Calamari and Rock Shrimp with a Trio of Dipping Sauces; Miso-Glazed Roasted Chicken with Wasabi Potatoes, a Stir Fried Chard, Shiitakes, Carrot, Fresh Soy Beans, and Burdock Root; Sumi Sundae: Scharffen Berger Chocolate Cake, French Vanilla Ice Cream, House Made Chocolate Sauce, and Brandied Cherry
Occupation: Special Education Instructor
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Sumi
Reviewed Sumi: Saturday July 14, 2007
Fresh and sexy, Sumi Restaurant has been an anchor in the Castro for the past twenty-two years. Located at 4243 18th Street, Sumi serves wonderfully interesting California cuisine with an Asian influence. Every dish, including desserts, is made fresh daily under owner, Sumi Hirose’s, supervision. Most evenings, Sumi is there to warmly greet you herself and take you to your seat. The dimly lit décor has been beautifully updated in a very sexy and sophisticated black and gold color scheme. The gold painted wood plank walls and the matchstick blinds add texture and warmth to the surroundings while the black overhead beams and chairs add contrast and just the right touch of class. Paintings on the walls by local artists are always changing and add to the visual interest. Even when the restaurant is full, the noise level is never too high that you can’t engage in a lively discussion with your dining partners. Friendly, knowledgeable, and sexy waiters are always right there to welcome you and hand you your linen napkin. Water glasses with slices of lemon immediately appear as does warm, delicious break-apart rolls beautifully displayed in a cleverly paper lined silver basket. Sumi’s incredible attention to every detail is evident throughout the dining experience.
On a busy Saturday night, my friend and I were lucky enough to find a parking place in the Castro, just a short walk from the restaurant. Upon entering, we were greeted by Sumi herself and taken to a table on the upper level just overlooking the diners seated in the window tables below. Martin, our friendly and knowledgeable waiter, quickly appeared, explained the daily specials and took our drink order. I started off with a Kir Royale cocktail, a delicious blend of sparkling wine and Kir with a twist of lemon, and my dining partner enjoyed a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, while we started with the calamari and rock shrimp appetizer. The lightly battered seafood arrived in a wicker basket along with a trio of dipping sauces, including a tangy cocktail sauce, a lime and chili sauce (my favorite), and a garlic aioli. We devoured every tender morsel using the chopsticks provided.
My companion decided to order from the regular menu, while I wanted to take advantage of the 3-course prix fixe menu that is offered nightly from 5:30 to 7:00 for $25. For my first course, I chose the fresh white corn soup with a dollop of garlic butter. A delicious hot and creamy puree of corn tasted as if it had just been picked and taken off the cob that day. I also shared my partner’s large but lightly dressed mixed green salad with the cherry tomatoes and tofu croutons — always a good choice.
Our waiter, Martin, led us to an absolutely wonderful bottle of Clayton Petite Sirah 2002 to go with our dinner. I chose the grilled Niman Ranch Country Style pork rib with sautéed shiitake mushrooms and edamame, ginger rice, and orange-ume glaze. Not being familiar with edamame, Martin was more than happy to educate me on these Japanese style beans. (It always helps to know what you are going to be eating!) The pork was so tender and juicy and went well with the contrasting textures of the mushrooms and edamame. There was just the right amount of the orange-ume glaze drizzled on the plate to give the dish a slightly sweet flavor. My dining partner chose the monkfish with wild rice, spinach, and golden raisins for an entrée. The fish was moist and flaky and beautifully landscaped on a bed of the flavorful wild rice, spinach, and golden raisins mixture. We shared a side order of one of my favorite Sumi sides, the cayenne sweet potato fries.
For dessert, I chose the trio of fresh fruit sorbets from the prix fixe menu. That night it was apricot, green apple, and raspberry. The three vivid colors stood out on the slender plate, as I savored each refreshing bite. I insisted that my partner get the signature Sumi Sundae, so I could also sample the combination of Scharffen Berger chocolate cake, topped with French vanilla ice cream, the housemade chocolate sauce, and brandied cherries, elegantly served in a martini glass. While I ate most of my companion’s sundae, he enjoyed his coffee delivered to the table in an individual 2 1/2-cup French press.
At the end of our lovely meal, Martin delivered the bill in a hardbound classical book in which previous patrons had written their comments. It was fun to read about the many special occasions that had been celebrated there and about tourists from far away places who raved about Sumi.
In my book, it would be hard to beat this level of quality and culinary sophistication in this price range. For a relaxed romantic evening of creative food in a classy atmosphere with the best service ever, you can’t go wrong at Sumi.
Occupation: Certified Public Accountant
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Marché Aux Fleurs
Reviewed Sumi: Friday July 6, 2007
My fiancé and I walked to the restaurant from our house in Haight Ashbury. We were immediately greeted and seated and made to feel very welcome. The place is very quaint with a warm and dark date-like feel that feels like a house that was turned into a restaurant. Our waiter was extremely helpful and explained the menu really well and let us know what some of the specials of the house were. We enjoyed the fairly simple wine list, and when we asked the waiter some questions, he offered to bring us a taste of a couple wines to help us chose. We liked that, as we seem to be lushes these days. So, we just had him keep bringing tastes of the wines all night (just kidding, we only had 2). We ordered the Albarino, which is one of our favorite wines, and it was excellent. Next, we had actually decided on our food, but when we talked to the waiter, he changed our minds with the descriptions of some of his favorites. He suggested the calamari, which was outstanding. It was lightly battered and fried and served with a trio of different sauces; it was our favorite thing we had there! He also brought out bread and butter, which was really fresh (not your average bread).
I ordered the scallops and my fiancé ordered the beef. My scallops weren’t particuarly memorable and were underseasoned in general. They were just okay! My fiancé enjoyed hers and she tends to be quite picky about red meat, so if nothing else, I was happy that she was happy and wasn’t complaining. I think they cooked it exactly the way she had asked, which is the key for her.
The service was really outstanding the whole night. Unfortunately the service was better than the food was. We had the sundae for dessert and it was great. It has been on their menu for the entire 20-30 years they have been opened and I can see why. The warm chocolate on the bottom was perfect and gooey. Overall, we thought it was just okay. We wanted to like it more, as it is easy enough to get in and it is a charming spot. We liked the service but weren’t overly excited with our entrees. We spent the same money there as at Marché Aux Fleurs, and it is nowhere even close to the same quality and complexity of food, wine, and service.
Occupation: Partner in Green Public Relations Firm
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Baladie Gourmet Cafe
Reviewed Sumi: Wednesday July 25, 2007
Sumi is an intimate neighborhood restaurant featuring perhaps both the best and the worst of the Castro. There I had one soul-searingly delicious dish and significantly less successful versions of Japanese homestyle and California comfort cuisine.
The evening started out with easily the worst parking experience of life. A Castro resident intentionally drove his car within millimeters of my right thigh to physically push me (we’re talking car vs. human flesh) out of a parking space that I was saving for my disabled husband, I’d say don’t visit here unless you take public transport or own a Vespa.
What I liked best about Sumi was the indelible presence of Sumi herself. She greeted me at the door and showed me to a quiet table, murmuring that it should be quiet she hoped (I’d requested a quiet spot on Open Table), and remained an unassuming, yet authoritative presence throughout the evening. She seemed tired, as I would be had I run a restaurant for as many years as has she. I made several attempts to engage with her via our server, but with no luck. I am quite sure that neighborhood denizens are treated like family in her restaurant.
I found the physical environment of the restaurant a sincere reflection of the menu. The room was small, reminiscent of an old Japanese farmhouse: dark beams, low hanging lights, carefully chosen art in subtle, earthy colors, and a layout that allowed for almost private corners, without feeling cluttered — a personal blend of Eastern design sensibilities with western touches. It did remind me of a Japanese farmhouse that would not have a dedicated dining space, but a room that could be used for many things. Perhaps it is. Unfortunate to be inside in a cozy dark space on a blazing hot summer evening, however. I imagine the space is warm and insulating on a fog-wrapped night. In the heat, it was almost stuffy. Also, the dinnerware was a missed opportunity. Japanese yakimono (it means “fired things,” as in fired in a kiln in this case!) is central to the experience of eating. No trace of it here, although due to the heat, we did not order tea, which might have allowed us at least a glimpse of fabulously understated tea ware.
Our server confessed to being quite hot in his opening words to us. Unfortunately, that set the tone for the evening, as his performance was more about him than it was about us. To be charitable, I did live in Japan for several years on several different occasions. In fact, my palate awakened there at the very impressionable age of sixteen, so I am quite familiar with Japanese cuisine in its myriad interpretations. I am also an eco-warrior, but first a gastronome. Our server consistently failed to deliver correct information about the food and the beverages, and in fact, on at least two occasions even delivered completely incorrect information with utter confidence. That almost ruined the dining experience for me. I stopped asking any questions because the answers were so ridiculous that I couldn’t hide my embarrassment for him. Suffice it to say that Okunomatsu does not mean “holy water” in Japanese. It is a sake brewery of venerable tradition and excellence established in the 1700s in Fukushima province, and the word translates as “behind the pine tree.” Nor is monkfish an endangered species, eco-friendly. Granted, the NOAA said just this week that East Coast monkfish might be OK, but the Monterey Bay Aquarium scientists still disagree. Somehow I don’t think this server is hip to that dialogue.
He was handsome, however. And he paced the meal reasonably well.
What saved the evening was one dish: the miso-glazed roast chicken breast. The miso sauce transported me right back to my Japanese (culinary) mother’s kitchen table; it was perfectly balanced with the deep, salty, umami-in-a-nutshell tones that only a flawlessly executed miso sauce can aspire to. None of that too sweet, too heavy, too-miso-ey miso that we’re so often subjected to. No, the real Sumi was present in her miso glaze. The chicken was moist and perfect. I rarely order chicken in restaurants, as I don’t like “palate for sauce” props. Oh, but this sauce. I actually licked the plate, and had difficulty sharing with my husband, whom I adore beyond reason and deserves only the best bits life has to offer. Not more than one bite for him, sorry. Accompaniments were a vegetable stir fry of chard, shiitake, carrot, and perhaps burdock; fresh and lively with the living breath of the wok. Thank you, Sumi, for that chicken with miso glaze. Fusion, correct interpretation of a classis — never mind. It could have been from Bora-Bora for all I cared. It was an exemplary sauce.
The rest of the food, I’m sorry to say — never mind. We ordered an ahi tartare that was undistinguished. It wasn’t wrong, but it wasn’t anything in particular either. We both prefer fish to meat, but there was not one sustainable fish item on the menu, at least that the server could identify without fabricating a ridiculously elaborate falsity. My husband ordered the rack of lamb at the server’s suggestion. It was comforting and properly rare-to-medium, but again entirely undistinguished. For dessert, sorbet was the only option. How can you go wrong with a trio of fresh fruit sorbets? When the green apple sorbet is crystallized, the peach chardonnay is cloying, and the blackberry cassis has to carry the whole thing. I was surprised to see an ice cream sundae on the menu, and played with the flavors of eating that after the miso chicken. Nope.
The restaurant had other charming touches, such as the bathroom décor. When you go there for the miso chicken, and you will, do visit the bathroom. Look up at the ceiling. It is beautiful. Then go back to your chicken.