There's been a flurry of excellent Japanese spots opening in the city lately — Roka Akor's refined sushi and robata grill, Maruya's critically acclaimed omakase, the intriguing Japanese home-cooking at Berkeley's Isayare. The sound and fury of new openings in San Francisco's food scene can be overwhelming, but one of my personal resolutions this year is to pay more attention to the neighborhood gems of the city that are quietly turning out excellent food after the initial hype dies down — the restaurants that find themselves left behind when the media moves on in its restless quest for the latest big thing.
With that in mind, I paid a visit to Noe Valley's small but worthy Saru Sushi, which opened last spring to great fanfare under the helm of Billy Kong — a former chef at the celebrated Sushi Sam's in San Mateo — before settling into a quieter life as a well-regarded local spot. After the overindulgences of the holiday season, I was looking for something simple and healthy, and if the word-of-mouth I'd heard about the place wasn't enough to confirm this sushi bar's goodness, the line outside the front door at its 5:30 opening was endorsement enough. (Do get there early to get a seat in the front room, preferably at the sushi bar itself. There aren't many seats in the whole restaurant, and though the heated outdoor tables on 24th Street were full, it didn't seem like an entirely pleasant dining experience from afar.)
The most surprising dish of the night was one that had been recommended to me but that I was highly skeptical about, the hamachi truffle. Truffle oil is one of those ingredients that's much maligned for good reason; over the past decade, I've endured a parade of truffle-soaked dishes from lesser chefs who didn't know what to do with it. At Saru Sushi, I got my expectations reset. The hamachi truffle was eight perfect squares of fresh, raw yellowtail in a mesmerizing truffle-laced soy sauce that had plenty of flavor, but also worked to enhance the clean flavor of the fish. If the restaurant had served bread, I would have used it to soak up the umami-rich sauce long after I savored the few precious bites of fish. But luckily, there were more pleasures to come.
A sashimi tasting, the chef's choice, is $58 for 16 pieces, which sounds steep until you're served the fish, all of it the highest quality and a reminder that a great sushi meal is a study in texture and all the gradients of the flavor of the ocean. The fatty tuna melted on the tongue like a piece of chocolate, while some of the firmer fish like Spanish mackerel and soy-soaked king salmon offered pleasant resistance. The best and most surprising element of the sashimi served was the river trout, a deeply pink, nearly translucent slice of fish that looked like salmon but had a mild butteriness that revealed its true identity.
The chef's deftness with raw seafood proven, I turned to some of the more composed dishes to see what he did with fish beyond the basic ingredients. A special at Saru is the tasting spoons, soup spoons laden with morsels like velvety scallop punctuated by bursts of citrus and wasabi, or an intensely savory chopped amberjack laced with soy sauce and garlic chips. (All of the ingredients, including the aged soy sauce and a few takes on ponzu, are made in-house.)
Other appetizers took tired sushi-bar staples and made them new. In the spicy cracker, a square of seaweed was tempura-fried to a crisp, and topped with spicy tuna and avocado — a fun twist on a humdrum spicy tuna roll, and a textural delight to eat. Same with the marinated cucumber salad topped with snow crab, where the elements came together to form a sweet, citrusy, almost-smoky bite.
The restaurant's biggest failing was in the more conventional items, the Americanized sushi rolls that seem pretty much obligatory. The best I tried was the white out roll, a blend of hamachi and avocado topped with cooked Japanese butterfish and a subtle garlic ponzu sauce. It had a tangy bite to it, but mostly the elements came together to form a subtle, warm medley in the mouth. Just for fun we ordered a dragon roll, a common American concoction of tempura shrimp, avocado, and unagi. It was on par with all the other variations I've tried in my life, but then again, if I wanted the same rolls I could get anywhere I wouldn't need to fight for a seat at Saru.
The space is small, with only five or six seats in the back of the sushi bar, a few tall tables, and a little anteroom in back with a few more tables and a baffling mural of a chimp holding his hands in a way that suggests he's up to something dirty (there are apes in the front room, too, but they keep things PG). Other than the primates, the décor is stylish but forgettable, with clean lines, handsome black leather chairs, and the ever-present Edison bulbs and exposed pipes.
If you're still drinking alcohol in January, there's a long sake list, with options available by the carafe and the bottle. I don't know enough about sake to even pretend to understand what I'm ordering, but the menu spelled it out, and the staff was helpful in explaining the options. Pure, refreshing sake is a perfect accompaniment to the clean flavor of sushi, and it felt like the right drink to pair with the thin light of the new year.