Sunday, November 23, 2008
It's really nice to have friends who are natives of various countries as they have great tips on what's really good around town for their native cuisine. Sachiko introduced me and her young just-turned-21 friend, Shoko, to Sozai Restaurant and Sake Lounge, which is an Izakaya style restaurant in San Francisco on Irving Street.
Precisely, it is on the corner of Irving and 16th Streets. Izakaya style restaurants are a casual 'tapas' type environment where small plates are eaten with drinks. The other name used for these is Akachōchin because traditionally red lanterns were hung in front. The literal meaning of izakaya is "i " (to remain) and "sakaya" (sake shop) because the early start of these places were from sake shops that allowed customers to remain on the premises to drink.
The emphasis is on good friends and coversation and often those at the surrounding tables become your friends too. Sachiko, Shoko and I had instant friends at the table next as we recognized a couple of men we knew (Matt & Ki) dining there as well! Now, on to the food, which we paired with a nice chardonnay. The evening was long and enjoyable and we had A LOT of dishes which were also sometimes shared with the men. First up was the salmon stuffed organic squash blossoms. These were tempura battered and fried and were heavenly! Sozai's menu changes monthly, and is seasonal so if you' d like to try these as well, be sure to visit before the end of the month. Sozai also posts its current menu at its website in case you'd like to preview before visiting.
This agadashi tofu, or deep fried tofu in sauce was perfect. It had the traditional fish flakes and perfectly blended sauce as well.
These butter mushrooms with soy and lemon were also superb. There were three kinds of mushrooms steamed inside a foil packet, button, shitake and enoki.
This nikujaga, or as the menu translates "Russet potato cooked with Kobe beef" was to die for. I ate only the potato portion, and the flavors were well seeped into it. The menu is also written in Japanese, with an English translation to the right.
Sozai, like a traditional Izakaya, does not serve sushi, but it does serve fresh sashimi. Sozai does have a Monday "Sushi and Kushi" night, and through their catering branch will send a sushi chef to your event (see Mari's Catering).
The edamame hummus with won ton chips is a must try item. Oh this was surprisingly good!
Next up was kushiage scallops with wasabi aioli. "Kushi" means skewer and "age" means deep frying and typically these are put on a bamboo stick, coated with a light panko batter (panko is breadcrumbs) and deep fried. These were delightful bites!
This kushiage was a delicious east meets west blend - mozzarella stuffed jalapenos with a sweet chili glaze. These were a perfect blend of spice and smoothness and didn't have a biting heat like one might imagine.
A favorite treat in Japan is anything that features the soft pork belly. This Kurobuta Pork Belly, Shichimi was just the ticket to send my friends into ecstasy! Kurobuta to pork is what Kobe is to beef, and the Shichimi coating is a very spicy 7-spice add to the softness.
These fries with wasabi aioli reminded me of all the interesting dips there are for frites in Belgium and was a great pairing.
This chicken kushiyaki sampler offers the typical skewers offered in yakitori houses, including ones that western audiences usually find 'challenging' -- Yakitori (Chicken meat), Negi-ma (Chicken & Green Onions), Chicken Gizzard, Chicken Hearts, Chicken Liver, and Tsukune (Chicken Meatballs). My friends loved these.
The organic beet salad was wonderful. It was lightly dressed with what I think was a plum (umeboshi) vinaigrette.
Then the broiled sanma (mackerel pike) was spotted on the menu - a favorite Japanese fish choice with its oilness cut with grated daikon radish.
Traditionally, at the end of the succession of plates and drinks is a carbohydrate based dish, and pickles. Shoko chose the O-chazuke with umeboshi pickle, a rice and tea comfort food.
Then the pickle (tsukemono) plate came, with a sampling of the three typical pickle tastes in Japan, miso, nuka (rice bran) and sake. These were good homemade type pickles.
My starch option was the organic petite soba with shrimp kakiage. These were SO good - checked whether Sozai is open for lunch as this would be a perfect lunch dish, but alas not.
Yes, we are drawing to a close for this dreamy meal. We were offered a choice of a rainbow of kanten fruit flavors.
We made our selections and put them all in the center so we could share. I mentioned at the end of another post about kanten being a Japanese ancient diet secret, so how appropriate at the end of a multi-course meal! If you enjoy Japanese food, don't miss Sozai!