A Japanese (and more) hotspot that brings a burst of youthful energy and adventurous culinary experiments to Irving Street
DINE A specter is haunting America — the specter of deflation, according to the worthies at the Fed, who, having played no small role in conjuring said specter, are now kind enough to warn us of it. Let the excellent adventure begin, but first, a stop at Sozai (full name: Izakaya Sozai), a twice-reinvented Japanese restaurant in the mid-Sunset, where the crush of youth is so massive that even the most slithery of specters would have a tough time worming their way in.
One tends to associate youth-crushed restaurants with Valencia Street, those droves of 30-year-olds in jeans and black shoes with disposable incomes adequate to support restaurant-going as a form of entertainment. Irving Street would hardly seem to be a serious competitor to the Mission extravaganza, and Sozai looks demure from the sidewalk: Japanese-style screens over the large windows and modest signage. But once inside, it's all energy. The space seats only a few dozen, and as we all remember from high-school physics, compression produces heating.
The clientele is substantially Asian, which makes for a complex comment on the food. Despite the name, Sozai is far from a traditional Japanese restaurant. Its nearest relation is Namu, which stitches together Korean, Japanese, and Californian influences into a new piece of small-plate cloth. At both places, overflow spills onto the sidewalk, where wait-listers can be observed in deep communion with their smart phones, fingers jabbing away.
Sozai's menu does offer a base of recognizably Japanese dishes, including otsumami, sashimi, nimono, and yakitori. The kitsune udon ($7) — fat wheat noodles in broth — is wonderful, despite a difficult-to-eat block of tofu floating on top. But the more exciting action is posted on the chalkboard; there the dishes can slide away from categories, and in some cases from Asian influences altogether.
An octopus ceviche ($8) served in a martini glass, for instance, with a gap-toothed fence of tortilla chips ranged around the lip, was like something you'd find in tony Peruvian or pan-Latino restaurants. The marinade was splendidly tangy; the octopus itself tough. But where would you look to find chunks of boneless, slightly fatty duck meat ($6) grilled on skewers after a bath in blueberry port? The port was vanishingly unpresent, while the meat itself was gamy and chewy, neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Equally oddball were skewers of brussels sprouts ($5) wrapped in bacon and grilled. I am a big believer in both grilling and combining bacon and cruciferous, but here the method — which left the vegetable in a semi-raw state while failing to crisp the bacon — did not impress.
Pulled-pork croquettes ($5) resembled a pair of whole-wheat English muffins but lacked any crust or crispness and, worse, were seriously underseasoned. If it hadn't been for the side dish of ginger-charged hoisin sauce, we might not have finished them. The bed of daikon threads did offer a subtle heavenly quality and some texture, but no flavor.
The kitchen's best dishes seem to be the simplest and the most Japanese, and maybe this shouldn't surprise us. Mackerel, or aji, tataki sashimi ($10) was about as straightforward as it gets, a low heap of fish strips with skin still attached. It looked like a gathering of eels.
A salad of yuzu-dressed mozuku seaweed ($4) couldn't have been improved upon while acquiring a sheen of elegance from the martini glass it was served in. And a plate of blanched baby yellow carrots ($4) needed only a shallow dish of lumpy miso paste on the side to offer a complete, and remarkably vivid, experience.
Taking chances does raise the risk of failure, and Sozai's kitchen takes more chances than most, perhaps with the understanding that even serious culinary failures are almost sure to fall well short of inedible disaster. But one of the desserts, fig tempura ($5) arguably crossed the line. It consisted of halved figs, dipped in a light tempura batter and fried just enough to be crisp (why couldn't the croquettes have been this crunchy?) and arranged around a helmet of vanilla ice cream.
The figs were neither sweet nor mealy inside, so call that a draw. The ice cream was fine. But why oh why drizzle everything with a too-tart balsamic reduction? It looked nice, like chocolate syrup, but knocked the dessert off balance. If not for the ice cream, the figs and balsamic could have been served as an hors d'oeuvre. As a dessert, it left us deflated.
Dinner: Wed.-Mon., 5:30–11 p.m.
1500 Irving, SF
Beer and wine