The bar's the thing at this Hayes Valley sushi hotspot
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For lovers of sushi bars (like me!), a sushi restaurant with a dining room consisting entirely of counter space would indeed be a glimpse of heaven. Sushi could be the ultimate counter food: you sit, you order a few things and watch them be made by chefs whose skills can seem quite magical, and once you've eaten them, you order some more. It's an incremental way of having dinner that amounts to a pleasant loosening of the usual Western pattern, in which everything (except possibly dessert) is ordered at once and then starts arriving in a bell-curve parade, beginning with modest nibbles and starters before proceeding to the great wallop of the main dish. There are no second acts in this ritual, and sushi is particularly ill-suited to it; I have long found it uncomfortable to sit stiffly at a distant table, waiting for a sushi dinner to be brought over an attenuated supply line from an unseen kitchen. One feels far away and awkward, like a step-diner.
Given the appeal, not to mention fundamental logic, of the multistage, sushi-bar dinner, a haunting question is why someone didn't think to open a place like Domo years ago. Domo, the sushi restaurant that thinks it's a sushi bar, opened in the spring under the auspices of Luke and Kitty Sung, of Isa in Cow Hollow. The new restaurant sits on a cozy stretch of Laguna Street in Hayes Valley, with Momi Toby's Revolution Café across the street and the clamorous Il Borgo at the corner. Inside it's even cozier: much of the tight space is lined with counter, and I noticed only one table. Domo is almost like a sushi kiosk (maybe at an airport or baseball park in some foofy city) that was given growth hormone. It's a masterful idea with some eccentricities.
Part of the trouble is ergonomic. The stools are rather high, and there is an unsettling sense of being perched above things. Also, since all the restaurant's patrons are facing outward, whether to window glass or walls or, in the case of a small group of the elect, the chefs themselves the plates of food must continually be presented over this or that hyperelevated shoulder. The serving staff simply doesn't have easy access to the counters if the restaurant is full, which, because it's so small, it often seems to be.
The food, fortunately, is quite good, in that urban-hipster-sushi way. You have your edamame ($3.50), your seaweed salad ($3.95) with its nicely balancing vinaigrette, your rolls with clever names, some familiar and some not. Spider roll ($8.95) seldom disappoints, and it didn't here, with its star of soft-shell crab in tempura, along with shiso, cucumber, tobiko, avocado, and daikon sprouts. All the rolls were satisfying, whether they were old standards or young whippersnappers. One of the youngsters didn't even look like a roll: Fire Cracker Balls ($9.95), which consisted of rounds of spicy tuna rolled in panko (the coarse Japanese-style bread crumbs). They were advertised as spicy-hot and were indeed also a little dry, despite spicy mayo and unagi sauce.
Even hotter was a jalapeño-hamachi roll ($5.50), a simple and direct beam of chili power. But Spicy Hulk ($9.95), despite a formidable name, was cooled by wrappings of cucumber strips instead of the usual nori; inside lay spicy tuna, avocado, and tobiko, with a sauce like Bloody Mary mix drizzled over the top. One of our party liked this potion so much he poured the remainder into an empty wine glass and drank it as a constitutional.
For sheer heft, look to the Domo roll ($11.50), a California roll (of crab meat and avocado) baked under a roof of salmon slices and scallops, sauced with barbecue unagi glaze and spicy mayo, and festooned with tobiko and scallions. Overkill? Maybe a little, but every menu needs at least one item with true filling power. Still, our favorite among the rolls was negi-hama ($4.75), an elegant preparation of diced hamachi and scallions in which each ingredient spoke clearly and in harmony with the other.
In a multicultural vein, Domo offers a small selection of crudos ($5.95 for two). Tastes rather than full courses, they're presented in porcelain soup ladles and might include spicy tuna with sriracha, sesame oil, cilantro, and avocado chunks; and uni, or sea urchin, which is slightly oozy and presented with avocado chunks, wasabi, soy sauce, and sea salt.
In the Hall of Disappointments I place, not for the first time, toro ($10.95) fatty tuna, from the fish's belly and not only because of its pale, lard-like color. Fatty tuna is considered a great delicacy and is priced accordingly. But in my experience the more ordinary, ruby red flesh is prettier, tastier, and more tender. And we were not wowed by a Kobe beef tataki ($11.95); the flaps of beef were flavorful and voluptuously soft, but why was it thought wise to wrap them around half-raw asparagus spears? Beef tataki is one thing, asparagus tataki quite another.
Despite the peculiarities of Domo's layout, the service staff is attentive and friendly: plates are cleared quickly while fresh dishes emerge from the kitchen at regular intervals. I did notice that water glasses could go some time without being refilled not the biggest of deals, but not completely irrelevant in a restaurant serving fire cracker balls and spicy hulks. I almost typed "hunks," which wouldn't have been a typo, actually, since Domo is part of the new Hayes Valley, and welcome to it.
Dinner: Sun.Thurs., 5:3010 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 5:3011 p.m.
Lunch: Mon.Fri., noon2:30 p.m.
511 Laguna, SF
Beer, wine, sake