Unagi, Soft Shell Crab Roll and Spicy Tuna Roll (front), halfway through eating (when I put down my chopsticks long enough to take a picture)
Early yesterday I was hugely motivated to cook a nice homemade meal. I shopped, planned and wrote two original recipes in my head. I got busy with my day, taking friends around San Francisco (as that is where I am now for a while) and to the airport. While wandering around the Ferry Building, trying to locate a snack worthy of our hunger (my friends Linda and Jonathan had run the Miwok 100k the day before and I paced Jonathan for the last 20 miles). Linda and Jonathan decided on some sorbet and gelato, after taking a survey of the stalls in the Ferry Building. I wasn't sure of what I wanted, but about midway through the building their is a Japenese Delicatessen. Though I am not sure what that means and I was unable to find out as it had closed, I immediately thought, "yummmm.....sushi." And so my insatiable craving began. When I get sushi on the brain, it cannot be sated any other way than eating sushi. Thankfully, being down in the Bay Area there are so many sushi restaurants to choose from and such quality fish available it is very easy to get a fix.
One of the things that I looked forward to most about coming down to SF was the food scene. I am really excited to go out and try any number of restaurants I have never been to (or only been a few times). When I decided to get sushi, more got consumed with the idea, I knew exactly where I wanted to go. Sushi Ran in Sausalito. I had been to Sushi Ran once before nearly 4 years ago when my dad and Fran came to town. It was before we had the Sausalito office and all I remembered was that over lunch my tastebuds were treated to the freshest fish and most delightful sushi that had ever crossed my lips. Needlesstosay, when I got the idea in my head yesterday, I was excited. As I drove back from the airport, I searched my brain for someone who might want to join me for sushi. The last time I had sushi reservations (a few weeks ago), I was cancelled on at the last minute and nearly had to cancel my reservations because no one was available that likes sushi to go with me. My mom called herself up in the ranks and despite not being willing to even try sushi, she was willing to go with me to Kisaku. Last night, I found myself looking for a dinner date and with my prime candidate out of town in Seattle (my sister), I called up my friend Jerry, who had spent all of Saturday driving me around and helping me crew and pace for all my Miwok people. Ok, I text him. But he was down and in fact had been craving sushi that night. I told him to meet me in 30 minutes at Sushi Ran. I called up Sushi Ran and they said they didn't have any space for reservations but spots at the sushi bar or wine bar were available. Good enough!
I arrived before Jerry, but within 2 minutes of his arrival a prime center spot at the sushi bar had opened up and we were promptly seated. Sushi Ran offers quite an extensive menu of Japanese fare in addition to its amazing fresh sushi. I had opted to wait for a sushi bar spot instead of going to the wine bar for seating since the seasonal items are not available in the wine bar, though a very wide selection of rolls and sashimi are.
As I had been waiting for a few minutes before being seated and before Jerry arrived, I had thoroughly examined the menu and had narrowed down what I wanted. I had 2 rolls I was going to get as well as some unagi. I hoped Jerry would be keen to get two rolls as well, since two rolls (each) plus a little sashimi is usually just the right amount of food for me. He did and nearly 10 seconds after we were seated we had our plan.
We were greeted by Garth Murakami, Sushi Bar Manager and I rattled off our order. I was excited since of the 4 behind the sushi bar, I knew he was the top dog there (its easy to figure out when everyone is wearing chef's jackets with their name and position on them) and was sure we were in for some delicious sushi. I wanted to get the Crunch Roll which is unagi, avocado, tempura flakes and fresh crab (I think there is tobiko as well). I am obsessed with unagi. And so I get at least one roll with unagi as well as at least one order of sashimi (unagi). Besides the Crunch Roll and the unagi, I was keen to try their version of the Spicy Tuna Roll. The Spicy Tuna Roll was topped with a 5 spice powder which was a very interesting twist from your ordinary Spicy Tuna Roll. Jerry wanted some hamachi, so we got a Negihama roll as well as a Soft Shell Crab Roll (ok, so maybe I bullied him into that one, but I am sure his arm didn't need to be twisted very far).
We were brought warm towel to clean our hands and Chef Murakami passed us over a plate with a mound of pickled ginger and wasabi. I have a love affair with pickled ginger and have a hard time not diving straight into the pickled ginger when I am waiting for my sushi. It should be used as more of a palate cleanser, I believe. I am not an expert on sushi etiquette and my ignorance is probably reflected in the order in which I consumed my sushi, etc. I know that I should do sashimi first, rolls second. I know I should never dip sashimi rice side down (if at all!) in soy sauce. I know I should not drench my sushi in soy. I have that going for me. But I would like to learn more. I would love to go to the CSA (California Sushi Academy) for a one day or even a complete sushi course. Anyways, back at Sushi Ran, Chef Murakami handed over our first rolls: The Crunch Roll and the Negihama. I took my first piece of Crunch Roll which had the unagi and avocado wrapped inside and was topped with the crab, tobiko and tempura flakes. It was a bit messy and hard to eat (as the topping tended to go tumbling off), but believe you me, if it was socially acceptable, I would have licked every morsel off the plate if I had had the opportunity. It was that good. The fish was so fresh it sang in my mouth. The unagi was smooth and the crab complimented it perfectly. It was a perfectly balanced roll. The Negihama was a much more subtle flavor. The fish was fresh and the flavors very crisp. It was good, not profound, though that is not to say there was anything wrong with it. Just compared to the flavor powerhouse of the Crunch Roll. Next came the unagi and the Soft Shelled Crab Roll, and finally the Spicy Tuna Roll.
At first I thought I wouldn't be willing to share my unagi with Jerry (there are two pieces), but after one bite (only a whisper of soy sauce and not on the rice side!), I insisted he try the other piece. It was the best I have ever tried. Smooth, delicate and flavorful. I basked in the deliciousness for a moment and then dove straight into the two remaining rolls. The Spicy Tuna was surprising. The five spice powder was sprinkled heavily on the top on the roll and the flavor was completely unexpected, it wasn't just spicy (as all Spicy Tuna Rolls are) it was complex. The five spice powder was a brilliant move, it not only has the heat from the Sichuan pepper but a hint of sweet from a possible combination of a cloves, ginger and cassia (a relative of cinnamon), though five spice combination can vary. The Soft Shell Crab was simply a fantastically done version, probably the best I have ever tried. As we finished up the last pieces of sushi in front of us, I got a wild idea and shot off an order for one of the more expensive bites of food you can have: Toro. Toro is fatty tuna and when it is available, it is worth every penny of the $16.50 (for two pieces). To me, it is better than dessert and is the perfect end to a fine sushi dinner. Chef handed the plate over and said, "I put just a hint of our infused soy sauce over the top, it is ready to eat". What that means, none to subtly, is don't go dipping it into your soy sauce. I wouldn't dream of it anyways, since the flavor and texture of Toro is amazing standing on its own. I took my piece and when it hit my lips I was in heaven. The texture was unlike you'd imagine fish could have, smooth as butter, tender and silky and the flavor simply infuses your mouth, without a hint of fishy-ness. It was delicious. The woman to my left who had just been seated with her boyfriend/husband/date, leaned over and asked, "can I ask what that was?" I told her it was Toro and that it was totally worth the price. You usually can tell people who have just had Toro since they sit there swooning and have a certain glow to them and I think it would be unfair to make the recommendation to try it without the caveat on price. Not everyone wants to pay for that kind of pleasure, it is a special treat.
To me good sushi comes down to a few things. The freshest most seasonal fish tastes the best, so go where the best fish is available. Different fish have different textures and flavors, but they should never taste particularly fishy. I like to have a combination of distinctly flavored fish with some more subtle. Rolls should still feature the fish prominently. I don't like rolls where the flavor has been overwhelmed by flashy sauces and too many ingredients to count. In general, I think sushi is something that, in general, is done very well. Since you are dealing with a raw product, even an "average" sushi restaurant is going to be using good quality ingredients. The difference between good and great is what the chef's do with the ingredients as well as the level of quality of ingredients. Sushi Ran is definitely top tier. It is not your everyday sushi restaurant. Without any drinks, the bill was still nearly $80. Well worth the price in my opinion for the entire experience. I highly recommend it as a special night out. They also have a very extensive "kitchen" menu which I would be keen to explore, except for the fact that I don't imagine I would be able to pull myself away from the sushi and sashimi long enough. San Francisco is bursting with good sushi restaurants and I am super keen to explore many more spots. Thus far, I have not had a bad experience anywhere and find it very refreshing to have a good to great sushi restaurant right around the corner no matter where I am. Bottom line, if you want a special evening out in Sausalito, go to Sushi Ran, drink from the extensive wine and sake lists, indulge in amazing sushi and sashimi and try out a dish or two from the kitchen, you will not be disappointed.