Take a break from red wine and Dean Martin soundtracks at this North Beach sushi spot
If there are farms in Berkeley, there's no reason there shouldn't be sushi in North Beach, and there is, at Sushi Hunter. And it's not only pretty wonderful, but right near the heart of things, on the corner of the block that used to host the Washington Square Bar and Grill, or the Washbag, for any Herbalists who might still linger out there nursing their vodka gimlets and memories of the good old days.
Some years ago, while wandering around Rome, I noticed signage announcing "ristorante Giapponese" — near Trajan's Market, no less — and wondered what that might portend. Flaps of raw carp pulled from the Tiber? Hamachi in marinara sauce? A Trajan's Roll? Thank you, but no. When in Rome, eat as the Romans eat — and when in North Beach, do the same.
But the comparison isn't apt. We're much closer to Japan than the Romans are. Also, we have a cold, fresh sea practically right out the front door, and we live in a city that mixes food cultures with abandon and whose populace expects a wide variety of choices and combinations. Sushi Hunter regularly packs them in, and if you run a restaurant, that's all the proof you need that your neighborhood likes what you're doing.
The interior design isn't at all what you might expect. It certainly isn't traditional Japanese; the influences seem to be more from the 1930s and the 1960s — a kind of mod Art Deco. If you've ever seen period footage of the Queen Elizabeth 2 — the Cunard liner made from aluminum, launched in the late 1960s and, at least in her early years, fitted out as if for a shoot for an Austin Powers movie — you'll have a sense of Sushi Hunter. The deep blue walls make the space seem slightly like a drained swimming pool, except for the cream-colored, padded banquettes along the bottom edges (as if certain enthusiasts, undeterred by the lack of water — and maybe tanked up a bit on vodka gimlets — might dive in anyway). A small complaint: I caught chemical whiff in the dining room one cool evening — Lysol? I love a clean swimming pool, but there are some smells, no matter how reassuring in certain contexts, that don't belong in others, such as dining rooms.
At the heart of the menu we find a variety of wonderful rolls, as inventively named as the fanciest cocktails and richly adulterated with such deli-style delights as avocado and cream cheese. Indeed, if you swapped in a couple of slices of rye bread for the sushi rice, you would wind up with some impressive sandwiches. Double KO roll ($11), for instance, found hamachi and cucumber in a passionate embrace under a double-deck roof of salmon and strings of fried onion. At last, a deployment of fried onion (and a witty one) that didn't result in indigestion.
Another faux-sandwich would be the 360-degree roll ($12), with hamachi reprising its role as paramour, this time to avocado, and under another double-deck roof, this one of salmon and tuna slices. That's a lot of protein punch.
I was pleased to find albacore, or tombo tuna, turning up in the sashimi passion platter ($9), with ponzu sauce and wasabi aioli — albacore being somewhat underrated, in my view, because of its putative dearth of fattiness. It's often taken locally, which improves the quality of any fish, and I've never found it to lack a sublime creaminess.
More tuna turned up in the hunter salad ($8.50), basically a seaweed salad fortified with tuna cubes and enhanced with a sweet chili dressing; and still more in the half and half ($9), a spicy tuna roll fried to a delicate crunch, topped with tuna sashimi and finished with some well-balanced ponzu.