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03.10.2004

Restaurant Review: Kyo-Ya: The Best Sushi in San Francisco

Let's settle the great sushi debate once and for all. Every sushi aficionado I know has a favorite restaurant that they will swear up and down is the best sushi in San Francisco. Well, I have now made a study of those favorites (plus some others) over the last year or two in San Francisco and the Bay Area (see list below) and I have made a single choice to save you the trouble of asking the question, or visiting one lousy place after another.

No question, hands-down, THE best sushi I have had since I returned from eating $300-$400 sushi meals on an expense account with 50 year old, self-proclaimed sushi connoisseurs in Tokyo is from: Kyo-Ya. While this is true for many reasons which I will elaborate on below, I find it convenient to sum it up in 2 simple words:

fresh wasabi

Those who have experienced a truly exquisite and fully authentic sushi meal will understand the significance of this. For those who have not, only metaphor will suffice. Serving fresh wasabi is the sushi equivalent of a chef making your own sea salt from hand picked ocean water that comes from a certain ocean in the Caribbean. It's extremely expensive (in America) and you would only expect the chef who demanded the most from his cuisine to do it. The difference between fresh wasabi and the wasabi that 99% of America is used to eating with its sushi is the difference between a steak from Denny's and a steak from Harris' Steakhouse (or insert your local equivalent of the best steak you can imagine). One is but a pale shadow and imitation of the other.

Kyo-Ya is a small restaurant in the back of the Palace Hotel on New Montgomery street in San Francisco's financial district. It is pure Tokyo style, with a small sake bar in the front atrium-like lobby which looks out onto the street. You can wait in this 6 seater bar (especially if you don't have a reservation) and drink sake while the world goes by.

There is sushi bar seating as well as tables. I have only sat at the tables, but the sushi bar looks fine, if a bit cramped. If you sit at a table and are ordering sushi, you may place an entire order, or you may order things one at a time. While I am writing here about their sushi, their Japanese cuisine is excellent. I have only had their tempura, but it is world class. Kyo-Ya also serves Kaiseki meals there as well, which I will certainly return for. Kaiseki is a formal dining style, related to the tea ceremony, in which dinner is composed of a progression of often dozens of small dishes, each a culinary work of art both in terms of presentation and taste. I highly recommend it if you haven't tried it.

On to the sushi: frankly stupendous. Incredibly fresh AND excellent cuts of fish. The salmon on my nigiri was marbled with fat, and the toro sashimi was the white-pink color that only comes with paying top dollar for the best cut of the best fish. Try their fresh scallop nigiri which are sweet and clean tasting with no hint of graininess that signals a less than fresh and poorly cleaned piece.

Putting a fresh piece of fish on rice isn't rocket science, but what distinguishes a great sushi chef from all the rest of the dilettants is the cut of fish. Those who eat a lot of sushi generally have an understanding of how the cut of fish can make a difference, just as those who eat steak regularly actually know the difference between a rib eye and a New York strip. It is not enough to have just fresh fish, you also need to have a very healthy fish, and a chef that knows the very best place to get the meat from that fish. Every piece of sushi at Kyo-Ya is a choice cut, as well it should be.

Their sushi is both traditional and innovative. Clearly they know how to source great fish, and to cut it well, but they have also put some thought into creating tasteful rolls (which are rarely seen in Japan). Their spider roll was done with endive and tobiko for a lovely fresh crunchy flavor, the crab fried to perfection, just like the heads to my ama ebi (sweet shrimp).

The restaurant has an extensive, albeit very mainstream, wine list, with a few great wines on it, but I recommend drinking sake with your sushi, especially given their selection of extremely high quality sakes, including several grades of my favorite sake, Kubota.

The restaurant is expensive, but it depends on what you order -- the market price for their toro sashimi is going to run you around $35, but if you stick to ordering standard sushi and rolls like you would get in most other restaurants, you can leave without a huge hole in your pocketbook. However, their special items like the toro or a little tempura on the side are really the reasons to go.

The service, like the food is impeccable, though the overly polite, somewhat detached Japanese style may take a little getting used to for some people who favor the intimacy of California fine dining, where the waiter tries to make an emotional connection with you.

So lest you think that this is all the rantings of favoritism, I submit to you the mostly complete ( I probably forgot a few) list of sushi restaurants I have dined at in the Bay Area, all of which do not compare with Kyo-Ya.

OK, OK. I need to sort out a few from this pack, so I will make notations next to them as I list them.

Sushi restaurants I've eaten at:

Sushi Ran (Sausalito. If Kyo-Ya didn't exist, this would be #1 in the area. Yoshi the owner is a great guy and a fantastic wine expert)
Ozumo (good, probably #3 on the list, but VERY expensive)
Kirala (Berkeley. ok. good sake list.)
Ebisu (overrated, hit and miss.)
Fuki Sushi (Palo Alto - too expensive for what you get)
Tokyo Go Go (very hip, decent fish)
Blowfish (all atmosphere, lousy food)
We Be Sushi (cheapest place to get good sushi in SF)
Osaka Japanese Restaurant (nothing special)
Hamano (old standby -- great sushi, lousy japanese food. Sit at the bar)
Sushi Groove (very hip, small pieces of fish, very california)
Sushi Groove South (see above)
I Luv Teriyaki and Sushi (another great value for the money)
Deep Sushi (too expensive, but decent fish)
Maki (tiny - 5 tables - and a little pricey)
Moki's Sushi and Pacific Grill (Not great. Stick with the grill)
Tanuki Restaurant (Very good if you're in the neighborhod)
Kabuto (Great, excellent Japanese cuisine as well. Real tatami mats)
Kitaro (always packed. large portions, decent value, fish is fair)
Higashi West (Palo Alto. Decent, but overpriced sushi.)
Miyaki (Palo Alto. Only if you're a college student who can't afford real sushi)
Sushi-Ya (Palo Alto. Average. Tiny restaurant)
Hama-Ko (Don't bother).
Homma's Brown Rice Sushi (Palo Alto. If you like brown rice, this place is interesting. Very slow).

So, rest assured, that perhaps with the exception of Sushi Ran (where you can also get fresh Wasabi, but only if you ask nicely) Kyo-Ya stands head and shoulders above them all. Itadakimasu !

How much?: Nigiri sushi (2 pcs) runs about 4.50 - 6.50. I eat a lot of sushi so I would expect to get out of there after a meal for 2 people with Sake for about $95.

Kyo Ya
2 New Montgomery Street
San Francisco, California 94105
(415) 546-5090

Reservations: Strongly recommended.
Parking: Street parking available in the evening (after 6)
Dress: Business casual. No jacket required.

Comments (23)

Windy wrote:
10.03.04 at 6:12 PM

You should try Sushi Zone at Market/Pearl. A long wait, but worth it.

Sarah wrote:
11.04.04 at 10:13 AM

Have you tried Zushi Puzzle? it is on Buchanan and Lombard - I'd be curious what you think. Don't be fooled by the location - Rodger (chef) uses fresh wasabi and the fish is amazing. I'd be interested to see your review.

Alder wrote:
11.04.04 at 10:44 AM

Sarah,

No I haven't tried Zushi puzzle but it's been on the list for a while. Knowing that they use fresh wasabi is a huge plus in their favor. I will go sometime and let you know.

11.14.04 at 2:40 PM

Try Ino Sushi on the second floor of the Miyako Building in Japantown. It's next to Katara. Ino Sushi is quite small (six seats at the sushi bar, and 3 or 4 tables), but it is run by a sushi master. The An Kimo is especially fine.

I agree about Ozumo and Kyo-ya, but they are both pretty expenisve!

Stellah wrote:
01.25.05 at 2:24 PM

In my opinion and one shared by Ms Pim :), Kiss Sushi 1700 Laguna St (at Sutter) Ph.(415) 474-2866 is one of the most exquisite japanese experiences in the city. Tiny, traditional and authentic.

The Omakasi dinner I had there recently offered things like a cooked sea urchin, tofu and green vegetable salad, and a Chawan-mushi all earth and delicate sweetness with enoki and fresh edemame.
The sashimi was a highlight too, exquisite fish, and yes, fresh wasabi too..

Pim's lovely review here >> http://chezpim.typepad.com/blogs/2005/01/10_reasons_why__1.html

Alder wrote:
02.01.05 at 11:34 AM

OK people. I need to come clean here. Pim (and now Stellah) have now outed a sushi secret that I have kept guarded for a long time.

I hope you will forgive me as you understand why. Kiss Sushi is tiny. I mean REALLY tiny. At capacity, it seats 14 people. It is staffed by a single chef and a single waitress and only open 5 days per week. A slight spike in interest or popularity will make it impossible to get a seat there. Hence my hesitation to share. I have been turned away or forced to wait for an hour several times already.

The fish, while not served in particularly large portions (my sole complaint), is extremely fresh and carefully chosen daily by the chef. The quality of the fish is definitely top tier - not quite as good as Kyo-Ya or Sushi-Ran - but a definite step above Hamano or Ebisu. Beware, though, the prices can be nearly as high as those upper tier restaurants, depending on what you order. Additionally, like Kabuto, there are fish on offer that you never see at any mainstram sushi restaurant, including Kyo-Ya (like juvenile striped bass, several varieties of clam, or soy marinated tuna).

The best part about it, as Stellah so rightly describes, is the experience of eating there, which is intimate and authentic. I love going in early on a slow night and just asking the chef to cook for me.

Kiss is a definite treasure, worth sharing with those who seek out the best sushi experiences in San Francisco.

Robin wrote:
02.07.05 at 8:57 AM

I ate at Tyko Go Go this past week, used to be my favorite place cuz of the great location and great food. well, won't go back small pieces, limited menu not great fish... boy has it changed

Anonymous wrote:
02.28.05 at 2:54 PM

Hey there Alder, we tried Kiss based on this entry and had a wonderful time! It was a perfect birthday splurge. We felt so well taken care of. I am wondering if you have tried Koo, as it sounds intriguing...
here a sfgate review: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/archive/2005/01/26/FDGP4AV4PT1.DTL

Jason wrote:
03.22.05 at 10:36 PM

I'll have to try Kyo-Yo. I've been searching for real wasabi for quite some time now, and remember reading recently about SF restaurants that offer it. But, I can't remember where I saw the article. I searched sfgate.com, but no luck.

Has anyone else seen the article to which I'm referring?

Alder wrote:
03.23.05 at 6:11 AM

Jason,

Thanks for the comment. Sorry that I can't help you out on the wasabi article. As far as I know Kyo-Ya is the only place that gives it to you without you having to ask for it. I suspect there are several others that will provide it on request, like Sushi Ran.

Clea wrote:
03.23.05 at 11:58 PM

Would you happen to know how much Kyo-Ya's Kaiseki Dinners run? I want to take my rommate out for graduation : )

saiwingy wrote:
03.24.05 at 4:47 PM

Have you tried Uzen in Oakland? The sushi is really good and they also give you real wasabi (but I think only if you ask for it).

Tom wrote:
04.07.05 at 1:19 PM

I recommend Murasaki in Clement St and 3rd Ave. Small place. Only a single chef. Ask for Omakase and he will treat you very well. Traditional sushi. It is one of my favorites in the city.

monica wrote:
04.15.05 at 12:11 PM

Have you been to Stray Fish Sushi - 3299 Mission (at 29th St.)? I'm shamelessly plugging for my favorite neighborhood (bernal heights) sushi restaurant, but it's definitely better than Moki on cortland, and much better than Ebisu (which I also agree is way overrated). The rolls are amazing, fresh and inexpensive. They are in the old Rock Soup building, not your typical sushi decor. But their food is stellar, and the staff is really nice. If you're in the neighborhood, don't go to Moki, go to Stray Fish- you won't be disappointed. And please get the word out if you like it. They are not listed very much, and they deserve recognition. Thanks !

Cathy wrote:
04.24.05 at 1:49 AM

I am a huge fan of Murasaki -- I eat there with a friend who hates fish, but loves this sushi. Wonderfully fresh fish, great fried oysters and an Unagi Donburi to die for. Each time I stray and try a new sushi place, I find myself going back to this old favorite!

Alder wrote:
04.25.05 at 9:14 PM

I'm afraid I have to make an example of poor Monica here, who was very well meaning, I'm sure, in her recommendation of Stray Fish sushi. As I stated at the very beginning of my review, everyone seems to have a strong opinion about which sushi restaurants are good, but very few people actually can tell the difference.

I ate at Stray Fish tonight and did not have a particularly good meal. The sushi rice was not particularly well prepared, the cuts of fish only mediocre, and unforgivably, the ama ebi (sweet shrimp) were way past their prime -- I actually had to send them back uneaten.

The location is indeed unusual, and frankly could use some remodeling -- the lighting is sort of depressing at night.

I'm surprised Monica found it better than Ebisu, which, while overrated, definitely delivers better food in my opinion.

As for Murasaki, it is good, but not great.

baka taro wrote:
04.27.05 at 9:34 AM

kyo ya is great, but overpriced. Murasaki is a better deal and has better fish. they are very consistent, and one can tell they are consistent because one can afford to eat there daily. it is where the chef from kyo ya eats on his off days. fresh wasabi isn't as big of a deal as you make it out to be, nor is it that expensive. it is grown in coastal oregon and can be found at any decent sushi bar in vancouver or seattle.

Alder wrote:
04.27.05 at 9:48 AM

I'll agree that Kyo Ya is a little overpriced.

However, I have no idea what you are talking about with regards to consistency meaning "you can eat there every day." Since when do consistency and price have anything to do with each other?

I also beg to differ on the fresh wasabi. It makes a huge difference. When the only three ingredients in your sushi are sushi rice, fish, and wasabi it is an integral part of the taste, and an indication that the chef takes sushi seriously. Would you take seriously a sole meuniere (sole in brown butter sauce) in a sauce made from margarine? How about an Italian restaurant that used sauce out of a bottle? You might enjoy it, you might even eat there, but it says something about the restaurant's dedication to quality and authenticity.

Yes, fresh wasabi is grown in Oregon and I regularly purchase it for my own use at www.freshwasabi.com. It's great to know that its so common in the northwest at sushi bars, because despite what you say, it is at least 5 times more expensive than the horseradish infused powder that is served at most restaurants in California and the rest of the US.

Sarah wrote:
04.27.05 at 10:53 AM

Also check out Koo on Irvine at 6th Avenue - it's superb! :)

Micky wrote:
06.20.05 at 2:34 PM

I'd be interested to hear your opinion of Okoze Sushi at Hyde and Union on Russian Hill. It is a nice neighborhood place. I love the minimalist bar.

sarah wrote:
01.08.06 at 6:08 PM

Zushi Puzzle offers fresh wasabi, and the chef, Roger, has very fresh fish, great variety of sashimi/nigiri, and perfect cuts!

Erica wrote:
02.22.06 at 8:05 PM

Has anyone tried Angel Fish in Alameda (near Oakland)? I've heard great things about it, but never tried it.

Anonymous wrote:
08.09.06 at 12:29 PM

Try Uzen in Oakland and Sushi Sho in Berkeley.

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