Archive for the ‘SF: Union Square’ Category

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Dinner Specials at Mikaku

July 21, 2007

Whew, it sure has been a long time since a post! Sorry folks, real life has caught up with us recently, but we promise to get going again soon, back to more regular programming. We figured a new post was especially appropriate for today, because this weekend, our blogging platform WordPress is hosting the entertaining, informative, and pretty-darn-geeky WordCamp conference in San Francisco. Short Exact is right now sitting in the antique Swedish-American Hall on Market Street (which, sadly, doesn’t have nearly enough outlets for laptops!), blogging from WordCamp about… the dinner specials at the Mikaku restaurant, which have absolutely nothing to do with WordCamp!

In an earlier post about Mikaku (a Japanese restaurant located right next to the Chinatown gate), we mentioned the chirashi, slices of fish carefully layered atop sushi rice. On a recent visit, we had the opportunity to try a couple of the dinner specials written on the white board located just east of the sushi bar; the restaurant really shines in its preparation of these specials.

At dinnertime only, Mikaku offers house-made soba (buckwheat) noodles. The noodles, which are served cold in the form of zaru soba,

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had a nice bounce and texture, easily superior to the soba noodles offered at many of the more popular noodle houses in Japantown. The noodles are served with the tsuyu dipping sauce, a refreshing and light yet robust combination of soy sauce, dashi, and the sweet rice wine mirin. Perhaps best of all, Mikaku also serves the traditional sobayu,

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which is the water in which the soba noodles were just boiled. Pouring the sobayu into the cup containing the leftover tsuyu dipping sauce makes for a delicious drink and is an excellent way to cap off a plate of soba noodles.

We also sampled the chawanmushi,

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a traditional savory Japanese egg custard with surprise fish, meat and vegetables inside the custard that are to be unearthed. The chawanmushi we had at Mikaku, which included crab and chicken, was a delight, with a clean egg flavor that was a good complement to the other ingredients. Mikaku’s rendition of this dish is quite nice.

At a standard dinner, Mikaku offers at least a dozen specials. Recently, in addition to the soba noodles and chawanmushi mentioned here, we’ve seen daikon soup, dishes involving yam and kabocha (“Japanese pumpkin”), different preparations of clams, and hirame usuzukuri, which are paper thin slices of fluke sashimi dressed in a very light ponzu sauce. Although Mikaku’s menu has all the standard tempura, teriyaki, and sushi roll combination deals that Americans have come to expect from Japanese restaurants, the skill of both the sushi chef and the kitchen are most clearly displayed in these authentic specialties, and we’re glad to have gotten the chance to sample Mikaku’s versions of these dishes. “Averaging” this with our previous visits to Mikaku, an upgrade of Mikaku’s rating is definitely in order:

RATING:

COST:

Please scroll to the bottom of our original review for the restaurant hours and contact information.

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Sakana

March 7, 2007

Sakana is a Japanese restaurant located on Post Street in the Theater District/Lower Nob area, with a clean, modern feel reminding us that we are only a couple blocks from Union Square. The menu contains many of the standard nigiri options, as well as a handful of specials, and the usual assortment of rolls. There are a couple dozen appetizers and salads, along with a few standard cooked items from the kitchen, such as donburi. However, since sakana is the Japanese word for “fish”, we figured that we would stick to the fish.

Unfortunately, this did not turn out to be a great idea. But hindsight is 20/20, isn’t it?

Short Exact got things rolling with a classic appetizer, the ankimo ponzu,

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which featured five lobes of monkfish liver sitting atop a pool of the citrus-based ponzu sauce. It doesn’t look bad in the picture, but it just goes to show that even though we may “eat with our eyes first”, we still eat mostly with our taste buds. This dish was not impressive in the least. Excellent ankimo has a rich flavor, along with a smooth, creamy, yet dense texture, and when this particular dish is executed well, the ponzu provides subtle notes of bright citrus to helps to cut the richer liver. The ankimo in our dish, however, had a slightly unpleasant, grainy texture. The flavor was very flat, short-lived, and really only had one overriding characteristic — sickeningly sweet — so it’s probably a good thing that it was short-lived. In addition, the ponzu (which should have a very light, thin quality that complements other ingredients, rather than overpowering them) was too strong, and literally obliterated the ankimo. When we first sat down at Sakana’s sushi bar, we were excited to see ankimo with ponzu on the menu, but needless to say, this appetizer turned out to be a disappointing start to the meal.

Fortunately, the orders immediately following this appetizer fared better. First up were the mirugai and uni:

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The mirugai we had at Sakana was fine — it did not have that wonderfully subtle sweetness, but it was pretty good. The Santa Barbara uni was quite good, though, and easily the best item of the night. These sweet, creamy gonads of the sea urchin (yes, that is actually what uni is) were generously piled atop a bed of rice, and wrapped in nori, in the typical gunkan style. Santa Barbara uni is capable of delivering a wonderfully subtle yet sweet flavor which this particular specimen did not fully exhibit, but this was still a good example, as it was pleasantly sweet, without a hint of bitterness. Though we couldn’t have known it at the time, in retrospect, we probably should’ve just ordered this a few more times and called it a night.

Our last three orders for the night were awabi (abalone), aji (Spanish mackerel), and kohada (gizzard shad):

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The awabi — which had an unusually tough texture and was quite bitter — was definitely the disappointment of this order. Neither the aji nor the kohada were great, though. Upon ordering the kohada, we were told that only one piece was available, so apparently the sushi chef’s kohada supply was getting to the end. Our one piece of kohada was quite dry and possessed an almost mealy texture. In any case, we were not charged for this piece of sushi, so we won’t complain too much about it. The aji was better than the kohada, but still on the dry side. In all cases, the flavor of the fish was flat, and whatever flavor the fish had was masked by the excessive wasabi spreads that the chef had applied.

To sum up, out of the six items we ordered, we could only call the uni “good to very good.” Three orders (kohada, aji, mirugai) fell into the “average to pretty good” category, and the remaining two orders (awabi, ankimo) were disappointing– not unsafe or unfresh in any way, but definitely lacking in quality and flavor. It seems that “exotic fish” (i.e. fish other than maguro, hamachi, sake, unagi, et al) is not Sakana’s strength, but possibly the rolls or more standard nigiri would be prove to be more successful. (For what it’s worth, when Short Exact visited Sakana, only two people were ordering anything other than rolls: yours truly, and the Japanese man sitting next to us at the bar.)

The service at Sakana is decent: not effusive, but relatively attentive, as our tea cup was kept filled without having to ask. Then again, only a handful of tables were full at the time, so we cannot be sure whether or not this level of service is maintained during busier stretches. The sushi chef did check in with us periodically to see if we wanted to place any more orders, but other than that, he pretty much stuck to making sushi, mostly for the tables. He doesn’t seem to be the talkative type, which is too bad, because one of the main reasons to sit at the sushi bar is to converse with the chef.

Even though we were hoping that Sakana would be more impressive than it turned out to be, we couldn’t call it bad exactly, and we do plan on returning at some point to see if our visit here was a random fluke (no pun intended?) or not. Sakana is not worth going out of your way for, but it does have a very convenient location going for it. Also, the restaurant’s prompt service, the availability of tables without a wait (at least in the early evening hours), and its proximity to several theaters in the immediate vicinity make it a convenient choice for pre-theater dining. Still, if you’re in search of a serious sushi destination, we would recommend looking the other direction.

RATING:

COST:

605 Post Street (near Taylor St.)
San Francisco, CA 94109
Phone: 415.775.7644
Hours: Mon-Thurs, 11:30 am – 2:30 pm, 5:00 pm – 12:00 midnight; Fri, 11:30 am – 2:30 pm, 5:00 pm – 1:00 am; Sat, 5:00 pm – 1:00 am; Sun, 5:00 pm – 12:00 midnight.

Cuisine: Japanese
Neighborhood: Nob Hill, Union Square

How to get there: Convenient access via Muni bus lines 2, 3, 4, 27, 30, 45, 38, and 76, or the cable car lines on Powell Street. Sakana is six blocks from the Powell BART/Muni Metro station (Muni lines F, J, K, L, M, N, and T).

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Katana-ya

January 11, 2007

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Living in the Bay Area, we are blessed in so many ways. We have dynamic cities set in beautiful natural surroundings, stunningly world-class views from hilltops, great weather, and all the usual suspects — but it’s not too hard to guess that one of Short Exact’s favorite aspects of living in the Bay Area is having the privilege of experiencing on a daily basis a great diversity of the world’s cuisines. One can travel a short distance and yet sample the food from every continent (except for perhaps Antarctica — we aren’t familiar with Antarctic cuisine). As food-obsessed as we may be in the Bay Area, our dining scene, as any will, has its strengths and its weaknesses. San Francisco, with hundreds of restaurants from almost every corner of Asia, has a great many Japanese restaurants; and yet, oddly, very few of these restaurants offer what Short Exact would consider to be a convincingly delicious bowl of ramen. In the greater Bay Area, one can point to a few superior ramenya (restaurants that specialize in ramen), in particular, the clusters in San Mateo and in the South Bay. Although quality ramen joints in this area are sparse, there are still a few nice places in San Francisco proper to get ramen, and Katana-ya is one of our favorites.

On our last visit to Katana-ya, we ordered a miso ramen:

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Katana-ya offers some degree of customizability with the soup bowls. You can order a shoyu (soy), shio (salt), or miso ramen, and in addition, you specify the level of richness or heaviness of the broth. The lighter assari broth uses chicken stock, while the richer kotteri broth uses both chicken and pork stock. You can also add extras to the dish, such as kimchee or spicy negi (green onion). The ramen bowl pictured above is a miso ramen with the richer kotteri broth, with extra spicy negi added. Our bowl of ramen was not transcendental, but it was still very good. The broth was deep and rich, though also more oily than we would have preferred. The noodles were pleasantly chewy and al dente and remained so until we finished the bowl; they did not become excessively mushy, even towards the end. However, the presentation of the bowl, as you see in the above picture, was rather sloppy, and the spicy negi did very little other than to add a bit of spicy bite to a small fraction of the soup bowl contents. Despite these flaws, we did still enjoy the ramen.

Katana-ya specializes in ramen, so it is really the dish to order here. They offer sushi, but it’s not the strong suit of this particular restaurant, and the selection consists of basic, standard options. We’ve had the ramen on many occasions, but never any sushi, prior to writing this review. For the sake of completeness of the review, we thought we would try just a quick bite of sushi, in this case, a pair of hamachi nigiri:

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As expected, this was not spectacular. The rice was hard and tasteless, and the fish exhibited none of the rich flavor or smooth melting texture that characterizes the best hamachi. If it’s sushi you’re after, there are better places (even around the Union Square or Nob Hill area) to get it. The draw at Katana-ya is really the ramen, and you’ll be more likely to enjoy this restaurant if you stick to their specialty.

Possibly best of all, Katana-ya is open late: until 2:00 am every night, making it a superb place to satisfy to your late-night ramen cravings. With its convenient location, reasonable prices, friendly service, generous hours, and tasty renditions of ramen and other Japanese comfort foods, Katana-ya is a great asset to the neighborhood.

RATING:

COST:

430 Geary Street (between Mason St. and Taylor St.)
San Francisco, CA 94102
Phone: 415.771.1280
Hours: Mon 4:30 pm – 2:00 am; Tues-Fri 11:30 am – 2:00 am; Sat-Sun 12:00 noon – 2:00 am.

Cuisine: Japanese
Neighborhood: Union Square

How to get there: Muni lines 2, 3, 4, 27, 30, 31, 38, 45, 76, F, J, K, L, M, N, T, and the Powell street cable car lines. Powell BART/Muni subway station is 4 blocks away.

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Mikaku

November 1, 2006

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Given its ultra-touristy location, located just south of the Chinatown gate at Bush and Grant, Mikaku is a surprisingly good Japanese restaurant nestled between Union Square, Chinatown, and the Financial District. Mikaku serves a variety of well-loved dishes, ranging from cooked dishes and special items, to sushi, sashimi, and chirashi, to a collection of noodle dishes. Although nothing here is truly spectacular, preparations here range from decent to quite well done.

In general, Short Exact prefers to order sushi at sushiyas that will be more likely to stock special or seasonal fish. Mikaku is certainly not a sushiya, nor does it stock any special fish. Recently, though, we were attending a meeting just around the corner from Mikaku, and we had a hankering for raw fish, so we instead of ordering sushi, we settled for the chirashi deluxe.

The chirashi is a dinner combo that begins with an unremarkable but perfectly serviceable salad and miso soup,

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which is then followed up by the chirashi deluxe, the main event:

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The deluxe chirashi features fresh cuts of maguro, hamachi, sake, ebi, ika, unagi, saba, and tamago (among others), all served atop a bed of seaweed and sushi rice. This was certainly not a perfect chirashi: the texture of the maguro was a bit on the stringy side, and the tamago omelet was good, if ever slightly too sweet for our taste. In addition, the delicate flavors of the sushi rice were not well-balanced, leaning a bit too heavily in the direction of the vinegar. However, the saba was actually quite nice, and the house marination did a nice job of enhancing the natural mackerel flavors, without overpowering them. The fish used is definitely not of the most pristine quality, but, in our experience, it has been rather fresh and reasonably tasty.

All in all, Mikaku is a good restaurant, featuring tasty food with service that is both prompt and quite friendly. Mikaku is certainly not a destination in its own right, but it is a good choice if you are in this touristy quarter of the city and have a craving for Japanese food that is at least a step above tourist chow. The varied menu will satisfy diners with a wide range of tastes, and those who are not fans of raw fish have plenty of other good options to choose from. True, Mikaku is not making any grand culinary achievements, but the restaurant serves solid, reliable Japanese food in a convenient location, at reasonable prices, making it a good choice of restaurant to drop in on if you are in the area.

RATING:

COST:

323 Grant Avenue (between Bush St. and Sutter St.)
San Francisco, CA 94108
Phone: 415.781.6730
Hours: Mon-Fri: 11:30 am – 2:30 pm, 5:30 pm – 9:00 pm; Sat: 12:00 noon – 3:00 pm. Closed Sundays.

Cuisine: Japanese
Neighborhood: Union Square, Financial District

How to get there: Mikaku is within 3-4 blocks of the Powell BART/Muni subway station, as well as Muni lines 1, 2, 3, 4, 9X, 30, 38, 45, 76, F, J, K, L, M, N, and T. The restaurant is also 2 blocks from the cable car lines running on California and Powell streets.

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Naan ‘n Curry

September 30, 2006

UPDATE (May 1, 2007): Since we wrote this post, another branch of Naan ‘n Curry has opened at the corner of Turk and Van Ness. That restaurant is not reviewed in this post, nor does the contact information of the restaurant appear at the end of this post. Please click here to read our separate review of the Van Ness branch of Naan ‘n Curry. The original post follows below.

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PLEASE NOTE: We’ve been to several of the Naan ‘n Curry branches (actually, to all of them, we think, at some point or another), and in general, it seems like the quality of the food and overall dining experience is fairly similar from one to the next — similar enough that it seemed fair enough to essentially review all locations simultaneously. Obviously, experiences vary, but on average, all the different branches would get the same star rating anyway. So we’ve filed this review in all the appropriate neighborhoods. The featured location in this review is the new Union Square branch, but to help you out — we’ve compiled the addresses and contact information for Naan ‘n Curry’s other locations. All addresses are listed at the end of the review.

Naan ‘n Curry is a chain of several BYOB joints in San Francisco and Berkeley, well-loved by Bay Area citizens on both sides of the bay for its giant naan and filling curries, all offered at great bargain prices — many dishes are just a few dollars, and a huge circle of naan is only $1.00. The protocol is very casual: order and pay at the counter, and sit at the numbered tables to wait until the food is brought out. You set your own table with silverware and napkins, and the fridges are full of plentiful water that you can grab as you need it.

Naan ‘n Curry’s original (and typically, its best) location was located on O’Farrell, in the Tandorlooin. Recently, though, they’ve closed this original branch, and opened a new one just a block down O’Farrell, closer to Market Street, in the location of the former, the now (happily) defunct Niko Niko Sushi. This one block move, however, was enough to move them officially out of the Tenderloin and into the fold of Union Square, and the Union Square location, which is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, has the dark, mahogany tables to match its fashionable new locale. It is a Naan ‘n Curry, though, so this probably about as much style as we have the right to expect.

On this occasion, Short Exact and a friend shared the palak paneer,

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which was excessively runny, as the curries here so often seem to be, though thankfully it was saved from the ridiculous pools (who are we kidding? it’s more like entire reservoirs) of grease and oil that often seem to characterize their dishes (although it was still quite oily). Unfortunately, despite the fact that we specifically requested extra heat, this dish was not the least bit hot — and the curry had no subtle layering. All in all, this seemed to be only a rough approximation of what a truly excellent palak paneer should taste like, and if I had to use one word to describe it, that word would be bland — a word one should never use when describing a curry, of all things. If you’re having a desperate craving, this will do, but don’t expect too much. Based on this dish, we think that the quality declined when they moved one block down O’Farrell, but it’s really difficult to tell this from just the one visit.

On another occasion, Short Exact visited what is now the only branch of Naan ‘n Curry remaining in the Tenderloin, the branch at Eddy and Leavenworth. (Note: this branch is not open 24 hours a day, like the Union Square one is.) We ordered the aloo gobhi,

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which features small bits of cauliflower and large chunks of potato, all bathing in — as you can see from the above picture — one of those oily reservoirs that typifies the Naan ‘n Curry preparations at all their locations, really. With its unattractive plating and lackluster ingredients, this dish did not impress. Although it at least did not suffer from the lack of heat that our palak paneer at the Union Square location did, the curry here grated very harshly against the flavor of the cauliflower and potato: the dish never really unified; it simply happened to contain curry and some vegetables that were ill-suited to be paired together.

We’re well-aware of how popular Naan ‘n Curry is both in San Francisco and the East Bay. It attracts a fiercely loyal following, and given how popular it is, it’s difficult not to go to one location or another at least every once in awhile. Short Exact has certainly been our fair share of times as well, but quite frankly, we’re a bit fed up with how many times we’ve heard claims that this is the “best Indian food in the Bay Area” — which it really isn’t, not by a long shot. Short Exact understands this review may be a bit controversial, but it seems all the more important to write, because of that.

Suppose it’s 2:00 am. You’ve just been hanging out at a dive bar on Geary, or perhaps a more stylish, posh destination in North Beach, if that’s your scene. In any case, the locale of your revelry has just closed and has kicked you out for the night. All liquored up (while your liver wonders what it did to deserve the punishment you just gave it) you stumble onto the sidewalk and realize you’re hungry. But this is San Francisco, not New York (“The City That Never Sleeps”), so it’s not like you can get real food at this hour. Or can you? In a situation like this, Short Exact completely understands how at least Naan ‘n Curry’s Union Square location could be a godsend. Curry at 2:00 am is certainly an excellent way to top off a night of revelry, and at this point, you can probably barely taste the food anyway, so you won’t notice the fact that it’s flooded in grease and completely lacking in flavor.

But the best Indian food in the Bay Area? Hardly: let’s be reasonable about this. Truly excellent Indian food positively bursts with outstanding flavors, and can dazzle the taste buds. In all our visits, Naan ‘n Curry has never come close to attaining this elusive ideal. To be honest, the two dishes we’ve discussed in this review gives a bit of an unfairly negative impression of Naan ‘n Curry (although they just happened to be a report of our most recent visits). The quality of the dishes really does vary; it’s often greasy, but they can and do pull off decently tasty curries. Unfortunately, though, it is inconsistent and undependable: you can think of our 1.5 star rating as a sort of average of many different dishes over the years, at their various locations. The food is not horrible, but it would never be our first choice for Indian food. In general, Naan ‘n Curry preparations simply do not feature the fresh ingredients, vibrant spices, and the subtly-layered curries that other restaurants offer, if at slightly more expensive prices. All we’re saying here is: why bother, when we can do better? It’s not like this is the only Pakistani joint in town.

Sorry Naan ‘n Curry: we love that you’re open 24 hours a day, but sadly, you’re no Little Delhi.

RATING:

COST:

FEATURED LOCATION:
336 O’Farrell Street (between Mason St. and Taylor St. )
San Francisco, CA 94102
Phone: 415.346.1443
Hours: Daily, 24 hours per day.

Cuisine: Indian/Pakistani
Neighborhood: Union Square

How to get there: The O’Farrell Street location of Naan ‘n Curry is located right on Muni lines 27 and 38, and is within easy walking distance of lines 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 21, 30, 31, 45, 71, 76, F, J, K, L, M, N, T, and the Powell-Hyde/Powell-Mason cable car lines. The restaurant is 3-4 blocks from the Powell BART/Muni subway station.

NAAN ‘n CURRY’S OTHER LOCATIONS:

[Tenderloin]
398 Eddy Street (at Leavenworth St. )
San Francisco, CA 94102
Phone: 415.775.1349
Hours: Daily, 11:30 am – 10:00 pm.
How to get there: Muni lines 2, 3, 4, 5, 19, 27, 31, 38, 47, and 49. Civic Center BART/Muni station is 4-5 blocks away.

[North Beach]
533 Jackson Street (at Columbus Ave.)
San Francisco, CA 94133
Phone: 415.693.0499
Hours: Mon-Fri, 11:00 am – 11:30 pm; Sat-Sun, 12 noon – 11:30 pm.
How to get there: Muni lines 1, 9X, 10, 12, 30, 41, and 45.

[Inner Sunset]
642 Irving Street (between 7th Ave. and 8th Ave.)
San Francisco, CA 94122
Phone: 415.664.7225
Hours: Daily, 11:00 am- 12 midnight.
How to get there: Muni lines 6, 43, 44, 66, 71, and N.

[Southside]
2366 Telegraph Avenue (between Durant Ave. and Channing Way)
Berkeley, CA 94704
Phone: 510.841.6226
Hours: Daily, 11:00 am- 10:30 pm.
How to get there: AC Transit lines 7, 40, 43, 51, and 52. Downtown Berkeley BART station is 6 blocks away.

[Elmwood: This location is called House of Curries.]
2984 College Avenue (between Ashby Ave. and Webster St.)
Berkeley, CA 94705
Phone: 510.841.1688
Hours: Mon-Thurs, 11:00 am – 10:00 pm; Fri-Sun, 11:00 am – 10:30 pm.
How to get there: AC Transit lines 9 and 51. The Rockridge BART station is about 1 mile away.

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Sanraku

November 16, 2005

Sanraku is a Japanese restaurant in the “Tendernob” offers fresh fish at reasonable (but not always bargain) prices. Naturally, the fresh-caught specials of the day are pricier than the standard entrees. The regular dishes runs roughly average for sushi joints, and specials tend to run $6-9 for a nigiri order. Nota bene: There is another branch of Sanraku in the Metreon complex. As one might expect based on its location, the Metreon Sanraku is a pedestrian, sloppy, and (at best) pale imitation of the Sutter Street Sanraku. Don’t be fooled! Unless you’re near the Metreon, on death’s door, and several distinguished and experienced doctors have agreed that the only existing cure for your ailment is to eat sushi, we wouldn’t recommend it.

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We certainly enjoyed our most recent meal at the Sutter Street location. The ankimo was solid, if typical, and the uni, while not exceptional, had a good texture and nice sweet flavor. The hamachi toro was quite fresh, though it was not an exceptional cut. However, the truly delightful hon maguro made up for whatever the hamachi might have lacked. Sometimes the sushi rice flavor was a bit out of balance with the fish, but not alarmingly so.

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Even when the restauraunt is full, we’ve found the service here to be attentive, but not overbearing. There is a trio of friendly, jovial, and knowledgeable sushi chefs that make dining at the sushi bar a fun experience. They craft sushi well, although they do not generally display the kind of fine-tuned artistic creativity you find in San Francisco’s very finest sushi chefs. Our picky complaints aside, though, is a solid, dependable Japanese restaurant, which we would certainly recommend to our devoted Short Exact reader base (we’re not sure if this actually exists or not). Sanraku is certainly one of the better choices in the vicinity of Union Square and Lower Nob. This last trip Short Exact made to Sanraku was not our first visit, and we certainly hope it’s not the last.

RATING:

COST:

704 Sutter Street (at Taylor St.)
San Francisco, CA 94109
Phone: 415.771.0803
Hours: Mon-Sat 11:00 am – 10:00 pm, Sun 4:00 pm – 10:00 pm.

Cuisine: Japanese
Neighborhood: Nob Hill, Union Square

How to get there: The 2, 3, 4, and 76 Muni lines stop right in front of the door, and the 27, 30, 38, and 45 lines are within easy walking distance.