Hook, line, and sinker
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Earlier this spring, a young colleague wrote to ask if I knew of seafood restaurants in the city that emphasize sustainability. While I could recall plenty of sightings of sustainable seafood items on various menus in recent years, I could only think of two seafood restaurants that answered to his description places, in other words, where sustainability is central to the restaurant's consciousness and is a basic element of menu composition. One is the Hayes Street Grill, whose menu card gives detailed information about where and how particular fish have been taken. The other is a small sushi spot named Tataki that opened about three months ago in an old Subway space at the southern foot of Pacific Heights.
Tataki does and doesn't look like a typical sushi spot. It does have a small bar in a far corner of the snug dining room where you can sit on ergonomically peculiar stools of black plastic and watch the chefs deftly go about their business, and the bamboo tables were handmade by owners Raymond Ho and Kin Lui. But the pumpkin-colored walls are unusual, and the slate floor, while handsome, does contribute to a noise level that can be surprisingly high for such tight quarters. Of course, nowhere is it written that sushi bars and other Japanese restaurants must be quiet and serene; here it is merely written that, so far as this writer is concerned, it's nice when they are.
Still, as holes-in-the-wall go, Tataki isn't bad looking. The real interest lies in the menu. To a glance, this document resembles many others around town: there are selections of nigiri, rolls, tataki, soups, salads, and starters from the grill. But, as at HSG, each menu entry includes information on how the fish were obtained. Many are farmed, and while aquaculture raises all kinds of uncomfortable issues about pollution, antibiotics, and food-chain inefficiency, it does offer one inarguable virtue: aquaculture helps protect wild fish populations from collapse.
Since salmon, whether farmed or wild, is problematic now, Tataki uses a close relation, farmed arctic char, instead. The fish, with its delicate rose-peach flesh, makes a handsome nigiri ($4.50); it also turns up in one of the rolls and as carpaccio. Other nigiri might feature hiramasa ($4.50), also known as kingfish (a yellowfin relative, farmed in Australasia), and California striped bass ($4.50), whose flesh is like a disk of translucent ivory someone spilled Grenache on.
No sushi joint in San Francisco would be complete without a clutch of wittily named rolls to call its own, and Tataki is no exception. The best name probably belongs to the Divisaderoli ($6), chunks of avocado bundled with either tuna or kampachi (a Hawaiian member of the jack family) and scattered with glistening orange grains of tobiko. Tastier, if bearing a less-fun-to-pronounce name, is the Mix It Up roll ($11), a blend of spicy tuna and crab meat that achieves an almost sausage-like intensity of flavor and texture.
But the king of Tataki's rolls is surely the Extinguisher ($13), which offers not only a serious spice kick but a moment of real visual spectacle. If you like saganaki (the flaming cheese of Greece), you'll love this scene. But first, the roll itself: flaps of kampachi marinated with chiles, packed in rice, topped with chunks of avocado, squirts of what the menu calls "hot sauce" (chipotle mayonnaise?), and heavy sprinklings of habañero tobiko, fire-alarm red rather than the usual orange. The redness of the tobiko should be enough to caution anyone who's remotely paying attention, but just to make sure, the chef sprinkles the side of the platter with rock salt, sloshes some rum over the crystals, and lights the whole thing on fire with a blowtorch. This might make an interesting DIY project for the patronage, assuming no licensure issues probably a large assumption.
The flame, which is mostly blue and not at all raging (its more like something you'd see under a chafing dish), burns down quickly, and you might not even notice it expire, since eating the actual roll is a memorable experience of fire and spice. I love spicy food and I responded to the clever combinations here, but at the same time it did seem to me that the subtleties of the fish were all but irrelevant. Nuance can get lost in firestorms.
A nice chaser to the Extinguisher would be the cold spinach ($4), with the greens "boiled ... in soy broth," as the menu grimly explains. The dish sounded almost Dickensian in its bleakness, but it turned out to be four compressed-spinach cylinders cut on the bias and arrayed upright on a plate, like a little diorama of some ancient temple. (Minor complaint: the tightly packed leaves were tricky to hack through.) A more easygoing cold dish the Sancho Panza of such dishes in Japanese restaurants is the seaweed salad ($4), which Tataki, in a nice twist, presents in a large porcelain ladle.
Despite mounting evidence that fisheries are collapsing from human exploitation throughout the world the plight of the king salmon is a recent, local, and particularly disturbing example; see also the death of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland we seem to have a vestigial confidence that the oceans are too vast to suffer real harm at our hands. If we don't see it happening, then it can't be quite real. But it is happening and it is real, and if there is going to be any kind of future for sushi and other seafood restaurants, it will be because Tataki, in its eco-prescience, turned out to be the dawn of a new day. *
Dinner: Mon.Thurs., 5:3010:30 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 5:3011:30 p.m.
Lunch: Mon.Fri., 11:30 a.m.2 p.m.
2815 California, SF
Beer, wine, sake