517 Hayes St.
Cross: Octavia St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Small plates $3-$12
19, 2006 | SAN FRANCISCO
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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?
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?").
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.").
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.