- Cost: $100-$160/person before drinks, tax, and tip
- Size: 15 seats at counter + tables
- Style: Kaiseki + sushi
- Reserved: 3 weeks in advance
The Bay Area has very few high-end sushi chefs that have been a constant as sushi omakase has become widely popularized over the past 15 years. But Mitsunori Kusakabe is undoubtedly one of them. Kusakabe-san's unique style of "composed" nigiri won him wide acclaim while he was at the helm of Sushi Ran, and it has been less than two years since he has been running his own restaurant in downtown San Francisco.
Kusakabe-san's initial training was as a kaiseki chef in his hometown of Kyoto, but he has been a sushi chef for more than 20 years. Before Sushi Ran, he served as one of Nobu's lieutenants opening branches in Tokyo, Miami and elsewhere. His style reflects his background in kaiseki, though it is far from fusion territory.
At Kusakabe, diners are presented with a set menu that includes 7 or 8 nigiri interspersed with composed dishes that are closer to kaiseki plates than tsumami. These tend to be more creative than strictly traditionalist preparations: for example, a hassun plate contained a shigoku oyster adorned with caviar, a wagyu "croquette" breaded in katsuobushi, and a riff on hakozushi that was topped with shaved otoro rather than the typical saba or hamo. Most notable (and a total surprise to find in the US) was a soup featuring glutinous rice encasing a cube of Texas-sourced braised suppon (soft-shell turtle). This tasted quite different than suppon dishes I have had in Japan, but was quite good in its own right, and the technique was sharp.
In my view, however, the kaiseki plates were really a sideshow to the sushi. The shari is slightly sweet and seasoned with akazu. With the exception of a few pieces mid-meal, it was of great texture and consistency. The neta were never presented unadorned - of the 14 pieces I tried, 9 were either smoked, cured, or served aburi. Oftentimes, nigiri were topped with multiple seasonings: shoyu, garnish such as yuzu kosho or momijioroshi, and dabs of yuzu. This is certainly a non-traditionalist approach to serving nigiri.
Rather than clashing, these flavors often worked well together and felt carefully-calibrated. The result was a series of flavor combinations that I have not found elsewhere - such as saba cured in salt and vinegar (typical) as well as konbujime (atypical). Fresh unagi - a rarity in the US (most fresh eel served at sushiya is anago) - wasn't steamed to a fluffy texture like at many high-end sushiya. Rather, it was grilled until its skin was shatteringly crisp, as might be done for shirayaki at an unagi-ya in Nagoya, and sprinkled with sansho pepper. Kusakabe-san's tamago is a gyoku (spongy omelette) style that is quite dry, light on sugar and mirin, and flavored with lobster stock - completely different than most other high-end sushiya that either serve tamago as the sweet "kasutera" cake, a thick custard (an influence from Kanesaka-style sushiya) or dashimaki. To be fair, not all of the nigiri was a knockout, but the hits more than outweighed any slight misses.
I find the format of the meal at Kusakabe a bit limiting, as one is required to go through the kaiseki menu and not just straight to nigiri. And the composed nature of the nigiri, whilst bringing out all sorts of new flavors, made it a bit difficult to discern the quality of the raw neta. But these elements shouldn't stop those interested in great US sushi from visiting - the technique is at a high level here, and it is definitely a unique style worth experiencing.
584 Washington St., San Francisco