California Washoku ‘is at SF’s Nisei and Bar Iris


San Francisco has no shortage of good Japanese food

ohThank goodness your city is full of “real bargains” in Japanese cuisine, among dozens of Michelin stars and awards.izakaya-style sushi bars galore. But nothing like Nisei, which opened in August 2021 in the legendary La Folie space. It is indeed a gastronomic tasting menu format. Nicknamed “California Washoku”, it basically means “food harmony” but refers to Japanese meals made up of tasteful, clever and, yes, harmonious elements. Washoku is a term that has been in fashion lately in California and New York in places like Mifune in New York or Imari in LA, but the concept was defined during the Meiji period in Japan (1868-1912).

The Californian element certainly means the best local ingredients and seasonality, but it also means creative / modern Japanese cuisine with American sensibilities, appealing to the heritage of second-generation Japanese-American chef David Yoshimura, former chef de cuisine. to two Michelin-starred Californios. While Japanese ingredients and techniques come into play, Yoshimura is not reserved or low-key.

The subtle perfection of Japan has taught me about all levels of food and drink over the years: in my beloved Japan, visits to Honolulu, and a life in the LA, New York, and SF areas where reside. the densest Japanese American populations outside of Japan. But I also want daring and inventive cuisine. This is Chef Yoshimura’s vision: a Japanese delicacy with an intrepid flavor.

Example: A trio of starter bites includes a sure-fire victory of a plain Santa Barbera croquette sprinkled with smoked pepper relish. But the dorayaki (a mini “sandwich” pancake, traditionally with sweet azuki bean paste inside) is filled with bananas and topped with Tsar Nicoulai caviar. In that bite, I saw Yoshimura’s vision immediately – and wanted five more. Yoshimura got me to Hello.

Friends in the industry have told me they don’t like Nisei’s cold, stark dining room – with its simple grays, blacks and whites, I understand the complaint. However, a trio of brightly colored paintings and a window to the kitchen shatter the neutrality, while the friendly, relaxed (but ‘still on top’) staff warm the space with cheerful ease.

But let’s go back and start next door for an aperitif (or two) at Nisei’s Bar Iris, which just opened on October 14. Run by bar manager Ilya Romanov (formerly Niku, Michelin-starred), Bar Iris serves intriguing and focused bar bites from the Nisei team, like smoked eel and creamy rice crisps or kara-age chicken with Japanese black curry and lemon. Refreshingly, Romanov is not aiming for a Japanese whiskey bar atmosphere or even a focus on spirits, although the selection of spirits is small and of high quality. Iris talks about cocktails, he explained to me. As I tasted the initial six cocktails, it was clear. There were no hiccups. From glassware to Japanese precision and balance, the drinks are also pretty darn delicious. My favorites were lighter, all the more impressive given the nuanced balance characterizing each drink.

Middlechild does not need to have middle child syndrome. It sounds simple like a Japanese gin and tonic, but it’s enhanced with fresh, plant-based snow peas, topped with a sour kick of tangy white verjuice grape juice. Faithful Fool shows my beloved Calvados (French apple alcohol) highlighted with green apple, white vermouth, woodruff and sparkling water, exuding a floral-citrus whisper of yuzu sake. Both are served high, on boulders or on a boulder, and come down too easily. The same goes for the Wildcard, featuring bartenders’ shochu (i.e. higher proof) Ichiko Saiten infused with elderberries, mixed with stone fruit, a blend of Martini & vermouth. Rossi Rubino and Aperitivo Montenegro Select washed in coconut and Ramune, a Japanese soft drink. In keeping with the trend for high ube (Philippine purple yam) creamy purple drinks in places like Abaca, Romanov’s Okinawa Cocktail turns purple and creamy with Okinawan rum and yams, calamansi, plum and oat milk. This casual yet chic new bar is a night out, or a great stop before or after Nisei.

After being sated on the cocktail front, we head back to Nisei and pair our dishes with the $ 90 drink deal. Another example of this bold take on traditional Japanese? Pumpkin chawanmushi. Centered on a dried egg yolk, the tasty pastry cream gains depth thanks to the pumpkin and decadence, garnished with shavings of Burgundy truffles. Paired with a graceful, light to medium bodied 2019 Obsidian Pinot Noir “Poseidon Estate”, simultaneously exuding berry and leather.

Maine scallops delight in pine nut miso, with a vegetal touch of turnips and mountain watercress. I was crazy about the American dish of unagi (eel), baked flaky pastry with a crispy skin caramelized in an unagi tare frosting of soy sauce, sake, brown sugar and sweet mirin. The crispy spine of the eel leans against the fish, an accompanying snack of crisps. At the other end of the plate, shishito peppers and grilled lotus root provide contrast. Playfully returning to white wines (I enjoy this kind of flow of drink pairings), a 2017 Pinot Gris Domaine Mann Letzenberg from the Germanic side of France, Alsace, brought contrasting minerality, acid and the fruitiness of apple to brighten up the sweet-salty eel.

We stocked up on Japanese black curry, nappa cabbage and chanterelles with sweetbreads (paired with the complex fruit, stone and black tea notes of Pinot Noir The Plow 2018 from Oregon), then squab. smoky and meaty accompanied by miso broth, rice and pickled vegetables. accompaniments.

Desserts alternated between rich and light. I enjoyed K&J Orchards Kakigōri Pear Shave Ice Cream with Ginger Syrup that cleanses the palate, but found the sweets (or bite-size desserts) the most fun. A mini chestnut milk mochi donut and red bean sugar-pluot yōkan confectionery were playfully balanced, while fresh champagne grapes from Rojas Farms exemplified the California aspect of this Washoku feast: the goodness of Pure, juicy fall from a Salvadoran family farm in Exeter, CA, near Visalia.

I have experienced modern Japanese cuisine hundreds of times, from the great Narisawa of Tokyo to the Nomica of SF to the inspired cuisine of Chef Hiroo Nagahara (who I still miss a lot). But Chef Yoshimura’s perspective and palate brings a unique twist to modern Japanese, American and Californian cuisine. As the restaurant settles down, I suspect he and Nisei are “one to watch.” Kougokitai, friends.

// 2310 Polk Street,


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