Going to Ino - 1st time
Ino Sushi is a SF favorite/destination spot for classical Tokyo style nigiri sushi. They have a few cut rolls, California rolls and the like, but nothing super fancy like a customized $bux coffee. They also have miso soup with or without additional ingredients, but that is it (they don't serve teriyaki or tempura).
The chef owner Inoue-san (easier to just call him Ino-san) is not terribly chatty but will warm up to you if you show interest and appreciation in his craft. Honestly it takes a few visits to settle in comfortably and to realise what this place has to offer. If you are an experienced nigiri sushi eater and have tried a variety of fish, clams, shellfish, cooked/uncooked before (and know what your preferences are) you will enjoy it here.
Ordering omakase if you have never been here before is risky, because the owner has never met you before and doesn't know what you like, so he will give you what HE thinks is good that day, and will err on the side of caution with things that are not too exotic, but tasty nonetheless (e.g. toro, hamachi, maguro, maybe albacore tuna, a white fish). Check the menu and see what tickles your fancy, visually scan the sushi counter for the fish he has, and/or ask him what he has that's not on the menu etc (in case he mentions something you like).
You could take a litle bit of control before you request omakase, and tell him what you like in general, what you don't like (and perhaps explain why, perhaps this type of seafood/fish has a particular texture you enjoy/don't enjoy), or if you have a particular allergy/dislike of one kind (e.g. I used to hate raw squid so I said no squid before). My very first time here, I remember I ordered off the menu and a few things I asked that were not on the menu but he could customize for me (e.g. paper thin sliced hirame sashimi, which he serves with a wicked ponzu dipping sauce with green onions and minced spiced ginger)
Here are some general tips:
- Nigiri sushi already comes with wasabi dabbed on the shari (sushi rice pad) underneath the fish topping (neta). Ino-san is (in)famous for being heavy handed on wasabi, causing wasabi burns through the nasal passage for many a sushi diner. So all you need is to dip the nigiri (fish side down) on plain soy sauce (and you don't need a lot). Avoid making the wasabi and soy sauce mud bath mix (sashimi OK but don't do it for nigiri sushi). If you can't handle over the edge wasabi dabbing, it is ok to tell Ino-san "no wasabi" on nigiri sushi. He won't be offended (though he might be if you dip an already super spiced up nigiri into a mud bath). I'm not trying to be a snob here, but Ino-san is quite (in)famous in that regard of following tradition (especially amongst his fans in the Japanese community who respect that of him).
- Ino-san makes handrolls, but they are not in the shape of a cone, closer to that of a cylinder. You can have him make any hand roll you want. The best are shishamo (grilled smelt, has tons of eggs inside!), and grilled mackeral. I've even had him make one with uni and also one with ankimo before with nice results, but hamachi and toro are stellar too. If you pour some soy sauce on top, it will run through and come out the other end and there will be a mess. If you must pour some, you could use some slices of ginger to dip into the soy sauce and use that to brush the top of the handroll.
- Use soy sauce sparingly.
- Nigiri sushi is placed directly on the counter (along with ginger). Don't worry the counter is immacuately clean (ditto with the chef's workstation). This is like many places in Tokyo.
- For cut rolls that are not inside out and handrolls, Ino-san toasts the nori (seaweed) sheets, first before he makes them. You'll notice that each bite is not just crispy, but toasty. A little care by the chef really goes a long way. I've never mentioned to him how appreciative I am when he does that, but I'm sure others have told him that before.
- Don't be afraid to ask Ino-san how to best enjoy certain preparations of his. You'll definitely get more mileage that way, and also develop a good relationship for better subsequent visits. (Eating nigiri with your hands might be asking a lot, and certainly a very traditional way, but some don't like the smell of raw fishies on their fingers, understandable).
- This restaurant is small, is a husband and wife operation. If the place is packed, don't expect quick service. Be patient and I'm sure they'll appreciate it. Take your time and enjoy your meal here, they'll appreciate that too.
- Lastly, make sure you try their ankimo (monk fish liver) before you leave. Make room for it, if you love it you might end up doubling or tripling down. Start off with ankimo sushi, and if you want to spoil yourself, get a plate of ankimo (no rice).
You can also do research before you go, lots of reviews on yelp.com as well.
re: K K
last time we were at Ino, a gentleman, I would say in his 40's, was on what was clearly a first date, working to show his date what sushi was all about. Unfortunately, as they chatted, he left a piece of sushi sitting rice side down, in soy. Ino-san was clearly getting irritated watching it. knowing what was coming and after determining how I could approach this topic with the diner, I started to lean over to give a word of advise. But, too late! Ino-san, having reached his limit, snapped at him, telling him not to leave his sushi soaking in the rice. The diner took it quite well. No more sushi in the pond that night!
Saturday night's sushi feast at Ino was wonderful. Unfortunately Nick & I were delayed due to the rain. Luckily Victor and Rei held down the fort at the sushi bar until we arrived. We decided to start things off with a some sushi/sashimi deluxe meals. These were good, but nothing extraordinary.
Tuna, Salmon & Hamachi sashimi - Tuna was the best. Salmon was nice. Hamachi was ok.
Assorted Nigiri (Tako, Ikura, Shrimp, Hamachi) - The Tako was rather tender for octopus, and the Ikura was pretty memorable and something I rarely order.
Tuna maki and cucumber maki - The tuna was really good again, although a somewhat sloppy preparation. Cucumber is cucumber.
The miso soup was tastey as well. The chunks of tofu were really silken and I enjoyed them, which is unusual since I don't usually care for tofu.
This first part of our meal was puntcuated with tears and bright red faces from all four of us due to the gigantic wasabi bombs which Ino-san had laid. None of us had ever experienced such a large amount of wasabi. I love heat so wasn't that put off by it, although a few of the bites were a challenge. But I faced them accordingly.
After we had completed our deluxe meals is when the REAL meal began as far as I'm concerned. By this point we had seen Ino-san prepare quite a bit of superb looking nigiri for other diners and so we had a pretty good idea what we wanted to order.
Aji (mackeral) was amazing. Probably the best I've had. Ino-san didn't overload it with ginger and scallion like a lot of chefs do, although there was some of these adorning this most pristine nigiri.
Kampachi. Always good everywhere I've had it. Always a fav of mine. Did not dissapoint.
The Ankimo (monkfish liver) is legendary here. We ended up ordering this three times throughout our a la carte session. I had four pieces of Ankimo nigiri. Creamy, firm and amazing. Very much lived up to its reputation as foie gras of the sea. I've had this elsewhere (including Sushi Ran), but this was certainly the best I've had.
Uni were briney and delicious.
Unagi-cucumber handroll. Really loved the way Ino-san toasts the nori lightly before he makes maki or hand rolls. Plus the Unagi was perfectly warm and the definition of melt-in-your-mouth.
Chu-toro. Really really good. Beautiful pink color. Don't think I've ever had before.
Sayori (Needlefish). Rei inquired about any specials and this was one. It's her mom's favorite so we all ordered. Have never had before. A very firm, white fish, almost like squid firm-wise, but much more yielding and buttery in flavor.
Kohada. Another special. Nicely fishy. Reminds me of Dutch herring or Spanish boquerones.
Unagi. Oh my god, I don't know if I've ever eaten a more perfect piece of Unagi nigiri. Like so many things we were served that night it simply melted in my mouth.
It seemed like as we progressed into the a la carte ordering, Ino-san eased up a bit with the wasabi bombs. Maybe because we were being more daring in our order and he respected that, or possibly the items were were choosing were superior to what he had served earlier and so didn't need to be disguised by the wasabi. Or maybe we just built up a tolerance.
Either way it was a wonderful meal. I can't wait to go back for a full on Omekase exerience.