When Alice Waters, whom I consider one of the world’s great eaters, is asked about her favorite restaurants (other than Chez Panisse, of course), she always gives the same answer: “I go to restaurants where I am known.” By this she doesn’t mean getting a good table. She wants something deeper, both a kitchen and dining room that understands what will please her. In fact, she prefers restaurants where the kitchen, and its most beautiful ingredients, are a visible part of the dining room. She wants to be seen by the cooks–and she wants to see them.
I think she would feel right at home at Maruya, a traditional, high end Japanese sushi bar where cooks and diners perform an intimate little culinary dance separated only by a cypress counter. Started by two intuitive, highly skilled Japanese chefs, Maruya exemplifies the kind of restaurant Alice loves. By the end of a visit, these chefs have figured out what you want before you do. When you walk in a second time, they remember which sake you liked (or that you were on the wagon last time you came); what kind of sea beasts most excited you; how much of them you want to eat. The Maruya chefs may ask you what you’d like, but they gently give you what they think is best.
What pleasure in letting them take care of you! Typically, the omakase (chef’s choice) sushi service costs about $80, depending on your appetite and the rarity of the sea animals available. Those who want a meal with more variety in Japanese cooking techniques can opt for the daily $85 kaiseki-like menu, which includes cooked and composed dishes as well sashimi and sushi courses.
Every diner at Maruya gets a welcoming house appetizer in a small pottery bowl, perhaps a perfect stem of gailan, Chinese broccoli, with tiny flowering buds, blanketed in shaved dried bonito in bonito broth; or a warm, poached, peeled green tomato served in its own juices; or a Japanese salad of eggplant, lotus root, and carrot.
Most of the fish for sushi and sashimi are flown in daily from Japan. They are pristine and vibrant in texture and flavor. Many are not often found here, like shimaji, a firm, delicate, white-fleshed mackerel called horse mackerel, from Wakayama; kohada, a shad/herring from Kumamoto; kinmedai, a red-skinned sea bream from Katsuura. A favorite of mine, mirugai, geoduck clam, so sweet and nutty, and still alive when you eat it comes from Seattle. From Canada there’s fantastic botanebi, live pink shrimp. The quivering, sugary raw tail is served as sushi. The deep-fried head, served as a second course is 100% edible, irresistibly crunchy and sublime. Don’t miss it.
A request for uni can bring a comparative tasting of sea urchin roe from three different shores–Maine, Mendocino and Japan– piled naked on little pillows of rice. You need to use the tented miniature finger towel set on your lacquer tray after eating these luxurious sushi, unbelted by dried seaweed.
During one session, the chef set bowls of mahogany-colored braised tuna in front of us. It looked like beef and had a similar heft. He told us it came from a hundred pound fish. That meal ended with tamago, a thick slice of fluffy, sweetened egg omelet cooked in a rectangular pan.
The opalescent slices of fish are draped over small, bite-sized pallets of rice, the plump, distinct grains magically adhering. The chefs add an exact amount of wasabi and place each piece on a dark, glossy ti leaf in front of each diner, a mound of paper thin house-pickled ginger on one side. No extra wasabi or soy sauce is offered or needed. Each piece of sushi is complete, from the simplest to more composed creations such as bigeye tuna brushed with lemon and salt, the surface quickly caramelized with a hand torch.
Maruya took over the former Bar Bambino space on 16th street between Mission and Van Ness, only a block from happening Valencia but seemingly miles away. I loved Bar Bambino and was sorry it closed, but its tiny, elegant, wood paneled quarters are a natural for a sushi bar. The three Maruya partners, two of whom are the sushi chefs Masaki Sasaki and Hide Sueyoshi, pulled out half the tables–there is now seating for 16 at small walnut tables that rim the sushi bar– and installed the magnificent eight- inch thick sushi counter that seats 10. You get an idea of the contour of the tree in the counter’s uneven edge. There are no refrigerated glass cases separating diner from cook. Fish are stored in handsome wooden boxes pulled from under-counter refrigerators. The esthetic throughout–food, tableware, ambience– evokes nature, the season and serenity in an oh so Japanese marriage of form and function.
The one thing to remember is that you must telephone ahead to secure a place at the sushi bar. You can’t do it on line and you can’t walk in. There are roughly two seatings, one six-ish and one at 8 p.m. or later. Even a luminary like Alice has to call. Maruya is very Japanese, very private, yet exhilaratingly personal once you are admitted. English aside, it’s like being in Tokyo.
2931 16th Street, San Francisco 415 503-0702 Open Tuesday through Saturday from 5:30 to 11 p.m.