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.