Pabu Restaurant- Best Sushi in San Francisco
I have been to hundreds upon hundreds of restaurants in their early opening days. The two biggest noticeable problems facing new restaurants are typically that the wait staff is too flustered to be sincerely friendly and that food takes too long to reach customers because the kitchen is overwhelmed. Neither was the case at Pabu. Our entire wait staff from the waitress to bus boys were all very friendly and professional.
With the knowledge that Pabu has fish flown from Japan’s Tsukiji Market twice per week and from another northern Japanese market another two times per week for a total of 4 fresh fish shipments every week, expectations were high.
A quick glance at the large and airy Japanese izakaya- the latest addition to celebrity chef Michael Mina’s growing empire, wood floors and bamboo colored walls set the stage for what feels like a trendy Tokyo restaurant. While there are tables and shoji screen-divided banquettes to choose from, I planted myself right in the middle of the long sushi bar. There is no better way to judge sushi than to watch the chefs in action and to taste the just-cut fish seconds after it leaves their hands.
With Chef Yoji at the sushi helm (previously at Pabu Baltimore), the sushi bar was an impressive site to behold- the Japanese Yoji in the middle, flanked by two Korean and one half Korean half Russian sushi chefs. It was a brigade of severely focused sushi masters, wrists flicking, knives slicing and citrus squeezing.
I began the Pabu journey with a Yuzu Kanpachi– thinly sliced yellowtail with crispy, fried shallots marinated in the distinctive citrus tang of Japan’s lemon-orange. It was good- a cold appetizer that no doubt will find itself on almost every diner’s table, but not the highlight for me. I went on with an assortment of Robatayaki– grilled skewers. Smokey sticks of chicken thigh, rich chicken heart and pork belly glittered with course sea salt all brought me back to my many travels through Japan. These were all delicious; a quick glance around the restaurant confirmed that the Robatayaki were a huge hit.
Still, as delicious as the grilled skewers were, they were not what sets Pabu apart from its many San Francisco rivals. Certainly Chef Michael Mina chose an excellent partner in Chef Ken Tominaga of Hana fame; in fact, they’re a match made in restaurateur heaven. The former has a proven track record of running highly successful restaurants of widely differing varieties and the latter an outstanding reputation for authentic Japanese cuisine.
If it seems I’m not overflowing in excitement for what will likely drive Pabu’s success- its small hot and cold plates, its decent-sized array of Robatayaki or its sumptuous smelling Shabu Shabu, it’s because those are all concepts that other izakayas in San Francisco have done pretty well. Perhaps not with the level of care Pabu has shown in choosing top quality ingredients and certainly not with the lovely flair of its presentations, but to my palate, what has quickly turned me into an ardent fan not even one month after opening, is Pabu’s sushi.
Every piece of fish was melt on the tongue buttery, seasoned so perfectly that the soy sauce dish was a mere accessory to the table. I had Sake (salmon) two ways- fresh with just a dab of freshly grated wasabi (ask for this- once you go fresh, you’ll never be able to tolerate the paste again**) and a light squeeze of lemon, and gently torched- as per Chef Yoji’s personal recommendation.
That, my foodie friends, is the benefit of sitting at the sushi bar. Personal interaction with the master artists themselves will land you the most delectable, unimaginably divine sushi that are not on the menu.
With distant sounds of Taiko drums playing epically in my head, I watched the chefs’ artistic manipulation of a parade of fish just flown in from Tsukiji Market- Hamachi, Kanpachi, Maguro, Chutoro, Unagi, Anago, Sake, and the one that made me close my eyes- Otoro, fatty tuna belly. Its gorgeous marbled lines were a masterpiece to behold, glistening with natural oils; its natural richness teased out by a dab of yuzu and fresh wasabi on perfectly seasoned sushi rice.
Everything after the Otoro was a bit of a blur as I was on a most delirious of sushi highs that only sushi aficionados can understand. It is rare, that explosion of euphoria in your head as you swirl a piece of fish on your tongue, hoping that moment will last and last. I coined a term in 2012 that I use sparingly but will use here- Pabu’s Otoro gives that highly sought after ‘mouthgasm.’
For you sweets lovers, the dessert Pabu is fast becoming famous for- its classic Japanese soft roll cake with balsamic strawberries, coconut gelato and crunchy flakes was strawberry shortcake on octane. It was a lightly sweet ending to a sushi parade so heavenly that it almost makes you want to kidnap Pabu’s sushi chef brigade to create your private sushi fantasy at home.
Before departing, I asked Chef Yoji if he could order Mentaiko (spicy cod roe) straight from Japan. It is not on the menu at Pabu and is rarely on the menu of any Japanese restaurant in America. I’ve been addicted to mentaiko since I was about 20 years old and anytime I’m at a serious Japanese restaurant, will ask for it. To my delight, Chef Yoji whipped out a piece of paper and pen from his chef’s coat and scribbled down notes. He smiled, assured me it would be in the next time I came.
Sure enough, one week later, I was back at the sushi bar and savoring the salty spicy goodness that is Mentaiko. How is that for service that goes above and beyond? Not only was the service staff very pleasant, quick and professional every time I’ve been there, but the chefs themselves are personable, attentive and caring towards what diners crave.
So while Pabu has its fair share of competitors in the Japanese cuisine scene in San Francisco, it is safe to say that nobody else does Japanese tapas, Robatayaki, Shabu Shabu and sushi under one very cool house, with the level of artistry and quality we expect out of the Mina-Tominaga dream team, with an extensive wine and sake list, with great service and easy parking. Yes, this is a sure winner. Pabu has arrived.
**Note: Fresh wasabi has a distinctive flavor with less nasal sting than “fake” wasabi, or wasabi you’ll find at most Japanese restaurants outside of Japan, made of powder or paste. Fresh wasabi’s refined flavor is the perfect complement to perfectly “aged” fish.