One way to temper the shock of the new is to leaven it with bits of the old. The Europeans are expert at this, though they are more likely to do it the other way around: fluffing the old with bits of the new. On a long-ago visit to Oxford, England, in the first gray days of 1989, I was startled to find a Benetton, slick with plate glass and multicolored neon, installed along the high street in a sooty medieval building. We did not go in — for what would be the point? — but continued on to Christ Church College after a brief pause for fish and chips in a hotel pub.
If Bushi-tei is the most beautiful restaurant to open in San Francisco for a long while — if it is, in fact, arrestingly beautiful — it is because its designers understood that the present and the past are having a long conversation about the future. Bushi-tei (the name is said to mean "samurai with a big heart") is ultramodern and at the same time rustic; it is plate glass, frosted glass, a table for 16 topped with glass, and it is aged lumber salvaged from a mid-19th-century building in Nagano, Japan, and strategically placed around the dining room so that one moment you think you are south of Market, the next in the dining hall of a medieval monastery, and the moment after that in a ski lodge, with winter whistling beyond the log-cabin walls.
The main floor of the dining room is dominated by the huge glass-top table, laid with a long row of flickering votive candles as if it were part of the set for a Brother Cadfael mystery on PBS, or in the sanctuary of some Anglican church at Advent. Was the restaurant expecting some huge party? I asked our server. I was full of apprehension, for huge parties tend to grow festive and then raucous, which can have a swamping effect on parties of two.
She shook her head. No, no big party, she said. I asked what the big table was for, then, and she explained it was sometimes used to accommodate lone, stray diners, as was done at inns in the days of Chaucer. Town Hall, in SoMa, has used a similar communal table to great effect while at the same time smoothly accommodating walk-ins and other slipshod planners.
Town Hall does not have food like Bushi-tei's, however. The executive chef, Seiji "Waka" Wakabayashi (one of his recent gigs: Ondine, in Sausalito), is fluent in the high culinary idiom of France as well as the varying dialects of the Orient, and the result is an extraordinary and stylish melding of East and West, presented on gorgeous white ceramic tableware (from Tak and Wak) that perfects the interior design.
As at the fancier sorts of French places, the sequence of courses is punctuated by little grace notes that don't appear on the menu, starting with an amuse-bouche of, say, tuna paté in a little pastry buttercup and scattered with minced chives, and ending with petits fours, about which more anon. In between are dishes of greater substance in which disparate elements are often artfully mingled, as in a carpaccio of golden beets ($12), sliced into thin coins and overlaid with bolts of fluke (a remarkably tasty white-fleshed fish), some mizuna for shrubbery, and red dots of raspberry-ume sauce. (Ume is a Japanese plum variety noted for its tartness.)
When the food is not a mingling of East and West, it tends to be Western. A quiver of grilled asparagus spears ($6), for instance, is simply dressed Mediterranean style with some verjuice and sea salt and topped with shavings of parmesan cheese, while pan-seared Sonoma duck breast ($22), finely carved into carpaccio-like slices, each with a heart of rose, is accompanied by braised spinach, a crème-fraîchey whip of mascarpone and mustard, and dried chutney.
Not all the fusing, meantime, is flawless. It should be back to the drawing board for the seared blue-fin tuna belly ($28), a slim filet of doubtless pricey fish — in sushi bars, tuna belly is prized for its fattiness and commands a high price — that does not respond well to heat. Fish fat might be highly desirable when uncooked, but when cooked, it develops a strong, acrid scent and flavor I found dislikable despite the camouflage of celery-root puree, bean sprouts, and lime-herb sea salt. Since it takes all kinds to make a world, it did not entirely surprise me that my companion liked the tuna belly as much as I deplored it; he is, after all, a tireless eater of crackly, crinkly, aromatic bronze skin, whether of chicken or salmon. There was something deeply atavistic going on here, some ghost conjured from the hunter-gatherer past whose presence I could sense but not see, something about smoky, fatty flesh. I traded for the remains of the duck, gamy but still civilized.
The petits fours — an intense chocolate tart the size of a half-dollar and an orange financier of about the same size, glazed with Cointreau or some other orange liqueur — make a nice postprandial nibble. Sweet tooths of a harder core will want something more substantial, though, and among the more interesting of the larger choices is a black-sesame blancmange ($6.50), essentially a kind of pudding served in a nifty little capped pot and topped with pineapple dice: sweet but not too sweet, and interesting, though not shocking. *
Tues.–Sun., 5:30–10:30 p.m. (Fri. until 11:30 p.m.)
1638 Post, SF
Beer, wine, sake