I’m someone who will enter virtually any sushi restaurant and opt for Omakase to give the sushi chef a whirl. It’s not just an opportunity to get to know the chef, but it’s also an opportunity for the chef to get to know you and your tastes, not to mention a chance for him to show off the best of what he’s got.
But recently, the trend in San Francisco is to have a full omakase-only option restaurants. For those who don’t know, “omakase” basically means chef’s choice; you trust the chef to give you the best of what he’s got that night.
Recently, I reviewed Omakase — that’s the actual name of the restaurant–and it’s one of the latest omakase-only restaurants in San Francisco. Even newer is the restaurant I’m reviewing now, Ju-Ni–which, officially, is named jū-ni but for the sake of my sanity while writing this, I’ll go by Ju-Ni.
This whole omakase-only was made popular by the likes of Sasabune, I think. And most people know by now that I’m just not a fan of Sasabune.
The problem I have w/ this is that it’s no longer a “relationship” between the sushi chef and the diner. Regardless of palate or preference, everyone in the restaurant is getting the same item without any customization or understanding of what a specific diner likes. So if I get tuna, you get tuna. If I get natto or gonowada, so do you. While “omakase” is supposed to be special, it becomes borderline mass production when presented like this.
Granted, this may be more of an issue for those who know sushi very well vs. those who don’t, who might truly appreciate the journey that a fixed omakase send you on, whereby otherwise you might have not tasted all of those and stuck to the safer, plainer choices. I’m not one of those people, and from that perspective, this fixed menu for all option irks me.
Having said that, I’m not about to count that against Ju-Ni since I didn’t count it against Omakase. It’s just something to note, where the beauty of the customized and developed relationship between sushi chef & diner is quickly dying.
Note that the fixed standard menu here is $90–a bargain compared to Omakase. But then note that there’s additional supplements listed at different price points.
Entering Ju-Ni, you find a clean and very modern decor for a sushi restaurant. It is new and it looks brand new. There aren’t no rounded edges anywhere and everything is quite angular. There are no individual tables and the counter seating — which I can’t quite call “sushi bar,” is the only seating option. There’s room for three chefs to provide the handcrafted meal for 12 diners at a time, and Ju-Ni only has two seatings per night–one at 6:00 PM and the second at 8:30 PM. I don’t know where they had originally planned to seat me but I requested the seat closest to the storefront windows since there was still good light available.
My seat selection had us paired w/ a sushi chef whom I believe was named Gavin, but I wouldn’t be my life on that recollection. He was a very pleasant gentlemen who paid just the right amount of attention to us and then left us alone for the right times as well, though in quite a few cases, I had to eavesdrop on the other sushi chef explaining to his patrons to fully understand the explanation. Later, I’d find out Gavin worked for Roger at Zushi Puzzle, which elevated my opinion of him instantly since I’m quite preferential to Roger.
We ordered a class of one of my favorite cold sakes, Masumi, and it was served in a wine glass. As it turns out, I don’t like my sake in wine glasses for the record. I believe it was $12 per a nice pour, and Mr. K and I both had two glasses each, so that added a little over $50 to the final bill.
Ju-Ni also pays attention to the little things–like this wet mini-napkin to dab your fingers on after each serving of sushi to ensure your fingers stay free of rice starch.
The Courses at Ju-Ni
The appetizer for this evening was a small bowl of beautiful vegetables atop a very rich and creamy cauliflower puree. Each item was really nicely cooked, with the carrots retaining some bite to them and the asparagus, while cooked, was slightly crunchy still. Mr. K was less impressed but I thought it was quite tasty.
Because there’s no sushi bar to speak of, and because each chef is catering to four diners–I noticed that w/ the majority of nigiri, the fish was brought out, sliced and put to the side to prepare one by one, four at a time. Personally, I’m not a fan but understand that the logistics at Ju-Ni makes this a necessity. Because the fish are stored in a wooden box in the refrigerator below the counter, it was pulled out, sliced as needed, and then put back.
In the meantime, each order would be one nigiri per person, and there was at least a five minute lull between each serving.
The first course began with this presentation above of horsehair crab.
Dining at Ju-Ni is not really just about the food. There’s a certain talent and art in the way the food is prepared and the chefs pay incredible attention to detail for each serving of sushi. But because of this, the single piece of nigiri comes one by one with considerable time between “courses,” keeping in mind each course is one biteful of seafood and rice. If I had arrived starving, I’d have fainted out of my chair by the third course from low sugar.
But it is fun to watch, even if you’re done with your course in exactly 15 seconds to chew and swallow.
The horsehair crab shredded over sushi rice is topped with miso butter, scallions and good seasoning. It was good, but all the work it required, I didn’t think it was something special enough to warrant the wait. But the slightly charred pieces of crab added greatly to the overall flavor of the dish, and the light but distinct miso flavoring could be discerned.
The sushi rice at Ju-Ni is a little…strange.
Now I’d take sushi rice over regular rice any day but the way this rice was cooked, it didn’t stick together the way good sushi rice does, and I’d have a 2-3 since morsels of rice drop off as I’m picking up each piece. Taste wise, it was OK but nothing like Ino Sushi’s rice. Damn, I miss that grumpy but genius sushi chef of a man.
Let me note here another thing I really don’t like about omakase format restaurants. What is it about not trusting your diners to use soy sauce on their own? Every piece of nigiri is prepared w/ the sauce of the chef’s choosing and handed to you as-is. There is no soy sauce to speak of in this restaurant, and my issue here is that in many, many cases, I don’t want the amount of soy sauce put on the fish. I know most people like to bathe their sushi in soy sauce, but personally – I barely dip one tiny bit of the fish into the soy sauce because I want to taste the fish, not the sauce. With these omakase-only restaurants, they don’t let you do this because they’ll sauce it for you.
Granted, a lot of diners will bastardize their nigiri left on their own but a quick word w/ how to sauce their sushi, and I believe most people will attempt to follow directions.
The shima ahi was reminiscent of kampachi in texture and slightly milder in flavor. It can’t hold a candle to truly good hamachi, in my opinion.
Another unadorned piece of nigiri was the fresh scallop nigiri. This was superb. The whole piece of scallop sat on the cutting board plump and so juicy looking and by the time it was handed to me, it was simply divine. Nothing else but a dab of soy sauce and a tiny bit of wasabi inside. Plain and absolutely exquisite. I could eat 40 pieces of just this for dinner.
Up next was the New Zealand King Salmon–which is often served at Zushi Puzzle where Roger can actually lay out a full platter of just different kinds of salmon, all with unique flavors. The salmon at Ju-Ni had good flavor, a slight, natural smokiness w/ a great fattiness each time you chewed.
These otherwise ugly fish that resemble out of proportion marlin offer great flavor and it was no different at Ju-Ni. It was one of the few fish I marked as perfect “5” at Ju-Ni. The fish texture is quite dense and similar to mackerel, but the way it was cured and paired w/ the rice, it was just full-in flavor, non-stop.
But look at that photo above where the piece of sayori is being garnished. The sushi at Ju-Ni is PARTICULARLY small. The thickness of fish is above average but the length is significantly shorter and the rice is significantly smaller to accommodate the significantly smaller amount of fish.
This is also about when I started discussing w/ Mr. K what we’d be eating before heading home for the night.
The “white tuna” served at Ju-Ni was more reminiscent of escolar rather than any tuna. I’ve come to expect Albacore tuna when a restaurant calls anything “white tuna” (although technically, even albacore isn’t “white”). That’s all that was offered and I didn’t ask any further questions and just plopped it into my mouth. I was told it was cured slightly in mirin–and whatever was done to it, it was good. Also, like the nigiri previous to these, it was simple — just a dab of sauce on top.
We were seven courses in and a total of six small nigiri pieces when this dish was brought out by the wait staff. Served as a mid-meal palate cleanser, it’s a small chunk of Japanese cucumber with a soy-based sauce and a sprinkle of black sesame seeds topped with a small amount of bonito flakes–and it’s spectacularly delicious!
Personally, I loved this dish.
More typically called butterfish, the madai at Ju-Ni is served w/some green onions and a little scoop of a miso bean concoction. Similar to natto but not fermented or stinky, this was a delicious ensemble that I thought was one of the best nigiri presented at Ju-Ni. Like some others, it, too, was scorched for a bit which added to the flavor and brought out some of the oils to the forefront of your palate.
Here comes the blowtorch again, but this time for what the chef called a King Spanish Mackerel. Based on its coloring, I’m inclined to believe it’s what’s typically known as sawara–slightly different from regular saba (mackerel) in that it’s usually served fresh and slightly cooked to melt the oils in the fish.
At Ju-Ni, it’s served as a medley of flavors w/ a paper-thin sliver of raw garlic, green onions and a dash of orange daikon on top. And the whole thing together just works beautifully–it was one of my favorite dishes of the night. It’s not as pungent as saba can be, but it does carry the same fishy notes and slightly warmed w/ the blow torch, it melts in your mouth imparting almost a buttery flavor compared to its plain mackerel cousin.
I have to give a big kudos to Ju-Ni for rivaling Inoue-san’s hotaru ika–something I’ve never found in the United States thus far whereas in Japan, if a place serves it, it almost always tastes this good. Normally, this squid is called “baby squid,” but it’s sort of misleading and a little inhumane, because this particular squid variety called “firefly squid” doesn’t get big when full-grown, and only lives about a year anyway. So contrary to what it’s called, we’re not eating tiny little baby squids that would’ve grown to big to about two feet in length.
That’s not to say we don’t eat that squid–we do, but it’s called ika–the plain white squid sushi that’s usually served in any sushi restaurant. Notably, this was my first “favorite sushi” ever since I had teeth. What can I say — I was a very advanced sushi eater soon after I could walk. :)
At Ju-Ni, the hotaru ika nigiri was outstanding. Served extremely cold, this sushi gets more delicious each time you chew. There’s cold moisture and juiciness that comes from the inside of the squid that’s creamy and full of flavor, and the outside skin is as soft as squid will ever get. It’s much softer than the regular chewiness you expect from the squid family. That said, I don’t always find this particular seafood available, and when I do, it’s not always good. In fact, I had no idea how it was supposed to taste until I had it at one random sushi restaurant in Japan. I expected dry and tough but it was about as moist and unique in texture as I could ever expect.
I said this rivaled Ino Sushi’s hotaru ika–but it JUST might exceed it. It’s really that good.
Next up was one of the most beautifully presented dishes. Sushi rice was put into the oyster shell, topped w/ the freshly shucked oyster on top and then a dollop of caviar. There’s very little that could go wrong w/ this combination and outside of Okina Sushi in San Francisco, I haven’t found fresh oyster sushi in other restaurants in the city. It’s a nice pairing w/ lovely ingredients–I think he called kushu oysters, but he may have meant kusshi oysters–as well as a slight flavor of yuzu, tabasco and ponzu sauce. The little crunch provided by the caviar is always a nice contrast to the soft creamy oyster–and it was as good as it looks. It’s just a tiny concoction that you slurp and drop into your mouth–and it’s regretful there’s not more of it.
But really nothing this evening would hold a candle to what was next.
Up to this point, I’m neither overly impressed nor disappointed w/ Ju-Ni. The hotaru ika was impressive, but the other offerings were good to very good but none actually knocked my socks off until this dish.
This particular dish consisted of a nicely made ikura–which I’m in awe of because the few times I tried to make ikura with freshly harvested eggs from salmon that I caught, it turned out disgusting. I’ve run to Inoue-san upon returning from fishing trips w/ several sacs full of eggs so he could prepare it, because God knows I cannot. So I’m always impressed w/ restaurants that make good ikura–but that’s not what made this dish great.
Chef Gavin pulled a out chunk of frozen ankimo much to my horror–and I’m thinking is WHY WOULD ANYONE FREEZE WONDERFUL ANKIMO? I love ankimo (monkfish liver) and it’s possible that I would choose a well-made ankimo over toro on any given day because it really is that good. But here’s this guy announcing it’s a “super frozen ankimo” and he proceed to grate this amazing liver over the ikura. I mean, folks — I’m dying here; I wish you could’ve seen the expression on my face–it’s about what I look like when someone puts ketchup on a kobe beef steak.
But what I failed to realize was what would happen next.
The little shaved pieces of ankimo was piled high and began to melt into each other. Every piece that touched the plate began to melt like cheese. And even as I’m taking a photograph, it’s deflating before my eyes because this “super-frozen” ankimo was melting.
Quickly, I plopped it into my mouth and the entire things LITERALLY melted like butter. Hell, it was better than butter. Between the buttery ankimo shavings and the salty salmon eggs w/ the nori and vinegar rice, it was hands down the best part of the dinner at Ju-Ni.
The last part of the dinner was actually the snapper shown above. There was nothing special about the snapper–it tasted just as good as any other, and the slight charring is always a big plus w/ snapper. But it was just like any other snapper.
That was the last nigiri included in the $90 fixed menu. Everything else show below are part of the supplemental menu, all add-ons at additional cost. And since I was there to review what was good and bad, it was essential I try everything offered, right?
I know it must look like a lot in this review–but keep in mind that I have one appetizer in with 12 SMALL pieces of nigiri and a cucumber. Also keep in mind that I’ll down 40 individual pieces of sushi w/out stopping for air. So yea — we opted for the supplemental menu for that reason, too.
Supplemental Menu at Ju-Ni
The next two items, I’ll pair together because they were both exactly what you’d expect. The toro was toro–sort of always delicious. And the uni — called “Kaisui Uni” on the menu, was also good but plain uni w/ the same vinegar rice is still uni w/ nothing notable. Don’t get me wrong – these were both good but just nothing about them at Ju-Ni was more or less special than they are anywhere else.
Part of the $38 supplement menu is a kobe beef nigiri, though technically it’s a kobe beef roll. The chef slices and then flattens out some kobe beef, takes a blow torch to this to cook it about medium to medium-rare on the outside, and then a decent amount of white summer truffles are grated on top. The addition of truffles was $6, but without it, which the guests adjacent to me opted for, it was an incredibly plain looking offering. With it, it was much better–but despite the glorious beef and the white truffles, it was just good. In theory it should be much, much better, but oddly enough, I was not dying to have another piece though I would have twisted arms to have more of the ikura w/ super-frozen ankimo.
I’ve now added $44 to my $90 fixed menu.
Second Supplement at Ju-Ni
There’s a $17 add-on for a toro handrail. Given the $138 per person price right now, what’s another 10+%? The $17 add-on was a toro handroll.
Chef Gavin noticed that I spend a little time taking photos prior to eating what’s given to me, so this time, he handed Mr. K a handrail first, advising that I take photos of that and immediately eat mine. I did eat mine as soon as it came and it was without a doubt delicious. The addition of shiso always makes fish shine, and interestingly, they add a bit of yellow daikon–a normally sweet radish that Koreans add in kimbap. It wasn’t entirely noticeable in the handroll but when you did get a bite, the additional sweetness w/ the toro was not bad at all. It’s not something I’d ever add considering I hate the sweet yellow radish and make it a point to push it out of each kimbap I have, but in this roll, it wasn’t bad.
I’m not sure if this was worth $17 but it’s never bad to end a sushi meal w/ a handroll.
But then, another damn menu is brought out. It’s the supplemental menu to the supplemental menu, which already supplemented the main menu. Now i’m starting to feel a little “nickel-and-dimed.”
It’s one thing if I thought everyone in this restaurant was stuffed to the gills–and I know they weren’t, at least not most of them. Second, I just opted for the entire add-on menu, and I’m still not stuffed to the gills–and they seem to know this because now there’s another menu. What is this?
My stance on this is really simple. When you charge people for a meal, it should be filling. If you want to tack on these extra items, just charge me more. There’s nothing wrong w/ a $200 menu–just give it to me then and charge me. But to get me to eat a $90 menu, and then have me add-on $57 to that $90 menu, and then bringing me another menu begins to piss me off. If you didn’t give your customers enough food to ensure they’re full, then either add more and charge more, or just make it a “always make Ju-Ni your first dinner” proposition, or change to a full menu without an omakase option.
Although we were planning to go eat ramen after this, I declined the tertiary menu on principle.
Included in the original $90 menu is an owan (soup) course. At Ju-Ni, this was a plain-looking tea cup w/ a a little bit of fish consomme. But after the meal, one sip of this soup w/ a couple pieces of enoki mushroom was amazing. It completely cleansed your palate of fish (despite it being fish-based!) and sort of restarted your tastebuds. It was warm but not hot, and all in all was a great ending to a sushi meal.
The dessert included in the menu happened to be two tiny marble-sized piece of mochi, one w/ red bean, one without. I’m not sure what else I’m supposed to say about this; it is what it looks like.
Conclusion: Ju-Ni in San Francisco
The final bill, noting that we had two glasses of sake each accounting for $50, was $354, and Mr. K included a $70 tip totaling $424.00–not an economical meal but not entirely outrageous in San Francisco either.
Given that the two are based on identical concepts, I can’t help but compare Ju-Ni to Omakase, the restaurant. Both restaurants were given a 20% tip so I’ll use the totals.
|$374 (excluding 4 sakes total)||$515 (no drinks ordered, champagne included)|
|PRICE PER COURSE (AVG)||$18.70 / course||$24.5 / course|
Overall, you can see that there is a substantial difference in pricing between Ju-Ni and Omakase. Given that the total included 2 sakes per person that we ordered, I deducted $50 from the total to account for that. Note that Omakase includes a glass of champagne w/ your meal or it’d have been significantly more.
There were 21 courses on its own at Omakase in the $200 per person menu, including the dessert which I skipped out on due to scheduling.
At Ju-Ni, all of my supplements included led to 20 courses total, but 17/20 were one piece of straight up nigiri meaning one bit of rice and a slice of fish, 2/20 were a tiny teacup of liquid or one mouthful of dessert. At Omakase, while many of the courses were also nigiri, there were additional courses of creations where items were put together in a bowl, larger and more varied in proportion and each nigiri was technically larger (though nothing to write home about in size either). In essence, it was a lot more food than Ju-Ni–enough to justify the increase in price.
The meal at Ju-Ni had more higher high points and lower low points whereas the Omakase meal was relatively strong throughout; it earned neither the super high points like the ikura nigiri at Ju-Ni (and Lord have mercy, was that delicious!) nor the low points like some of the more boring dishes at Ju-Ni, though Omakase’s mackerel still remains quite unimpressive.
But of the two, I really pondered which I enjoyed more assuming I can consider them relatively similar in price.
What detracted from my dining experience at Ju-Ni was the nickel-and-diming which I hate. One can argue that the starting point of $90 for a fixed menu was much cheaper than Omakase, and it is–but you’d leave hungry. A four year old child would leave hungry without the supplements, which doesn’t really make it cheaper at all. While I liked our sushi chef here more in personality, I daresay the ruder chef at Omakase was a more talented chef. While I had a good time at Ju-Ni, I’d say the experience at Omakase was more of an all-encompassing journey through Japanese cuisine, not to mention more daring and bolder, whereas Ju-Ni’s was perhaps brighter and cheerier but not as decadent. For similar pricing, Omakase feels a little more prestigious and a little more authentically Japanese–which to me is added value.
In both cases, especially considering how much it is per course at prestigious and classic sushi restaurants is per serving of sushi (2 pieces per person, usually), they’re both highly overpriced on its own if you discount the experience. There are a good enough number of restaurants in San Francisco that purport to fly in their fish that this alone can’t justify the cost.
So it really comes down to the journey and in this case, I’d have to give it to Omakase. Sure, it’s slightly higher in price, but the entire journey is a little more varied and also more filling, and the overall ambiance is better at Omakase.
Another highly touted restaurant in San Francisco would be Akiko’s–something I’ll never understand. And compared to that, both restaurants SHINE. I’d shell out money at either restaurant before eating at Akiko’s again, even if my meal there was only a half-meal, technically, though we actually did go eat ramen after that meal.
At Ju-Ni, despite many good courses, they make the dining experience feel like you’re buying a car, where it turns out after you decide on a negotiated price, it turns out you need to pay more for the wheels, more for a sunroof, more for carpet. I’d much rather just pay a set amount and be guaranteed to leave full and satisfied than have to add to my bill incrementally to reach the point where I’m not hungry anymore. At Omakase or even The French Laundry, getting the original, main set menu already ensures you will not leave hungry, even if you never opt for the supplements–and to me, that is the entire point of a meal.
Tip: There’s a lot across the street from Ju-Ni. For the 2 hour duration of dinner, the parking cost came to $15 but beats looking for parking on busy weekend evenings.