
Now, we all love a bargain. But when it comes to sushi, really, just spend the money, because you truly get what you pay for. And for the record, this is one time when bigger is NOT better. Buying cheap sushi is like taking some sick pleasure in wearing cubic zirconium stud earrings or spraying on Designer Impostors ("If you like Giorgio, then try George!") when you have more than enough cash in your wallet to enjoy the real thing (unless you're a tranny, and it's just a way of life).
I know, sometimes all you want is some simple tekka maki and a California roll, and I say that's fine! We can't always lay out the cash and go first class. (And hell, sometimes you just want to slum it.) But if you're ready to saddle up for a top drawer sushi experience, then ~SEBO~ should make its way onto your "to do" list (and no, I am not talking about your list with the hot bartender and your mechanic on it).
Some folks will remember Michael and Danny from the Midori Mushi era, back when they were slicing and dicing in the Days Inn tower just around the corner on Grove Street. But the formerly zany style and quirky sushi names have graduated into this sleeker, more sophisticated space, one with muted lighting, trapezoidal tables that nestle cleverly next to each other depending upon your group size, and a dimly glowing room rich with woods, from the reclaimed mahogany sushi bar, trim, and tables to the teak floors. Many of the beautiful dishes and pottery actually come from Michael's family, and some are eighty years old, so no Greek plate smashing here, 'kay?
The sunken display case for the sushi is like a glam jewelry box, showcasing shimmery stingray and pearlescent shimaaji. A funky vibe still prevails with the music, which on one night included Beck and A Tribe Called Quest ("Escargot, Lucien, you eat snails? Hey yo Tip, what's wrong with snails?").
Ideally you'll be able to nab a seat at the intimate sushi bar, which was designed to make you feel like you're sitting at your friend's place, watching them craft their fish art and cook while you drink up all their tasty sake (Beau Timken of True Sake crafted the list--wait until you read his descriptions--some include tasting references to PEZ and "flavored nothingness.").
If it's your first time, definitely consider going for the omakase "chef's choice" option and see what kind of a sushi portrait they'll paint for you (your custom menu could cost in the $60-$80 range, just so you know). Admittedly, both Michael and Danny are a little soft-spoken, so don't expect any Japanese greetings to be yelled at you when you walk in, but don't be afraid to ask questions either--there's a lot you can learn here.
Like a number of places around town that have a seasonal focus, Sebo is no different. Because so many kinds of fish are farmed and available year-round, or just sitting around frozen forever, people don't realize fish is seasonal, and there are certain fish that may only have a peak season of a couple weeks. So if salmon isn't on the menu, then it's because it's not wild salmon season; don't fuss--there are plenty of other fresh choices that will enchant you.
We started with sunomono ($6), a refreshing salad with flavorful and meaty leaves of wakame (seaweed), thinly sliced cucumber that still managed to have a little crisp to it in a balanced vinegar dressing, and some scored shimaaji layered on top. Another small plate was the pan-seared hirame (fluke/$9) dusted with Japanese shichimi/seven peppers, and resting in a subtle dashi that deepened and became all the more peppery as the fish sat in it, mingling with the flavors of barely-blanched asparagus, shiitake mushrooms, and grated yuzu.
My dining partner christened the sashimi of honmaguro (wild bluefin tuna) "fish beef," while the presentation of hirame was like a rose, with bright orange shoyu ikura (salmon roe) spilling around its "leaves" of sliced avocado (and one real leaf of shiso)--it was downright romantic. The texture of ikura popping in our mouths was deeply satisfying, almost like popping nature's bubble wrap. We lost it over the barracuda, lightly torched on one side while scrumptiously raw underneath, striking the balance of a perfect black and blue steak.
On our visit, there were 19 different types of nigiri offered. Okay, first things first: the saba ($8) here will completely shift your opinion about mackerel. Cast your previous saba experiences overboard and order it up. It's not the typically greasy and overly fishy Norwegian saba you'll find in most places that is heavily pickled in vinegar--here they prepare wild Japanese saba that is flown in every couple of days, and only sees vinegar for a couple of minutes. Wait until you see the deep ruby red of the flesh--never seen anything like it, or tasted saba like this before. Sorry, it's going to totally make you a spoiled sushi brat (I can think of worse things to be).
The iwashi (sardine) nigiri ($7) was another fish treasure--fatty and dense. There was also kohada (Japanese shad/$8) and kanburi (winter yellowtail/$8). Seriously, go for the exotic here if you can--while ebi (shrimp) and tako (octopus) are lovely, this is a great place to experiment.
The dish that will officially ruin you is the ankimo (monkfish liver/$7). Instead of the stuff that is frozen into rolls and defrosting at a sushi counter near you, here they poach it for several hours, resulting in the sweetest, smoothest ankimo in town (although Ino at Japantown supposedly prepares it the same way). It comes topped with festive ribbons of bonito, and some daikon and shiso underneath. Meet the foie gras of the finned world.
So, a few useful notes: Sebo has a very subtle entrance (i.e. no flashing OPEN sign), and odds are good you'll walk right past it, so be sure to take the address with you or you very well may be left aimlessly wandering Hayes Street. Also, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays are their busiest nights, while Wednesdays and Saturdays seem to be slower. If the restaurant is totally slammed and all full, they will take your number and call you when your table is ready.
And here's a little more advice: please don't drown your fish in shoyu, and dump in a pile of wasabi (although it is fresh-grated) unless you are having some sashimi--just savor the fish in all its pristine purity, and trust that Mike and Danny are seasoning it perfectly for you (they care like that). And hey, bon voyage--this little gem is truly a place unto itself, with nary a caterpillar roll in sight.
517 Hayes St.
Cross: Octavia St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Small plates $3-$12