Friday, May 04, 2007

Dish on Dining: Sebo

Purists’ Sushi for the Pre-Opera Crowd
517 Hayes St. (at Octavia), San Francisco
Hayes Valley neighborhood
Dinner 6–10 p.m., Tuesday–Saturday
PH: 415.864.2181
No reservations, credit cards accepted

The Hayes Valley in San Francisco has grown to be a boutique and dining hotspot. So finding something elegant to eat isn’t a problem—unless you’re part of the pre-ballet, -opera, or -symphony crowd. That’s where I found myself a couple of weeks ago on a Friday night, without reservations, looking for dinner before the ballet.

Every place I went required reservations, or I had missed the window to be seated and served in order to make the 8 p.m. curtain. I felt disoriented like Don Quixote until I stepped through the calming doorway of Sebo, the fresh, relatively young sushi restaurant on Hayes Street.

Taking over a spot vacated by a longtime soul food/jazz joint, Sebo couldn’t be any more different. It’s Manhattan chic meets Kyoto zen. I walked in and easily found a spot at the 6-seat sushi bar, where I was front and center to the mastery of sushi chefs Michael Black and Danny Dunham.

Black and Dunham have a cult following from their days slicing fish at Midori Mushi (which had a somewhat short albeit notable life just a block over at that motel on Grove). But they’re not like your typical sushi chefs. For one thing, they don’t yell out “irashaimase” (welcome) like you’ll hear walking in other sushi places. Instead, they offer a sophisticated, subdued service that’s focused primarily on the fish.

Reviewing sushi is a bit of a challenge. I love sushi, but when you really come down to it, all you’re doing is eating fresh fish. There’s very little preparation or even cooking on the part of the chefs. And at Sebo, the simpler the sushi the better. The menu isn’t very long on crazy California-inspired rolls. Nothing’s rockin’ or rollin’ here. These are simply the finest fish flown in fresh from around the world.
To start my evening, I ordered a hon maguro, which was at the top of the fresh fish selection. It’s a blue fin tuna from Spain. I was surprised to see a fish from Spain, but having visited Barcelona, I knew that the fish from the Mediterranean can be some of the most wonderful in flavor and meatiness. Dunham, who was my sushi chef for the night, said it was one of the best fish they had that day, so that made my decision easy. I followed the tuna with a buri (mature yellowtail from Japan), mirugai (giant Pacific clam) and unagi (broiled eel from Japan).

The maguro was indeed incredible. It had a tasty, sweet flavor and was so melt-in-your-mouth good I ordered another plate, despite the fact that it was the most expensive sushi at $9 for just two nigiri pieces. It was worth it, though.
I thought the yellowtail was fine, but not exceptional. The giant clam was nice with a slight firm crisp to it that was interesting (in a good way). My unagi came in this unusual presentation with bonito flakes on top, but I didn’t get enough of the traditional sauce that makes this broiled eel one of my favorites.

Back to reviewing sushi, one thing you can critique is the rice. Good sushi isn’t only defined by the fresh fish but also how good the rice is prepared. Good sushi should be made of nice, fluffy rice. And just enough of it to carry the fish but not overshadow it. At Sebo, the rice didn’t blow me away. It was slightly warm in the beginning, like it just came right out of the kitchen. I didn’t really like my rice that hot.
Along with ordering more of the yummy maguro from Spain, I tried the shimaaji (striped jack from Japan), tobiko (flying fish roe from Japan) and the asparagus maki with pickled gobo. Again, they were all beautifully presented by Dunham, especially the fish roe. I enjoyed the asparagus maki, which is Sebo’s attempt to get a bit non-traditional, and it’s the only maki roll with a light Japanese-style mayonnaise. But the asparagus was a bit woody.

Side note: Apparently, I can’t do a review of Sebo without discussing Dunham’s appearance. It’s not just me. The San Francisco Chronicle review noted Dunham’s tattoos, and a reviewer on Yelp basically deemed Dunham “hot.” Dunham has that good-guy-doesn’t-know-how-hot-he-is looks and watching him flex his tattoo while preparing your sushi is a nice side benefit of sitting at the bar. He isn’t your grandmother’s sushi chef.
If you want Dunham or Black, for that matter, to take care of you, you can simply leave the sushi ordering in their hands by ordering the omakase, or chef’s picks.

Besides the fresh sushi and eye candy behind the bar, Sebo also offers several sashimi bowls and plates as well as a small selection of grilled dishes. They also serve beer and sake (with the sake selection fine-tuned by True Sake, the sake store across the street).

While I love eating sushi, it can get pricey because of the tiny servings. Like eating dim sum or Spanish tapas, your tab can add up before your stomach becomes full. And Sebo’s prices are comparable to Manhattan sushi bars. Yes. That’s right. The Big Apple. After just eating seven orders of nigiri sushi (two pieces each order) and one maki roll, my bill came out to be $67 before the tip (and you know I had to tip Dunham big just for being hot ;-)). My dinner did not include any alcohol, which I’m sure would have added to the bill (and probably enhance the sushi-eating experience).

Still, Sebo saved me from going hungry during the ballet. While I didn’t think the sushi was exceptionally different than some of the other fine sushi restaurants around town, the relaxing, chic environment and personable sushi chefs make Sebo a serene overture to an evening of culture.

Single guy rating: 3 stars (perfect for foodies and a light pre-ballet dinner)

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

Sebo in San Francisco


Anonymous said...

Sebo's unagi rocked my world. I absolutely loved that it wasn't glazed in sweet sauce, but that the sweetness was subtly imparted by smoking. Plus, the quality of that (and all their) fish was exceptional -- firm and plump, not flabby and flaccid like so much unagi. It's really easy to disguise subpar fish under gloppy sauce. They put their out on proud display.

Single Guy Ben said...

Good point, but I love the sauce! :) As you can tell, the Sebo's unagi didn't rock my world. Maybe it was an off night.