Sebo, San Francisco

Much has been said and written about Sebo. The small Japanese restaurant in Hayes Valley was reviewed by most food publications, appeared in Anthony Bourdain’s show “No Reservations” and was declared the best sushi in San Francisco by Alice Waters. Bourdain and Waters may disagree over shark fin soup, but not over sushi. All the media attention drew flocks of diners and countless bloggers with their snappy cameras and sharp pens; ready to put the high expectations to the test. I, for one, decided to await the dust to settle.

Nine months after the restaurant made the cover of San Francisco magazine I visited Sebo for the first time. Since no reservations are taken, the wait for a table during peak hours can be quite intimidating.

Although most of the media fuss has passed, the restaurant is still busy every night. The crowd is a mix of local habitu├ęs and food enthusiasts trying it for the first time. On my second visit, a diner equipped with a large SLR nonchalantly stood on his chair in the middle of the dining room to get an overhead shot of his sushi plate. A move that made me feel a lot less embarrassed about my own photographic table manners.

Even though I love sushi, I don’t often write about it. The reason is simple, my idea of good sushi is, well, just good sushi–no fancy or fussy rolls. And truth be told, there’s so much you can show or talk about fish over rice, besides freshness, variety and the chef’s skills.

The preference for simple, traditional nigiri is something not everyone agrees. Personal reviews on Sebo are polarizing. The high expectations created misleading images that the restaurant not necessarily fulfills. For a Californian sushi restaurant, what you find here is not what some would expect. No spicy dragon rolls or burrito-like makis. This is sushi at its best and only the best of sushi. This is a purists’ paradise.

But purists beware, at first sight Sebo may take you by surprise. The casual atmosphere and hip crowd resembles more of a neighborhood eatery than a traditional Japanese restaurant. Michael Black and Daniel Dunham are also not what you have come to expect of typical sushi chefs. While black has spent the first 6 years of his life in Japan, Dunham is from New Jersey. Both stand behind the 6-people counter on t-shirts; none look Japanese. But what the restaurant lacks in traditional appearances it delivers in its cuisine.

The menu

The one-sheet menu changes daily to reflect the chefs’ freshest seasonal catches from several fish markets in Japan. There are about 20 varieties of Nigiri sushi (fish on rice); each order of 2 pieces priced around $10. There are also 5 Maki rolls ($6 to $12); Sashimi plates ($16 for 5 pieces, $26 for 9); and small plates ($4 to $18). More adventurous diners can order the chefs’ Omakase at the sushi counter. Sushi is served from Tuesday to Saturday–Sebo is closed Monday, the day Bourdain made famous for saying you should never eat Sushi. Sunday, the restaurant offers Izakaya, about 12 small plates of Japanese pub food priced from $5 to $10.

The meal

This review would be redundant if I described the quality and freshness of every fish. So let me get it all out now so you can eat vicariously through the pictures. Every single sushi I had was outstanding. Masterfully cut, skillfully assembled and perfectly portioned. The fish always extremely fresh with a clean smell and delicate flavors.

The restaurant seasons its own shoyu (soy sauce) and recommends using it sparingly to avoid overpowering the fish flavors. The menu notes “Please don’t drown your fish”.

On sushi nights, the meal starts with edamame. Water is served in recycled green and blue Sake bottles.

From the small plates menu, Sunomono. Vinegared cucumber and wakame seaweed salad. A refreshing appetizer said to enhance the appetite.

From the Nigiri menu, Saba (mackerel) from Shizuoka in Japan.

Mebachi Maguro (big eye tuna) from the Pacific; Shimaaji (striped jack) from Kenagawa, Japan; and Inada (young yellowtail) from Tottori, Japan.

Tachiuo (cutlass fish) from Ooita and Iwashi (wild sardines) from Chiba, both Japan. The sardines are lightly seared with a blowtorch and topped with yuzu chili paste.

Anago (wild salt water eel) from Kagoshima, Japan. Deliciously tender, never slimy.

Hotategai (scallops) from Hokkaido, Japan. So good I could eat a dozen of them.

On Sundays the already welcoming restaurant becomes even more approachable with its Izakaya menu. The angular 2-tops come together like a tangram puzzle to form large communal tables. The reasonably priced small plates are perfect for sharing–although may not be recommended for a first date (more on that later).

Maguro Zuke. Marinated big eye tuna with tomato shiso sauce. The beautiful tuna slices are so tender they melt in your mouth.

Ceviche. Marinated yellowtail kingfish. A delicious ceviche with nice acidity and fresh, tender fish.

Ohitashi. Mustard greens with karashi su-miso. A nice combination of flavors from the crunchy, peppery greens, umami-rich sauce and nutty sesame seeds.

Takikomi gohan. Rice steamed with dashi and giant clam. Infused with dashi broth and with meaty pieces of clam, this sticky rice is the closest thing on the menu to Japanese comfort food.

Ika geso. Fried squid legs. Lightly battered and fried, they are very tasty but can be somewhat challenging to eat with just chopsticks–you may need to resort to your hands.

Devils shrimp. Spicy marinated shrimp. Speaking of using your hands, you’ll need both here. The tasty shrimp are served whole so getting to the meat will be messy. That’s what I meant by not necessarily suited for a first date.

Like many traditional restaurants in Japan, Sebo does not serve desserts; a small bowl of fresh fruit will be brought to the table at the end your meal to close it on a naturally sweet note.

In short

If you like Tabasco on your tuna, dinosaur-named rainbow-like rolls or even soaking your sushi in soy sauce, that’s okay, and Sebo is not right for you. But if like me you love traditional nigiri prepared with melt-in-your-mouth fresh fish and perfect rice, then there’s no better place in San Francisco. Black and Dunham’s may not look like typical sushi chefs but their talent is unquestionable. Alice Waters’ favorite is now a favorite of mine.

Sebo is at 517 hayes street
No reservations are taken

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