Let These Men Make You Sushi

Josh Sens | January 16, 2014 | Story Restaurants

To enter a great sushi restaurant here is to leave behind the realm of the locavore. A pizzeria can maintain its farm-to-table cred by hand-pulling mozzarella made from local buffalo milk or plucking arugula from its courtyard garden, and a corner bistro can serve close-to-home grown steak. But a sushi joint that’s after the sweetest of scallops and the freshest of mackerel? For that, only airmail will do.

Maruya, in the Mission, is one of these great sushi restaurants—a small establishment with a large carbon footprint. On a recent visit, I had sea bream from Cyprus, salmon from Scotland, hamachi from Hawaii, and tuna from Spain. You can bet that the chefs know their FedEx driver by name.

So Maruya may not be your place if you’ve been reading a lot of Michael Pollan lately. But if you want to top its sushi, you’ll have to hop on a plane yourself—around here, there’s nothing better.

The restaurant sits on a scruffy block of 16th Street at the address that formerly housed Bar Bambino. The small space has been reworked into a minimalist setting. Against this very Tokyo backdrop stand two chefs, Hide Sueyoshi and Masa Sasaki, the latter an alumnus of Sebo and New York’s Blue Fin. The now four-month-old restaurant did not, when I visited in December, offer à la carte ordering, although they’ve since softened that stance a bit. Now you can drop by, order a solitary piece of nigiri, and head for the door. But why would you do such a thing? To experience the array, you want the omakase (chef’s choice) menu, an $85 and up feast of both sushi and cooked dishes. (A more limited $40 sushi menu highlights the best fish of the day.)

Clearly, this isn’t a westernized Japanese joint trotting out tonkatsu and teriyaki. Its focus is on sushi and sashimi, treated with obsessive perfectionism, and on cooked dishes as beautiful as their raw counterparts. On Chef Hide’s omakase menu, grilled amberjack collar arrives bare and unblushing, its white flesh naked but for salt and lemon. Chef Masa, meanwhile, puts forth a poached tomato in a bath of its own water, sake, and fish broth. An orange orb, the tomato crests the bowl like a rising planet, but its delicate flavors are of earth and sea.

Other local sushi restaurants may have equally pristine fish—I’m thinking of Kiss and Akikos. But as a complete package—the serenity of the setting, the skill of the chefs— Maruya is unmatched. A glistening sardine is all oily sex appeal, stretched alluringly on its plate, but Chef Masa shows restraint, sending it off with just a bite of grated ginger and the briskest kiss of a blowtorch. Similarly, a slight splash of yuzu is all that Chef Hide needs to make his halibut happy. He slivers the fish into near-translucent slices, then puts it through a light, bright acid trip. Both men work largely in silence, forgoing shouts of welcome when the front door opens and excited exclamations when presenting a dish. Theirs is a quieter kind of theater. And with no glass fish case atop the nine-seat bar (Maruya has table seating for an additional 16), nothing impedes your view of the action.

Also nowhere to be seen is the warning flare of a Kikkoman bottle. If the fish needs season- ing, the chefs provide it: quick vinegar-curing, say, to mellow the mackerel, or a dab of grated daikon and hot chili to temper the intensity of the pompano. When you’re given soy sauce, it’s house-blended with mirin, sake, kelp, and dried bonito, and designed for dipping, not drowning. Not a drop of it is meant for the uni, served without a strip of nori strapping it to the rice. Eat it uni-side down: It’s like a hint of ocean stirred with sweet cream.

The exactitude of a restaurant like Maruya is thrilling stuff for sushi aesthetes. No doubt some of the nuances escaped my notice. On one visit, a Japanese friend with whom I was dining, a woman with a princess-and-the-pea palate, insisted that the rice had dropped a nano-degree below room temperature. Without a thermal sensor on my iPhone, I wasn’t going to argue. But sure enough, when asked, the chefs confirmed it—something about the evening chill and the fact that the kitchen was still awaiting the arrival of a rice temperature–tweaking device. At any rate, adjustments were made, and when the next nigiri arrived—tuna belly from bluefin farmed in Spain, a more eco-conscious choice than badly depleted wild bluefin—my picky friend downed it with an approving nod.

For all its seriousness, the restaurant is free of Sushi Nazi strictures. If you want your sake warmed, as a couple beside us did, you can have it that way (even if it’s better served cold). If you’re not feeling up to monkfish liver, the chefs will swap it out.

There’s less wiggle room at dessert, which is just as well. In the winter, I was served bitter chocolate–dusted cubes of mochi offered with a soy milk and green tea latte, and a pumpkin, mochi, and coconut soup with a side of candied kumquats. As I spooned it up, it occurred to me that the gourd could have been grown around these parts, something that I couldn’t say about much else that I’d been served. The thought gave me pause, but then again, it didn’t stop me. At a great sushi restaurant, most of us don’t linger too long on the agonizing questions, in large part because we wouldn’t like the answers. An omnivore’s dilemma? Yes, but exceptions can be made.

The Ticket
A recommended dinner (before tax and tip) at Maruya.
To get the best out of maruya, we recommend Chef Masa’s or Chef Hide’s omakase menu.
Total .......$85 and up per person

Three and a half stars

2931 16th St.
(near S. Van Ness Ave.), 415-503-0702

Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco

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