Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Dish on Dining: Nihon Whisky Lounge

Not Really Tokyo But a Whole Lotta Fun
1779 Folsom St. (at 14th Street), San Francisco
Mission District
PH: 415.552.4400
Open Mon.–Sat., 5:30 p.m. to midnight (bar open till 2 a.m.)
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

Despite the fact that I keep thinking whiskey is misspelled in its name (apparently whisky is the Scottish way of doing it), Nihon Whisky Lounge is an amalgamation of several cultures. A little bit Japanese, a little bit European, a little bit Californian. Whatever. It blends well on the edge of San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood.

Part of the Dajani Group, Nihon Whisky specializes in the izakaya-style of dining, which could be loosely compared to Spanish tapas. These are small bites served with beer or sake in Japan, frequented by businessmen who never go home at a decent hour. You won’t find sushi at an izakaya establishment, which favors more the grilled foods like yakitori.

But Nihon Whisky is far from a traditional izakaya. They have a wide variety of Scotch and Irish whiskey at the bar and the izakaya menu has a mix of appetizers, salads and large plates. It’s also a very popular place, even though it’s kind of out there on its own on the border of the Mission and SOMA right next to Rainbow Grocery.

I visited Nihon Whisky on a Friday night and asked fellow food blogger Foodhoe to join me. Making a rare appearance was Foodhoe’s husband, Mr. K, who I’ve never met and only read about in Foodhoe’s foraging. We planned on meeting during happy hour because that’s really the best time to enjoy Nihon Whisky—all drinks, appetizers and salads are half price. (Happy hour is from 5:30 to 7 p.m., Monday to Saturday.)

I arrived first and saddled up to the bar, which has an amazing wall of multiple brands of Scotch and Irish whiskey. The décor looks like any hip SOMA lounge, but the locked cabinets with whiskey behind the glass added to a private club feel. The casual lounge is a mix of white tiles and dark woods, almost like a lodge. There are also tables in the mezzanine level where you can watch the scene from above.

My drink for the night was a whiskey sour made with Jack Daniels and lemon and lime juice. The bartender was really friendly and she mixed up a really balanced whiskey sour IMHO. (Side note: Later in the evening, I ordered a second whiskey sour from our server and she brought back a glass that had a blush color instead of the yellow-gold tint of my earlier drink. Tasted fine but I thought it was odd how their whiskey sours come in multiple colors.)

When Foodhoe and Mr. K arrived, we grabbed an open table in the lounge right in the middle of all the action. Then we started to focus on the menu. (For this recap I’m listing the full prices for the items, but keep in mind that we got the appetizers and salads at half price because of happy hour.)

First up was a cup of the Tako Wasabi ($3), which was raw baby octopus with wasabi vinaigrette. Raw octopus (like raw squid) is not the most appetizing of ingredients, but I knew this going in. The bits of baby octopus really looked and felt like slime. Still, there was an oddly interesting crunch to each bite and I thought the balanced wasabi vinaigrette added a clean freshness that made this a light starter.

There are a lot of fried foods at an izakaya, so despite my aversion to all things fried I relented to the Oimo no Tempura ($8) or fried Japanese mountain potato and taro and the traditional Agedashi Tofu ($8), which is fried tofu in a mushroom sauce.

The fried Japanese mountain potato came in an odd stick shape and had a light flavor. The taro was grounded up into a paste and deep-fried as mini balls. Both were perfectly fried and fitting for bar food. The Agedashi Tofu was also nicely fried, but I didn’t like the cornstarch-thickened sauce that came with it. I rather prefer the light dashi broth instead of this gooey mess.

Then we got this big plate of the Nihon Salad ($7), which is a noodle salad made of somen in a light citrus sauce. It was surrounded by what the menu described as “tempura fried rice” but was basically plain white rice rolled with maki (dried seaweed) like sushi and deep-fried and sliced. It was an inventive presentation to go with the somen salad and I enjoyed the contrasting textures of the warm sushi rice and the slight crunchy tempura bits.

We ordered a couple of dishes off the entrée section, including the 8-piece Omakase Sashimi ($17) and the tuna carpaccio with white truffle oil. The sashimi (or raw fish) was a nice selection of the day’s fresh fish. There was one particular white fish that was new to me that Foodhoe and Mr. K explained to me, but now I’ve forgotten the name! But it had a nice subtle flavor, especially after Mr. K taught me to wrap a piece of shiso leaf with my bite, giving it an herbal citrus twang to the fish.

The tuna carpaccio was a deep burgundy color. Foodhoe and Mr. K didn’t seem to enjoy this dish as much, but I really liked the smoky flavor of the raw tuna, which I’m guessing came from the truffle oil. And really, how can you go wrong with fresh tuna?

As we were enjoying our food, the big group next to us got this dish delivered to them that was on fire. It was literally on fire. We asked what it was, and was told it was simply called Dynamite ($7). Always eager for a dinner and a show, we ordered one for our table.

When it arrived, the serving platter was on fire, warming a claypot that contained a baked seafood dish. The contents looked pretty dark (which is probably why in the picture all you see are flames) but it was this savory comfort dish made mostly of oysters. I don’t think Mr. K liked this either, but I enjoyed it. It was kind of comforting with a custard-like texture, and I’m a fan of any kind of oysters (raw or baked).

We ended our parade of small plates (which we had to eat right away because we had a small table with little room for the next plate) with a green tea cheesecake for dessert. The cheesecake was creamy and thick, with a very slight green tea flavor. It was OK, but the accompanying strawberries were unusually frozen. I couldn’t tell if it was some molecular gastronomy or an accident.

Being a Friday night, you can imagine how crowded the place got into the night. As the lights dimmed, the bar seemed to glow with embers just like our Dynamite dish.

Service at the lounge was your typical bar service, which means one woman who has to deal with a lot of people getting drunk on whiskey. While at times she may have seemed curt, she always acknowledged us and met our requests whenever we flagged her down.

I don’t know if it was the whiskey, the food, the company, or maybe a combination of everything, but I had a lot of fun at the Nihon Whisky Lounge. (Hmmm, maybe it’s also because I’m typically at the gym on a Friday night so it was nice to have fun for a change to start my weekend.) It’s a lively, hip spot with some creative small bites. It might not be a traditional Japanese izakaya, but Nihon Whisky fosters a classic casual, festive mood. And if you’re hit by the current economic hard times, you can’t beat the good eats of happy hour at this Mission hotspot!

Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (izakaya fun)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

You can read Foodhoe's recap of our happy hour here. She remembered more than me, like the white sashimi, which was waloo from Hawaii. I like it. More waloo for me! And that frozen strawberry actually was stuffed with cream cheese. I totally didn't get that.

Nihon in San Francisco

1 comment:

Marni said...

Yum! That sashimi looks delicious! Next time I'm in the city, I might have to dine there. Thanks for such a thorough review!

3.5 = even a little more than perfect for foodies! sounds about right...