If any upscale dining trend has been screamingly loud in San Francisco in 2016, it's opulence. This year, it’s an almost glaring omission if your new restaurant doesn’t have caviar service on the menu (see new hotspots like The Treasury and Leo’s Oyster Bar), and prices have been soaring sky-high in the quest to bring customers the ultimate in luxury ingredients from around the world. Perfect timing, then, for the opening of Hashiri, one of the most expensive Japanese restaurants in America.
Hashiri recently arrived in the city as an extension of the four-year-old Tokyo restaurant of the same name, which sent over chef Tokunori Mekaru to preside over the nigiri sushi (raw fish over rice) side of the American outpost. The restaurant is unusual Stateside for offering meals that combine sushi and kaiseki, the small cooked dishes that take tweezers, serious knife skills and an artful eye to perfect and plate.
As with a few other Japanese restaurants of this echelon that I've been to, you don't enter directly into the dining room. Instead you walk into a welcoming area before you’re swept into another world. The first thing I noticed as I entered are the screens projecting moving images of cherry blossoms, part of a design scheme that will change with the seasons. My gut tells me this is going to be a serene, super-serious dinner where I won’t be able to laugh or even sneeze. But then I notice a pair of art prints hanging in the dining room. One is of Jimi Hendrix, the other John Lennon, and each one is grabbing his crotch. Exhale.
Full disclosure: A fellow food writer brought me along when she was invited to a pre-opening dinner at the restaurant by a tech businessman friend of the owners. I felt like I'd won the lottery, because this wasn't an ordinary cattle-call press dinner where you're fighting for sliders with 40 random bloggers. I joined my friend at the sushi bar with a group of guests that included a few hungry Instagrammers with large followings who treated the meal like a bottomless, all-you-can-eat pit. At the risk of comparing the experience to a Vegas buffet, the chefs at Hashiri do offer a large amount of food that should sate normal appetites, but they’re probably going to remain open to polite requests for an extra bite of this or that, so it's something of an AYCE affair.
The chefs served me more exquisite plates than I could personally finish, and at one point they noticed that I was trying to force myself. One laughed and said “This is the last one,” as he placed a beautiful, sweetened egg omelette (tamago) in front of me, the 12th piece in the nigiri course which had followed 11 kaiseki dishes. Whew! Tamago is a serious craft in itself, which you’ll know if you’ve ever watched the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The thin, delicate omelettes are carefully layered in a square pan before getting cut into rectangles. Here at Hashiri, they brand them with their logo using a special hot iron.
Before that finale came a dream sequence of cooked, cured and raw dishes that ignited a serotonin overload. The word hashiri refers to the beginning of the season, and it’s that ethos that guides the selection of ingredients. On my visit the ingredients included the best produce and seafood to be found from purveyors both local and farflung, Yosemite to Okayama and beyond.
During the kaiseki portion of dinner, I tried items that were unfamiliar, including the kelp-like junsai, popping water lily buds served in a liquid made from more junsai along with cucumbers and plum. There was also sesame tofu, which unlike standard tofu was more custard-like and layered with a thin slice of Sudachi lime (pictured above); and Japanese lobster (Akaza ebi, pictured at top), served with a cold broth made from snap peas and white sturgeon caviar; and cooked golden eye snapper (abure kinme dai; pictured below) served with slivered kabocha and watermelon radish in a umami-rich ponzu gelee.
The pen-shell clam (taira gai), a standing clam that texture-wise is more supple than more typically chewy clams, arrived in a big, iridescent shell. A morsel of premium Kagoshima Wagyu beef (pictured below) was cooked perfectly, still pink in the middle and rich in marbled fat.
I ate the nigiri the Japanese way, holding it by hand with the fish side down so those flavors hit your taste buds first; then you taste the rice, which in itself is so luscious that it's easy to imagine being happy with just a simple bowl of it. Adding vinegar to the preparation makes each grain stand out individually on the palate, and you savor each one, its texture and flavor. Some of the fish and seafood nigiri was raw, while other pieces had been slightly cured. The chefs slice each piece of fish impeccably before brushing it with a sauce, so pockets of flavor hide in secret but strategic places. Some, like the shimmering silver gizzard shad (kohada), one of the world’s oldest nigiri, arrived with its gorgeous skin intact.
Mostly, the sushi tastes like butter from the sea, from the soy-cured tuna (maguro) to the horse mackerel, or Aji (pictured above). I couldn't help thinking that the plump scallop from Hokkaido (where fertile waters help create some of the most distinctive flavors in the world) would taste incredible as a pat on top of a crusty piece of sourdough bread. I had never tried salmon from Oregon's Copper River, so it was a revelation to discover how creamy it is. Same for the heart clam (torigai), which like the pen-shell clam was surprisingly tender. A blackthroat seaperch (nogoduro) was also a first; it's colloquially called a "rosy seabass" in English and is similar in flavor.
Dessert came in two courses, one a lovely vegan sesame ice cream made with soy milk and served with a Japanese temperature-controlled silver spoon that we were informed cost $50, the other a take on mochi that was made with arrowroot instead of rice flour. It had a softer, more pudding-like consistency that made it easy to dip in the accompanying black sugar syrup. By the end, my eyes had rolled back into my head so many times that I didn’t want to wake up.
The overly attentive service was admittedly a little disconcerting at times, and it felt as if I couldn’t make a single move without being watched by hundreds of eyes at every moment. When I knocked over a shallow bowl of dashi, a thousand arms were instantly sopping it up. It’s a high level of service that certain diners at this level might crave, but not everyone will feel comfortable with this much attention.
The kaiseki meal at Hashiri is served in the 32-seat dining room for $250, and the 10-seat bar presents the kaiseki plus 12 pieces of nigiri sushi for $300. If you make a reservation at least two weeks in advance, you can experience the kaiseki and nigiri, plus an additional show-stopping cavalcade of the rarest and most expensive fish that the chefs can find at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo (which sources some of the offerings in the regular dinners). Those dinners take place in the restaurant’s private room, and we got to experience some of the same dishes served there at the pre-opening dinner I went to. At $500, this is one of the most luxurious Japanese dinners you can buy in America. Is it worth it? If the pre-opening dinners are any indication: Yes. And if you're craving a mind-bending sushi and kaiseki experience, your taste buds are worth it too.
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