The great thing about going to see a fellow food blogger in a theatrical performance is that you can totally make it look like you are out there supporting one of your own and patronizing the arts, knowing all the while that it’s a thinly veiled excuse to go eat someplace new.*
I had recently been told of a newish sushi place in Hayes Valley that had garnered some esteem from reliable sources. My sushi jones has gone largely unsatisfied for quite a long time now, especially in the hunt for the elusive and transcendent mirugai. I want my giant clam, and I want it now, dammit.
Joining us for the show was our friend Hugh, who, like me, is a complete and total sushi whore. Hugh and I have very closely aligned tastes when it comes to the stuff. Uni? Definitely. Ankimo? Bring it. No fish (or fish part) is too exotic or bizarre to escape our curious palates.
Because we had a show to catch, we arrived on the early side at Sebo, claiming the first table of the night (though the bar was already occupied). My first question, natch, was whether they actually had mirugai, or whether it was just on the menu, like so many cruel teases I had been tormented with in the past. Oh yes, our charming and knowledgeable server assured us, they had mirugai. In fact, they cultivated a relationship with their fish monger specifically to bring in more exotic and interesting fish to serve at the restaurant. Their philosophy, she said, was that if you are interested in California roll, there are 400 other places you can go for that.
You don’t say.
Now, understand that I have eaten a crapload of sushi in my life. I have plumbed the depths of menus near and far, pointing to mysterious things in chill cases. It has been a seriously long time since I’ve encountered something on a sushi menu that is new to me. Last night, Sebo awakened me to not one but two new fishes. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Perhaps predictably, we had some miso soup to start. Not only is miso soup a lovely starter on a chilly evning, but I have read (if memory serves, in Much Depends on Dinner by Margaret Visser, a lovely read) that it contains a naturally occurring derivative form of MSG, which actually makes the food you eat afterwards taste better. True or not, Sebo’s soup was exceptionally flavorful, and even the diminutive cubes of tofu were notably delicious, firm and creamy.
But enough with the soup. Bring on the nigiri:
Uni (sea urchin roe), of course. Instead of the oversized, cylindrical preparation, this was a neat slab of orange roe laid in typical nigiri style on a modest knob of rice. This is Santa Barbara uni, our server informed us. It was mild and sweet, not the least bit iodiney, and with a long finish that tasted of the sea. That finish was carried amazingly well by the crisp and fruity sake we had ordered. We were off to a very good start.
Ankimo (monkfish liver). Again, standard nigiri presentation. It may be cliché to call ankimo the foie gras of the sea, but there is no better way to describe it. Rich, buttery and delicious.
Iwashi (sardine). Silver-skinned sardine with plum-red flesh. Mild and unpungent, not oily or too salty as it can sometimes be.
Mirugai (giant clam). Oh yeah, baby. Buttery texture, gently sweet flavor and that incredible slight resistance and the snap when you bite into it, with every chew. Mirugai, how I’ve missed you.
Kohada (winter shad). This was one of the new ones to me (pictured above), and possibly the most beautiful piece of fish I have ever seen reclining on a dainty bed of rice. Gorgeous, brilliantly shiny silver skin fading to electric blue on the edge. Firm, red flesh. Incredible.
Akakamasu (barracuda). Another new one on me, and a special that night. Surprisingly white flesh, almost translucent with a ropey texture and mild flavor. They had taken a brulée torch to it to bloom the fat and lightly char it for a smoky flavor. This was, hands down, the winner of the night.
Hotategai (scallop). Nice, meaty piece of scallop with a rich, buttery sweetness. A dollop of mysterious brown sauce atop was unnecessary but nor was it really distracting.
Oshinko (pickled daikon). DPaul’s favorite. Crunchy and sweet-tart, a really nice small roll to chew on in between other bites.
Yellowtail and green onion (don’t remember the Japanese). Surprisingly good. The green onion was the star player, lightly blanched.
Asparagus. Again, a supporting ingredient took on a leading role — the burdock upstaged the asparagus in crunch and flavor.
Yes, for those of you counting, that is officially another crapload of sushi. But to Sebo’s credit, their nigiri are served with very modest little fists of rice, and the maki are all quite small, not the log-like behemoths in many spots, so you don’t get all bloated on rice. It’s about the fish, dammit.
If money were no object, I’d be eating at this place every single night. However, you would need Yakuza money to support that habit. For as great as the quality and freshness of the fish at Sebo, so too is the greatness of the bill. Granted, we did eat the sea clean and killed two bottles of rather good sake, but at the end of the day our bill in food alone still broke $50 per person. But to have my sushi jones finally sated, it was money very well spent.
517 Hayes St (at Octavia)
* (I am, of course, kidding. Convenience is a thoroughly enjoyable show, and Joy is in fact the strongest performer in it. Another case of supporting roles quietly taking over the lead. You should go see it. NOW!)