I was not planning on writing an entry for Pao Chow to post today (am still hammering out final details of my lengthier Credo entry to be posted later this week) but my dining experience deserves some quick attention. A number of friends have recommended that I test out Tataki, a sustainable sushi place on Divisadero. I’m a bit of a sushi snob, normally going to only a few different spots in the city (Oyaji in the Outer Richmond, Zushi Puzzle in the Marina to name a couple) where I am guaranteed to find a wide range of the freshest sushi prepared more traditionally. However, after three separate friends raved to me about Tataki, I decided to give it a Pao Try.
After my friend Buck and I decided to skip the Thursday night scene at Cal Academy of Sciences (the Rainforest exhibit was closing and the Planetarium was already sold out) we found ourselves contemplating a couple different sushi spots. Then I remembered that Tataki is just a couple blocks away on Divisadero and California. Blessed with parking karma, we found a spot around the corner and put our name down on the list (a line had already formed out front but I was happy that the wait time was a mere 20 minutes).
Drinks at Solstice Lounge
We skipped next door to Solstice for a couple cocktails to keep us company during our short wait. Solstice is an intimate lounge with dim lights, palm fronds and Pacific Rim décor making it a laid-back spot for pre-dinner drinks and good conversation. For smaller groups – try to get a spot at the bar, where you can sit front and center for all the action. If you find your stomach grumbling, you can order from their full menu, which offers Kobe beef sliders, mac & cheese or chicken tacos. Buck chose a classic Manhattan, which was quite potent and warming to the belly. For my libation, I opted for the “Sol Provider,” a refreshing cucumber concoction. The bartender muddled fresh cucumber, ginger and mint, then added Square One Cucumber Vodka (you can substitute Gin if that is your preference) and a splash of club soda. The cucumber essence delighted my palate, smoothly coating my tongue with subtle hints of cucumber flavor. The bubbly nature of the club soda added just the right amount of fizz to wake up my senses for the oncoming meal. I finished my well-executed drink quickly, and then we hopped back next door and were immediately seated at the sushi bar (my preferred spot when dining out for sushi).
Sushi Time – Appetizers
Tataki is a smaller restaurant with a handful of wooden tables and about 5-7 seats at the sushi bar. What sets Tataki apart is its emphasis on providing artful sustainable sushi; you won’t find any endangered yellow-fin tuna in this establishment. I admit that this mission, although honorable, worried me. I am not a person who tries to hold back for the sake of the wallet when I go out to sushi. I like ordering and enjoying to my heart’s content, trying out a diversity of options on each menu. The weirder or more unfamiliar? The better in my opinion. I entered the restaurant concerned that there would only be a handful of fish options for our sushi enjoyment. I was wrong. The menu surprised me with a collection of fish options, some of which I do not typically see on regular sushi restaurants not limited by sticking with sustainable ingredients. Sea bream, arctic char, aji (mackerel) and katsuo (skipjack) are just a few of the offerings by Tataki. We started our meal with an order of edamame, which I must say were slightly over-boiled but still tasty. We then had two oysters on the half shell topped with ponzu sauce; the oysters tasted like they’d just been pulled from Ocean Beach and put onto our plate – score 1 point for freshness! For our third appetizer we opted for the trio of albacore tuna poke. The three styles of tuna poke are a tour of spice and flavor. One of the pokes included fresh seaweed strips and another made me think a bit of Kim Jong Il with its addition of Korean kicked-up flavor. Although creative, I was less impressed with this dish – it probably was my least favorite of the night as I did not sense the same level of freshness as I did with our other selections. I just remembered a side of tuna tataki (seared albacore tuna) salad that never made it to the table. I blame the two mini carafes of sake for my forgetfulness.
Sushi Time – Nigiri, Tataki and Rolls
Moving on to the main event of the evening: sushi. I’m not normally a roll girl, preferring the simple, unadulterated taste of fish available in nigiri or sashimi options. But…I compromise, and I have to admit a couple of these rolls looked quite tempting. Our menu for the evening included: For Nigiri – Uni (wild-diver caught sea urchin) and Iwana 5 (closed farmed Arctic Char from Iceland; it is a pink-colored fish similar to salmon and trout). A couple other options that caught my attention were the Iwashi (wild local sardine – it was sold out for the evening) and the aji (horse mackerel from Japan – I did not get this because unfortunately Tataki does not serve the fish with the fried fish bones, a favorite of mine when available). It was Buck’s first experience with uni and I was excited to hear his take on one of my favorite nigiri, which many people think looks like a tongue and tastes like sea foam. Buck, a big surfer, loved the uni’s freshness and essence of the sea, and how its smooth, sweet flavor permeated the inside of his mouth. The sushi chef recommended a final sampling of slightly seared Hokkaido scallop with a squirt of lemon and spot of tobiko over warm sushi rice. Loved this and highly push you to try it.
For our other non-nigiri options we selected two rolls and one tataki (this is not only the name of the restaurant; it also refers to a way of preparing thinly sliced fish very briefly over a hot flame, then marinating it with a bit of vinegar and ginger paste. For our tataki selection (there are about seven to choose from) we decided on the Kurodai Tataki: seared black sea bream, avocado with a jalapeno-ponzu sauce. Just a quick download on sea bream. It’s a fish similar in flavor to a sea bass; commonly referred to as Dorade on the continent. Sea breams are the hermaphrodites of the ocean – being male for the first two years and then transforming into females in the third year. I love anything spicy (I once bought a pack of 30 jalapenos and used about 15 of them in a traditional Chinese tofu dish – causing a coughing attack among my roommates) so I was very excited to see jalapenos as the final garnish on this dish.
For our two roll options we chose the Golden State (spicy scallop and minced apple are rolled together then topped with seared albacore tuna, avocado and yuzu tobiko) and the Spicy Tempura (Shrimp Tempura, spicy albacore tuna, grilled jalapeno and masago). Like I said, normally I am not a huge roll fan. I am always skeptical of places that cater to the American taste of excessiveness, dumping loads of sauce on top of the roll until you can’t even taste the fish anymore. I’ve received sushi rolls plates before that resembled a four year old art project. Tataki keeps its sushi-making artful and uses sauces to complement the natural taste of the fish, instead of overpowering it.
Final Verdict: Will Pao Go Again?
At the end of the day, I thoroughly enjoyed my meal and experience at Tataki. The wait was not excessive, the ambiance comfortable and relaxed, and the service attentive but not overbearing. The prices are reasonable for a sushi place focused on using quality, sustainable ingredients; for dinner and drinks you’re probably looking at about $50 a person. The menu is creative and has enough variety to keep all people in your party interested and satisfied. The fish was fresh, well-portioned, beautifully prepared and served with a bit of flair; all while being mindful of the health and biodiversity of the ocean. I do not think Tataki will make it into my Top 5 favorite sushi places in the city but I will definitely be a repeat visitor. http://www.tatakisushibar.com/index.html