Ozumo, San Francisco

Ozumo is not your traditional sushi house. The oversized restaurant is divided in three environments. First, a large bar seats casual diners and attracts the weekday yuppie crowd. The dimly lit room is usually packed and serves mostly appetizers and small sushi plates. The second space is a slightly brighter dining room with a view of the kitchen. Keep walking and you’ll find the third space, a large dining room with tables set around a rectangular sushi bar. Inside, six chefs work busily to prepare all orders. The room has high ceilings and is much brighter thanks to obnoxious spotlights and side lamps. A questionable design choice hangs around the windows; red Christmas rope lights that almost blind you from realizing a beautiful view of the bay hides outside. Granite walls, wood tables and bamboo floors, all in a monochromatic palette, make the room feel somewhat bland. Although the usual intimacy of a sushi restaurant is not what you find at Ozumo, the food lives up to its promise.

The menu

I’ve been to Ozumo a few times but mostly for sushi and sashimi. This weekend, I wanted to try something different. The menu brings together several types of Japanese food (things you’d most likely never find in the same restaurant if you go to Japan).

Beyond sushi and sashimi, you can order from several appetizers, small plates, salads, hot pots and robata plates. There’s also the Omakase, a Japanese version of the Menu Confiance. Sounded pretty good. Unfortunately, when I inquired about it, the waiter apologized saying they were not doing it that day (Saturday night, go figure). He offered a tasting menu instead, even though it was not on the menu. He said it would be a selection of their best dishes. I decided to give it a shot. Service at Ozumo is friendly but, as the meal progressed, proved not so well trained.

The meal

A tasting menu is usually made of multiple small courses prepared and sequenced carefully by the chef. Thomas Keller (The French Laundry, Per Se) says the secret is for every dish to leave you wanting more. The point is not to eat a lot but to enjoy all the different flavors, textures and preparations in a specific order. Ozumo thinks diffently. The tasting menu consists of 8 courses but, instead of serving them in smaller portions, they come full size.

First course
Miso soup with manila clams. The soup was very tasty and perfectly seasoned. A good start to a very fulfilling meal.

Second course
Unagi salad. Broiled fresh water eel with Asian pear, Japanese kyuri cucumber, kaiware and sanbai-su dressing. The salad wasn’t bad but lacked care in the preparation. The Unagi was slightly mushy and the dressing, although good, was excessive, overpowering all other flavors.

Third course
Agedashi tofu. A handmade organic tofu lightly covered in tempura batter, deep-fried and served over a hot tentsuyu broth and bonito flakes. Despite the fact that the dish arrived midway through our salad and the waiter just dumped in our table without explanation; it was amazing. The crispy tempura crust brought a perfect contrast to the incredibly fresh tofu. The broth gave it a delicious flavor, no wonder it came with Japanese spoons. Probably the best course on the menu.

Forth course
Sashimi, chef’s selection. Highlights were Beni Toro (lightly seared salmon belly), Toro (melts-in-your-mouth tuna belly) and Hotate (deliciously sweet scallops). Everything was very fresh, properly cut and served at the right temperature.

Fifth course

Sushi, chef’s selection. Three pieces of nigiri sushi; Beni Toro, Aji (spanish mackerel) and Suzuki (sea bass). And on the side, 3 pieces of Toro roll. Like the sashimi, the sushi was very good; though by now I was already pretty full. I asked the waiter if that was the last one and he said back laughing “No, no, no. Two more!”

Sixth course
Robata trio. That night’s special, a trio of grilled meats on skewers. Petaluma chicken with plum sauce, pork belly and duck breast with green onions. The chicken, served warm, was incredibly tender and moist. It was cooked medium rare (yes, you’re technically not supposed to but the waiter assured us they prepared it very carefully). The pork was good but came somewhat charred. The duck was excellent, tender and flavorful.

Seventh course
Shacho’s Shabu-Shabu. As the final course, before dessert, a full Sukiyaki plate of vegetables and thin slices of Prime Angus rib-eye with ponzu dipping sauce. The charcoal fueled ceramic pot was filled with a thick miso-dashi broth. Quickly submerging the beef in the boiling miso broth and dipping it into the ponzu sauce brought together delightfully complex flavors to the tender rib eye. It was really good but I ended up having to leave most vegetables untouched; my esophagus was full.

Eight course
Chocolate fondue. A strange but welcomed dessert choice for a Japanese restaurant. The fondue was served in a Sukiyaki pot, over red-hot charcoal. To dip in, fruits, cake and mochi ice cream balls. Somehow I found space for it and it was definitely worth it. The good quality chocolate was a great topping to the mochi ice cream, they both melted together the moment they touched each other. A decadent end to an eight-course meal.

It was a great dinner but, in all honesty, I would have been happier with half-size portions. It would have been easier to appreciate more each dish and definitely not leave me as full. The whole point of a menu confiance is to trust the chef. The problem was, the chef wasn’t the one running the show, it was the waiter.

In short

Ozumo is a great choice for a high-end Japanese meal. Give preference to the middle dining room if you are looking for more intimacy or go directly to the sushi bar if that’s what you want to eat. The tasting menu is a good opportunity to try the different things they offer but it is definitely excessive. I’m happy I had it though, now I know what to order in my next visit (3, 4 and 7).

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