This week's tablehopper: itchy and scratchy.
Negroni and fried artichokes at I Sodi.
Hi there. Yup, it’s me. I’m back in your inbox after taking a little break—I was gallivanting around New York with my sister this past week. I had high hopes to send out a mini issue, but the pull of NYC proved to be too great. I lost all desire to even look at my computer—I just wanted to be adventuring around town (and stuffing my face, of course). Sometimes you just gotta unplug.
The final LCD Soundsystem show (the entire point of our trip) proved to be one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Three hours of such choice tracks—as I noted on Twitter, it flowed like a favorite novel. It was an incredibly heartfelt and energetic show, and I felt so damn lucky to be able to see it. Great crowd, too, all dressed in black and white. People were having the time of their life.
We had a blast eating our way around the city: a late-night/just-landed meal of mussels and more at Millesime, a spicy lunch at Kin Shop, a memorable dinner at Momofuku Ko, a gut-busting Chinatown dumpling tour (which included Xi’an Famous Foods) with our dumpling-obsessed friend, stellar harissa falafel at Taim, delicious cavatelli in a spicy lamb ragu at L’Artusi, sweetbreads and the Parmesan omelet at Prune, and I managed to pick up an egg on a roll for my cab ride to the airport (and lox on a bagel for the plane). Oh yeah, and we scored a late-night slice of pizza, of course. Also hit up I Sodi for Negronis, plus cocktails at Little Branch (always a fave) and Death & Co. Guess who is having smoothies for breakfast, and salads for lunch this week? Uh huh. Take a lap, tablehopper.
This week, I can’t wait to tell you about my new favorite sushi spot, ICHI Sushi in Bernal Heights, and in honor of my New York trip, Pete Mulvihill of Green Apple has a bookworm about Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune’s book. (Be sure to listen to the audio clip at the end of the piece!)
See ya on Tuesday with a pile o’ news. You’ve been warned. Heh.
New Restaurant Reviews (I'm looking for somewhere new to eat)
I’ll be honest—every time I hear about yet another crappy little sushi place opening in the city, I want to say a prayer for all the unagi, hamachi, ebi, toro (did you really just offer me that? Criminy.), and other unsustainable and endangered seafood that will be served. It’s depressing. It’s gotten to the point where sushi places need to be limited, like liquor licenses. There are, of course, a few exceptions that blip on the radar that we can all get fired up about. And ICHI SUSHI is definitely one of them. BEEP!
But before we dive in here, it’s full disclosure time, darlings. Chef-owner Tim Archuleta is married to Erin Archuleta, whose byline you will occasionally see on my column’s hardhat pages, and she was tablehopper’s first intern extraordinaire. My review would be exactly the same with or without the relationship, but I wanted to mention it in case someone decides to get all fussy and think I’m pulling a fast one. And I paid for my dinner (and boy did I). Okay? Onward.
Let’s just say Bernal Heights is extremely stoked, yes, stoked, to have this addition to the ‘hood. In fact, they’re freaking lucky as all hell. As for the rest of us, well, you’re gonna have to haul your ass on over there. Upon first impression, the place is not what I’d call a looker, with dangly lights hanging in the front windows. The interior is simply decorated, with a blond sushi counter (a re-sanded holdover from the previous Yo’s), ceramic-slate tile floors, and suspended lights chef Tim made from sake bottles—the little neko-cat chopstick holders are a mighty cute touch, meow.
If there’s room (no reservations, by the way), you definitely want to pull on up to the sushi bar, because the jovial chef Tim has some things he’d like to show you. The menu has some classic nigiri selections and rolls on there, but I say put that menu aside and let chef Tim drive the bus. Just tell him “omakase,” and you can give him a ballpark budget. I failed to do that last bit, because sometimes when I’m seated at certain sushi counters, there’s the evil voice in my brain that commands, “Screw the budget. Let’s do it up!” Sound the trumpets.
The sushi Tim is preparing here is phenomenal. He’s getting deliveries daily, and it’s a total Tsukiji bounty. Seasonality and sustainability are big components to his sourcing, so you don’t have to worry about whipping out your Seafood Watch card before falling in love with something pretty in the case.
With a few wet sweeps on a bamboo leaf, chef Tim will place the leaf before you: it’s your plate for the evening. I was blown away with the nigiri combinations he placed upon it, like the hiramasa (Australian kingfish, $5.75) anointed with yuzu juice, yuzu salt, and Meyer lemon zest. It tasted like—I daresay—what seasonal San Francisco sushi should taste like.
The siego (Japanese striped bass, $7) that we had first out the gates featured a kicky combo of brown rice vinegar, white soy, yuzu ponzu gel, and momiji oroshi (chile daikon), with a petite crown of sliced green onions. Pow. The combinations all beg of you to forgo any self-administered additions of wasabi and soy sauce—give it a rest. Don’t worry, chef Tim will tell you if you should add anything.
He even managed to turn the beat around on a fish I never order (salmon): the rosy slice of Shetland’s Best Scottish salmon ($5.75) got zhoozhed up with battera kombu (pickled kelp), ponzu gel, aka yuzu kosho (Japanese yuzu zest fermented with a Japanese red chile—I need to get some in my fridge stat, what flavor), and thin shavings of ito kake (bonito), which gave the salmon a lightly smoky taste—hey, it’s Japanese lox!
Overall, the flavor combinations were spot on, modern, and show such creative flair. Our meal was like an elaborate tasting menu of one-bite wonders, and could have been at a very high-end sushi restaurant. Instead, we are on Mission Street, hanging out with young and fun diners, listening to Girl Talk, drinking beers (there are three on tap), sampling sake (14 to choose from), and making jokes with chef Tim all night. Not a whiff of formality, chilliness, or sushi Nazi vibe here.
But don’t get me wrong: the guy is a pro (he has 15 years under his belt). You’ll encounter beautifully cut fish and prepared rice, with so much care taken in how he supplies his arsenal of ingredients—with one bite of the sublime nori that wrapped our bite of ikura ($5.25), I was like, “Wow, Tim, this nori!” He’s like, “Yeah, it’s expensive. [Quotes some number that I don’t remember because I was busy drinking my Hitachino.] But it’s the good stuff.” Bring it on.
My hands-down favorite fish discovery of the evening was akamutsu ($12.50), wild Japanese deep sea grouper. He served it simply, no adornment. I think I have found my replacement for toro. It’s worth the expense, trust. Tim’s like an Upper East Side lady with an expensive shoe fetish—he can’t help buying the Jimmy Choos of seafood. So the least you can do is see what he has in his closet, and join him in his bad habit. Go ahead, try them on.
Oh, and don’t miss the seared Australian wagyu ($8.50), served as nigiri. It’s a magenta slice of rare, steaky goodness, spruced up with a ponzu of apple vinegar and white soy, plus a sprinkling of yuzu salt and a little prickle from the green yuzu kosho on top. Beef nigiri, sign me up.
So even though I mostly stayed in nigiri land—and it’s a wonderful place to live—there are some other finds on the menu as well. Like, oh, the kabosu chicken wings ($9.50)! These juicy babies go through quite the prep: he “power marinades” them in kabosu juice (a Japanese citrus), plus soy, and “burnt” (reduced) sake; sous vides them for an hour; and then fries the wings in potato starch. The starch gives them a flaky, almost crumb donut exterior, as my friend noted. They’re sick. Yes, succulent. And they’re a little rosy inside, but don’t freak out. They’re cooked all the way through—they’re just not the desiccated pieces of chicken you’re usually encountering elsewhere.
Another item of note: the oysters on the half shell ($2 each) are a good place to start—I know Tim is a big fan of oysters, so there’s no way he’d serve anything but beauties. These are Cranberry Creek oysters from Washington, served with white soy, brown rice vinegar, yuzu, ponzu sauce, a hit of green yuzu kosho, and a smattering of tobiko on the ice that you can try to scoop up and add to your oyster. I know that sounds like one hell of a complicated mignonette, but it all comes together swimmingly.
A recommended place to wrap up your sushi tour de force is with Tim’s stellar tamago ($4.50), made with Jidori eggs. I have always enjoyed eating tamago last, a final note of something savory-sweet to end the night on, and this custard-y execution is a new benchmark.
I’m thrilled to see Tim have his own counter. After years of working at Tokyo Go Go, doing catering, having his ICHI deli counter at 331 Cortland, and serving sushi at happy hours around the city, he finally has his own control board. And he’s funny, friendly, and welcoming, so he’s already earned a full dance card of regulars and devotees. This place, in a word, rocks. It’s the neighborhood gem you’ll wish was in your ZIP code—and even if it’s not, it’s so worth the trip to go see one of San Francisco’s rising stars.
ICHI Sushi - 3369 Mission St. San Francisco - 415-525-4750
Book Reviews (another place for your nose)
Blood, Bones & Butter: by Green Apple Books
Don’t forget: the book mentioned below is available at 20% off for tablehopper readers for two weeks following this mention at Green Apple Books—simply use the code “tablehopper” at checkout (either at the store or online) for your discount.
Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef Gabrielle Hamilton (Random House)
Gabrielle Hamilton is the chef/owner of Prune in New York City. She’s also a writer, with an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan and publication in lots of fine magazines. That unusual combination—a successful restaurant and writing skills—have made her food memoir a must-read for anyone who loves to cook or eat. It’s called Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef.
During her whirlwind Bay Area tour a few weeks ago, Ms. Hamilton graciously answered questioned posed by Green Apple Books, while signing books in the office and in a follow-up call while headed to the airport. Here is the slightly condensed interview.
Green Apple: You were obviously an astute and thorough journal keeper. Could you tell me about your journaling practice? Did you use your journals to jog your memory, or transfer whole parts into these chapters? Do you still journal?
Gabrielle Hamilton: “I journal un-religiously, without a system or routine and often that journaling happens on pieces of brown paper, whatever I can shove into an envelope. I did not use my journals with the exception of trying to recollect my backpacking journey through Europe, and relied on it heavily. I couldn’t remember in what order I traveled. At first I wanted to get every part of that journey in, then thought, this is not a travelogue, just get a few details.”
GAB: When did you find time to write?
GH: “It was really excruciating. I had to write often in the middle of the night with one baby on one side of me and the other on the other side, or in brief bits on the line during service with a Sharpie, or stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. It was a real sort of guerrilla writing. It was not like Yaddo.”
GAB: What’s it like reading reviews of your memoir?
GH: “I love it. It’s so delicious to get feedback. I’ve been working alone in a room and had only my head to bounce ideas around. To find what readers bring to this is gratifying. Even if they don’t like it I’m happy.”
GAB: What about criticisms of what you left out—more about the ex-girlfriend, your parents’ divorce.
GH: “I only wrote about people as they pertain to food in my life. It’s supposed to be about food. Of course I snuck in some life in there, a bait and switch. As soon as a relationship didn’t drive the narrative they had to exit. Maybe my skill set didn’t let them exit gracefully. An astute reader is going to catch it. I didn’t want to over-expose myself. I didn’t want to write one of those ‘me me me’ memoirs. I wanted something more graceful.”
GAB: Your relish for a spotless mise en place and organizing a walk-in makes diners feel safe and eat confidently, but biographies by restaurant workers also demystify what happens beyond the pass, for diners, and show that it’s not as pretty a scene as the dining room, sometimes grossing them out.
GH: “The beauty and horror live in such close proximity to each other, minute by minute, so you get such sensual delicious experience butting right up against unsavory experience. You have to be flexible.”
GAB: You’ve done food writing for the New York Times food section, and now your life story, but why haven’t you aimed to become a name across other media platforms with cookbook, cooking show, and more restaurants?
GH: “That does not appeal to me, that kind of life. I don’t want to be on a cooking game show. It seems television about my industry, it’s no longer about cooking. It’s entertainment.”
GAB: Doesn’t a show like Kitchen Nightmares show viewers what not to do?
GH: “I haven’t seen Kitchen Nightmares. I don’t have a television.”
GAB: What do you think of our city?
GH: “I’m happily familiar with the city, and I have very dear friends here. I regret I’m allotted an hour and thirty minutes (between events). I did manage to get a quick breakfast at (Charles) Phan’s take-out place. I got together at Zuni with girls I know—Elizabeth Falkner, Traci Des Jardins. I stopped in at Orson.”
GAB: Falkner is the city’s most famous lesbian chef.
GH: “Maybe I have honorary lesbian status. I’ve definitely gotten arrested with ACT UP enough, even if I did marry a man. I blew it. Lesbians are a tough crowd.” (With irony in her voice and a smile.) “I just recently applied for Italian citizenship. They’re very thorough in researching (one’s legal record). I had eleven arrests, mostly misdemeanors for resisting arrest, trumped up. I’ve sat in the back of a paddy wagon more times than I’d like to remember.”
GAB: At Camino, where you’ll be tonight, even the bar uses locavore spirits and juices; does Prune strive for that?
GH: “I grew up locavore, which was not a phrase at the time. I live this way. My mother had a garden. We ate nose to tail. I can’t get into the commodification of the lifestyle. It’s used as marketing talk. What they’re doing at Camino is excellent, superior.”
GAB: What does San Francisco do better than New York, food-wise?
GH: “As everyone knows you have much better produce and a longer growing period. This is my kind of cooking and eating.”
GAB: How about Mission burritos?
GH: “I’ve had plenty of tongue taco. I love to hang out in Dolores Park. I always stop off at Bi-Rite, Swan Oyster Depot, and Zuni.”
GAB: Has the book garnered movie interest?
GH: “Apparently that’s starting. I haven’t had a chance to let that settle into my brain. My father is very interested in who should play him.”
Click here to listen to a clip of Gabrielle talking about her experience speaking to CIA students about the state of women in the restaurant industry.