Quest for the Best Sushi

Quest for the Best Sushi

My parents like to travel during the end of the year, which means they’re never around for my birthday. It doesn’t really matter to me all that much as I’m an adult (kinda sorta) and they always try to make up for missing it when they’re home. This last time they told me to choose any restaurant for dinner. I chose Maruya as it’s been on my list of places to try for a while. When my parents heard I had chosen sushi, they suggested we go to Sushi Sam in San Mateo as it was my “favorite.” It got me thinking and I was seriously baffled that we would leave the city every time we wanted good sushi. SF has so much amazing food, there HAD to be a sushi restaurant to call my local favorite. So, I decided to embark on a personal quest to find the best sushi in San Francisco.

Full disclosure: This post is my personal opinion. I am not a food critic. This is not a sponsored post. I did not mention to the restaurants I would be reviewing them prior to the dinner so no one had an unfair advantage to sway my judgement.

I knew I needed a grading rubric. I had to choose similar restaurants in order to compare apples to apples or else this whole experiment would be subjective.

Restaurant Criteria:
• It obviously needed to be Japanese.
• I decided the restaurant must serve an omakase. This way, I don’t order specific things that I prefer and skew the outcome. And the omakase must be eaten at their sushi bar (this is important for the rating factor to judge the chef).
• The omakase needed to have at least a course of nigiri. It could differ in terms of appetizers or other courses but it must serve nigiri.
• The list of restaurants was still huge based on the criteria above, so how do I whittle it down further? I settled on the Michelin family of restaurants; this includes restaurants that have a Plate, Bib Gourmand, or have been awarded star(s)/had been awarded star(s). I felt this would really level the playing field.

Based on these factors, I chose five (5) restaurants:
(1) Maruya
(2) Oma San Francisco Station
(3) Robin
(4) Ju-Ni
(5) Kinjo

Rating Factors:
• The most important factor would be the food. Freshness, preparation, and originality.
• I’m a believer that service makes or breaks a dining experience. Neglecting the most minute detail could really hurt the diner’s ability to enjoy their meal.
• Japanese omakase tends to be an intimate experience as the chef is preparing the food right in front of you. The chef is the conductor orchestrating the whole procession. They are the face of the kitchen so overall friendliness and level of interaction is an important factor.
• Finally, the price point. While this is not the most important factor, Chris keeps reminding me that it plays into the equation as it determines the frequency we can dine at the restaurant.

I cheated a bit and kind of picked two winners. Also, just because they won, doesn’t mean the other restaurants were not delicious. I’d dine at all of them again for different reasons but for the sake of this quest, I had to choose a distinct winner(s).

Now, drumroll please…..

Winner: Ju-Ni
Best Value Winner: Oma SF Station

I chose Ju-Ni disregarding the price rating factor. It is definitely not priced as an everyday sushi place. Oma SF Station has great quality sushi and is also priced very reasonably. We’re actually heading to Oma SF Station again end of this month.

Awarded 1 Michelin star for 2015 only

• Food: 7/10
• Service: 5/10
• Chef: 7/10
• Price: 7/10

I can understand why no further stars were awarded to Maruya. While their food wasn’t bad, there wasn’t a whole lot to rave about. All of their fish was good and their appetizers were original to their restaurant, I just didn’t see any innovation to what they brought to the game. Service was my biggest let-downs here. It was a huge struggle to get the attention of the wait staff. We ordered a large bottle of sake and our cups were left empty for most of the meal. We kept having to grab the wait staff attention to refill our cups for us (the sake was kept on ice to the side); at one point, we just got up and refilled our cups ourselves. The biggest issue for me was the wiping cloth. At omakase dinners, it’s typical for the sushi chef to wipe down the surface of the serving platter to get rid of any sauces or residual oils from the previous nigiri. The cloth that Maruya used had an overwhelming smell of mildew that lingered on the plate well after it was wiped. Chris has no sense of smell and it even bothered him. It essentially ruined my appetite as I have a strong sense of smell.

Oma San Francisco Station
Michelin The Plate for 2019

• Food: 9/10
• Service: 10/10
• Chef: 10/10
• Price: 10/10

I call these guys the little engine that could. Located smack dab in the middle of Japantown Center, Oma SF Station utilizes a space that used to be a record store! And not even a big one at that. They remind me of those standing sushi bars in Tokyo that exist in the subway station. Having been open for about six months only, these guys have made quite a name for themselves already. As an eatery that can only seat 8 people at a given time, they offer some of the best fish money can buy. You can say that their style is more traditional but they do it well. Wilson, Sam, and Justin are the dream team as they work cohesively to create a super personable environment and spark great conversation with guests during dinner. It’s impressive the quality of food they can make from such a small space; they don’t have a proper kitchen! Definitely try their white bonito if it’s offered on the a la crate menu.

Michelin The Plate for 2019

• Food: 9/10
• Service: 9/10
• Chef: 9/10
• Price: 9/10

Robin’s sushi is far from traditional. They’re as contemporary as it comes on this list. It’s safe to describe Robin as fusion sushi as it uses high quality local ingredients to create an omakase. For instance, we had a tuna topped with tomatillo. It sounds odd, but it worked. The atmosphere is very trendy. One chef serves about 6 people at the bar and there is also table seating. Sometimes it could get a little hard to have a conversation with the chef/people around you as it can get quite loud and it’s hard to hear over each other. This is the place to go to understand what true Californian fusion is.

Awarded 1 Michelin Star for 2017, 2018, and 2019

• Food: 10/10
• Service: 10/10
• Chef: 10/10
• Price: 9/10

Ju-Ni means 12 in Japanese. And that’s how many seats they have in their restaurant. Sectioned off into groups of four, one chef serves one station at a time; this allows the chef to be focused on their guests. The food is absolutely amazing. So many great products that are locally sourced and also imported from Japan. Chef Brian was our chef and he was amazing. He answered all my relentless questions about sushi, his cooking experience, and the restaurant itself. Of all the restaurants we visited, I enjoyed Ju-Ni’s rice the most. We found out that they source their rice from the same provider as some other restaurants, but their own blend of rice vinegar was the best. While Ju-Ni strives to keep traditional Japanese sushi alive, they are also slightly contemporary in their techniques to achieve some of their flavors and textures. The unagi is the best example. Instead of cooking the eel over coals in the traditional sense, the chef holds the eel under a salamander until the skin crisps up. It’s unlike any other sushi I’ve ever experienced.

Awarded 1 Michelin Star for 2018 and 2019

• Food: 9/10
• Service: 10/10
• Chef: 9.5/10
• Price: 9/10

Kinjo is also a little engine that could. After being awarded their 2018 star, an unexpected flooding from their upstairs neighbor forced Kinjo to close shop and renovate the damage. This took almost a full year and they couldn’t even utilize the star that they received. Luckily, after reopening, they received another star for 2019. They’re back in the full swing of things, with a brand new kitchen to boot. Kinjo is definitely more traditional and reserved in their approach to their food. They utilize traditional edomae and kaiseki techniques to develop their menu. I think this reflects Chef Billy’s personality: really friendly and knowledgeable about food, but very proper. The sushi bar looks into a massive kitchen where you can watch them militantly plating courses. The food was amazing and prepared wonderfully but because everything was prepared more traditionally, it’s hard to compare against new conceptualized dishes.

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