Soul. It’s one of the most treasured qualities to see (and feel) in a restaurant, and sadly it’s also one of the most elusive. It’s a feeling that sneaks up on you—you don’t walk into a place, plunk down, and upon placing your napkin in your lap, proclaim, “Damn, this place has soul!” It needs to unfold.
I was midway through my first meal at ~IZAKAYA YUZUKI~, after a few bites of the silken housemade tofu, when I found myself feeling more relaxed, and inspired, and just plain happy. I felt taken care of, and nurtured. The food tasted so clean and well prepared—it’s the kind of cuisine I wish I could eat every day (and probably should). And upon a second visit, again, I was admittedly falling under the spell of the many subtle and authentic qualities of this under-the-radar gem.
The restaurant is from first-time restaurant owner Yuko Hayashi, a native of Osaka, and quite the lover of food. She managed to pick one of the more cursed restaurant spaces in the city, and to be frank, the current décor isn’t doing much to attract people and draw them in. The lights are too bright (ditto the white walls, except for the punch of warmth from the kabocha squash-colored back wall and the cuteness of the hand-painted vegetables on another), the Christmas lights around the windows look more suited for a dorm room, the tables and chairs are rather nondescript, and the eclectic music is a bit odd, sometimes veering into early-aughts electronica that I’d expect to hear while checking in at the W.
But once everything starts coming to your table, and your eyes start focusing on the many colorful plates and compositions, a very different impression begins to take hold. The first clue: the unique (and sustainable) Yoshino cedar chopsticks from Nara—tapered on each end—resting on a charming print cotton napkin from Japan. The all-female Japanese servers are some of the kindest in the city, well-versed in each dish (or quick to get an answer for you if they’re not sure). There was also a grace with each presentation and clearing of our plates—a light, feminine touch that I admired.
The menu from chef Takashi Saito is divided into a number of different sections, from yakitori to grilled to steamed items, and you’ll want to traipse through all of them. The staff will order and pace your dishes well—not once was our table overloaded with too many dishes (a pet peeve of mine with small plates).
Lighter dishes in the otsumami section (which are meant to be enjoyed with drinks) are the obanzai ($10), three little appetite-inducing bowls with rotating vegetables within, like sweet potato with black sesame and another with spicy rehydrated daikon; the tsukemono ($5), a ceramic plate with a still life of housemade pickles (carrot, radish, cucumber, and eggplant), all fermented with nuka (rice bran), which makes for a drier and lighter style of pickle, instead of one sodden with vinegar; or the sunomono ($10), with Dungeness crab, the most exquisitely sliced cucumber, chrysanthemum flowers, shiso microgreens, and seaweed from Japan.
The crown jewel is the zaru tofu ($9), the custardy housemade tofu that comes with accompaniments like bonito flakes, green onion, and ginger—but really, just start with a tiny sprinkling of salt to fully appreciate its sweet and rich flavor. The tofu is made with organic soy beans from Alabama, and unlike the housemade oboro style at nearby Eiji, this version is a more concentrated and creamy style called kinukoshi tofu (I was told that process has the soy milk warmed together with the brine, while oboro has the soy milk warmed first, then the brine added at the end).
These are not flavors that hit you over the head. They’re soft whispers that make you listen more closely.
Heartier otsumami selections include the Kobe beef tataki ($9), raw slices of seared beef topped with thin shavings of onion, daikon shoots, and dollops of a spicy yuzukosho sauce; and the suji nikomi ($10), which tastes like a Japanese version of brisket, with small and stewy bites of miso-braised beef silverside (which is a particular cut that the owners had to track down—no one really sells it locally) and tendon. The tendon is cut into the perfect size so you can enjoy the flavor and texture without feeling like you’re chewing on a gelatinous mass.
The menu leans heavy on seafood, like the satsuma age ($11), given the misnomer of “fried dumpling”—instead, it’s a housemade fish cake of rock fish, shrimp, and octopus that is fried and sliced. It’s savory, with a crisp exterior and just the right spongy texture within—and ideal drinking food. Same goes with the grilled yaki surume ika ($8), slices of tender Hokkaido squid body marinated for a couple hours in the house koji (a mold fermented on rice that we can all give thanks for because it makes food tastier, and easier to digest)—you can dip the slices into a housemade yuzu-mayonnaise (the dish also came with the bonus of some spicy fried tentacles).
The magic koji also appears on the tender tsukune ($4), chicken meatballs on a skewer that I could easily eat far too many of. They owe their juicy tenderness to being lightly boiled first, and then grilled. The negima ($3.50) yakitori (chicken thigh and scallion) was less exciting; ditto on the kara-age chicken ($7), which was juicy, but not particularly notable when compared to all the other unique dishes. I guess they are good choices for people who don’t want anything “weird,” or kids (I saw a little one tucked into a high chair one evening).
The kakiage ($11) is a dish that has really stayed on my mind: fried nests of shredded burdock, carrot, and green carrot stems with plump Gulf shrimp tangled within, finished with yuzu salt. You can sprinkle some exquisitely fine green tea salt on top before you take a bite, but it was the smoky dashi (made with niboshi, a type of dried sardine) that really elevated this dish into something very memorable.
For those who are not afraid, there’s the exotic ika shiokara ($6), a petite bowl with the tiniest pieces of cured squid inside, marinated in its liver and salt. The sauce is creamy and mouth-coating, and overflows with that livery-iron-metallic note that you only get with offal. My dining pal and I kept returning to it, for just another hit of funk (thwap thwap thwap), but it’s not for the faint of heart. It’ll definitely keep you drinking your sake.
And then there’s the koshihikari rice, which takes 30 minutes to cook. Toward the midpoint of your meal, a beautiful earthenware pot will be presented, with the lightly sweet and sticky rice inside. I preferred the asari gohan ($15), with Manila clams and ikura (salmon roe), but a springtime special one night was takenoko gohan ($14), with a brunoise of fresh bamboo shoots from Los Angeles (the flavor was revelatory) and sansho leaf—delightful.
Chawan-mushi fans, you have two to choose from here: a version with uni ($9) on top (sporting a smidge of wasabi), or one with petite fire squid ($8), dyed a deep and muddy hue from the squid ink. Both of these silky, eggy numbers come with little treats inside, like kamaboko (fish cake) and shimeji mushrooms. Another winner: the agedashi tofu ($12), with the housemade tofu, ikura oroshi (grated daikon) sauce, plus bonito and shiso. It’s one of the best executions I’ve ever had.
Chef Takashi (formerly at Ame and Kyo-ya) has a deft and intuitive style. The precise cuts (even a lemon that came with our mackerel was notched for easier squeezing), the eye-pleasing presentations, the on-point seasoning and textures, the unexpected notes of flavor that appear (like shiso, or sansho), the clean and fresh-tasting and seasonal food…. It all combines to leave you feeling very content, and there’s something very touching about it all. I think it’s the taste of kindness, if that makes sense. You can tell that someone cares.
I was very taken with all the dishes and bowls and plates. It ends up chef sourced all of them in Tokyo during a research trip and had them shipped home. You’ll notice each dish comes out hot, or chilled, or perhaps room temperature—but that’s only if that was his intention.
Desserts (made by Yuko) offer a charming finale, like her tonyu custard (all desserts $6), a sweet flan-like dish made with soy milk and Okinawa black sugar syrup on top. The ginger sorbet is for diners in need of a light finish, or there’s the yokan, a cube of housemade azuki bean curd and matcha sauce for those craving something earthier.
I enjoyed tasting through the well-curated sake list here (there are over 20 selections), and found a new friend: the complex yet dry Suehiro Yamahai ($7 per glass). I definitely prefer sake or beer with Japanese food, but there’s an (in-development) wine list with some choice selections for those who want vino instead. Beers include Asahi on tap and Upright from Oregon (one night it was number 5), and bottled selections include my favorite little owl, Hitachino Belgian white ale, plus Echigo (rice beer) and a couple Coedo beers. (We’ll have to wait until September for Yuko’s next batch of tart umeshu plum wine.) Non-alcoholic choices are also available, like elderflower juice and housemade ginger ale.
This corner spot is ideal for a date night with your food-loving friend, and those evenings when you’d like to take good care of yourself. There’s a small walnut bar with room for solo diners or dudes who don’t want to sit at a table together. With advance notice (at least two days, but a week is ideal), you can request an omakase meal for just two or a small group. For a regular meal with drinks, plan on spending around $65 per person (if you have a healthy appetite). While it has izakaya in the name, and the food is definitely something you want to drink to, the experience here is like a kinder, gentler izakaya—and one with a soulful and restorative touch.
- 598 Guerrero St. San Francisco