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Chotto vs Izakaya Sozai. Also other current SF Izakaya thoughts?

I have my SF favorites for Japanese (Kappou Goumi, Kiss, Sushi Time, Ino, Nihon Whiskey Lounge, and Yume across the bridge. I even like Juban from time to time).
But a number of new Izakaya style places have opened that I have not tried.

Tonight specifically (it's a Monday so the choices are fewer, as many are closed) I'm trying to pick between Izakaya Sozai and Chotto. Has anyone been to both who would like to compare?

And generally speaking, I'm curious for thoughts on Halu, Ju-Ku and Sebo. Have not tried these. (Note, I have tried Nombe and liked it but for the price have not been tempted to return)

Thanks!

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Sebo
517 Hayes St, San Francisco, CA 94102

Sushi Time
2275 Market St, San Francisco, CA 94114

Halu
312 8th Ave, San Francisco, CA 94118

Ino Restaurant
25 Miller Ave, Mill Valley, CA 94941

Nombe
2491 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110

Izakaya Sozai
1500 Irving St, San Francisco, CA 94122

Chotto
3317 Steiner St, San Francisco, CA 94123

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  1. Halu is more downscale than most of the others but may also be the most authentic in terms of capturing the izakaya vibe (never been to Japan but my understanding is that izakayas are supposed to be inexpensive, casual places to drink and eat bar food).

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    Halu
    312 8th Ave, San Francisco, CA 94118

    1. Where'd you end up?

      Of your favorites, I've been to Kappou Gomi, Kiss Sea Food and Ino, although not for several years to the latter, and enjoyed each one greatly. Bear in mind that izakaya style is pub grub and not as refined in flavor or presentation the above.

      I've tried Nombe and was not much of a fan other than for vegetables, but keep in mind that the original chef has gone and the kitchen is on the third iteration now. So it might be different if you haven't been there recently. I didn't care for Chotto --- too heavy a hand with sauce and clashing flavors. Did not like Hecho either.

      At Halu, the only other thing I've had besides ramen is the spinach with sesame and that little dish is great. I keep meaning to go back, and yes, I agree with bigwheel 042 that it has the izakaya atmosphere. I've sampled the izakaya menu at Sebo three times and it is excellent and very authentic rather than geared to Western tastes. Unlike at Chotto and Nombe, when I eat at Sebo, I'm not wishing that I were at one of the many long time izakayas in the South Bay (despite Michael Bauer saying they're a new trend) that I've enjoyed over the years. At 2G Japanese Brasserie I've only had a lunch plate and haven't returned for dinner and izakaya specialties.

      Haven't been to Ju Ku, Sozai or Nojo yet,

      -----
      Sebo
      517 Hayes St, San Francisco, CA 94102

      Halu
      312 8th Ave, San Francisco, CA 94118

      Kappou Gomi
      5524 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94121

      Ino Restaurant
      25 Miller Ave, Mill Valley, CA 94941

      Nombe
      2491 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110

      Chotto
      3317 Steiner St, San Francisco, CA 94123

      Izakaya Ju-Ku
      1801 Clement St, San Francisco, CA 94121

      Nojo
      231 Franklin St, San Francisco, CA 94102

      2G Japanese Brasserie
      601 Van Ness Ave, San Francisco, CA 94102

      1. Hope you ended up at Sozai, I didn't care for Chotto, like Melanie. I felt it was rather bland and too refined of an atmosphere for an izakaya. Sozai is really consistent with their grilling, has an extensive menu, and a cozy izakaya feel. Some of my favorite dishes have been the fried chicken cartilage (ask for yuzu kosho), raw octopus marinated with kimchi, pork jowl and chicken skin yakitori, and takoyaki, to name a few.

        I enjoyed Halu's spicy ramen (mostly the depth of the broth) and ambiance, but they tend to use the same sauce on their yakitori, so you should specify what you want on each order. Keep in mind, it's a really small space and their service is on the slow side.

        -----
        Halu
        312 8th Ave, San Francisco, CA 94118

        Chotto
        3317 Steiner St, San Francisco, CA 94123

        1. I think Oyaji is better than both Chotto and Sozai. Sozai has better food than Chotto but there is something about the decor that is decidedly un-izakaya-like. Chotto did try to be a bit more inventive with their dishes which was nice.

          I went to Nombe late last year and it must have been right when the new head chef arrived because it was absolutely horrible. I felt like sending back half the dishes.

          Oyaji has more of an informal feel and the owner is kind of crazy (in a good way).

          Halu is okay but I think of it as more of a place to get a quick bowl of ramen. I don't think of it having an izakaya atmosphere as much as a small mom-and-pop atmosphere. The people there are friendly.

          Sebo is great but it is also way more expensive than all the other restaurants listed.

          If you don't mind making an exception to venture out to Berkeley, you might want to try Ippuku - especially if you like shochu. I think it is better than all the other places mentioned.

          -----
          Oyaji Restaurant
          3123 Clement St, San Francisco, CA 94121

          Sebo
          517 Hayes St, San Francisco, CA 94102

          Halu
          312 8th Ave, San Francisco, CA 94118

          Nombe
          2491 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110

          Ippuku
          2130 Center St, Berkeley, CA 94704

          Chotto
          3317 Steiner St, San Francisco, CA 94123

          2 Replies
          1. re: ikb

            Sebo's izakaya menu is not expensive and less than many spots. Agreed that the sushi there is higher than average, but not so for the izakaya items. You can view a sample menu online.
            http://sebosf.com/site/menu_files/iza...

            At Hecho, Nombe, and Chotto, I've felt like I was ripped off vs. what I'm accustomed to paying in the South Bay for better quality (at Gochi, Dohatsuten, Tanto, Dan, Yume-ya, Saizo, Gaku, Sumiya, etc.). That hasn't happened to me at Sebo.

            -----
            Sebo
            517 Hayes St, San Francisco, CA 94102

            Hecho
            185 Sutter St, San Francisco, CA 94108

            1. re: Melanie Wong

              Just looked at the Sebo link. While not super expensive, the prices still seem higher than at other Izakaya. Of course, I don't know the serving size. But, now I'm prepared to pay more when I hit the places you said were more expensive.

              For comparison, almost all individual orders at JuKu are under $5.

              -----
              Sebo
              517 Hayes St, San Francisco, CA 94102

              Izakaya Restaurant
              1335 N 1st St, San Jose, CA 95112

          2. The choice was made for us, as it turns out that Sozai was closed last night.
            So we went to Chotto, which I really enjoyed.
            I will now be wanted to try the others (Sozai, Halu, Sebo, and Ju-ku) for comparison.
            :-)

            The atmosphere and decor were kind of what I expected. Loungy and more upscale than you might expect in an Izakaya. But very pretty, and I have a couple of out-of-towners in mind to bring here because the vibe is loungey, one of my favorite types of place.

            Note that I generally avoid marina-style crowds and so going on a Monday or Tuesday was key; don't think I would try this place on the weekend. As it was, the place was quiet and really enjoyable.

            Also, the staff was really really nice. Two servers and the woman who seated us were both terrific. Helpful, nice, and fun.

            But of course, it's the food and drink that will get me back there.
            Again, I can't yet compare to the others, but absent of that, I know this place is plenty good enough that I'll return, and look forward to it.

            First off, the sake list is pretty limited, but it's a good one, and to my mind, not overpriced. Nothing galls me more that when they triple or quadruple sake prices over what you'd pay at, say, True Sake (I walked out of O Izakaya without ordering because their sake was so overpriced). The couple of sakes they had for which I knew the 'real' price seemed to be about doubled, which is fair/proper in my mind for a restaurant.
            We had a carafe each of the Dewazakura Omachi (fantastic!) and the Maegaki Mu (very good, though I prefer the other). They also had one of my all-time favorites, Dewazakura Oka, which we did not get to. There were a couple of others on there I'd like to try. But I do wish they'd add 5-10 more to the list, maybe get a couple of seasonal Nama sakes in there.

            The food:

            Tsukemono -- fantastic -- these were homemade and delicious. Always a good sign

            Maguro yukke (tuna tartare cubes w/egg, chips) -- solidly good, not great. Fresh, but nothing notable.

            Uni Hotate -- fantastic - sliced of scallop sandwiching uni with other tasty flavors. Prettily adorned with radish and shiso sprouts on the plate. Can't wait to have this again. A highlight

            Kanisu - crab sunomono. High quality crab, a nice dish

            hatake salada -- crazy almost french style salad with frisee, bacon, poached egg. I loved this

            Korokke -- shrimp/crab croquettes -- great

            agedashi tofu -- not so good. I've had better many places, and made it better myself (oh snap!)

            ika sugata -- whole sliced grilled squid, with sauce made from innards. Love love love. Delicious

            saba - grilled spanish mackerel. Our neighbors gave us a bite. This was as good as mackerel gets, I loved it and will order it next time

            okonomiyaki -- big disappointment. Everything else was so good, and we saved this for last, because I do love this dish and have not found a really good on in SF yet. I don't know what was wrong, it just didn't hit the mark. All the ingredients were fresh, it was lovingly prepared, but it just didn't taste like what I was craving. I don't know how to make it so I can't say what was wrong.

            But next time I'll end with other things. There were many dishes we wanted to try but did not have room for.

            Overall I give this place a pretty high rating, and would definitely recommend.
            Though I'd say be like us and go on an early weekday! I'm scared of what that place must be like on a Saturday night.

            4 Replies
            1. re: pauliface

              Yes, avoid O Izakaya. It's seriously a waste of money. After chef Nick Balla left many years ago the food has been really subpar and overpriced. Chef Balla then moved to Nombe, and I liked the food there. He left Nombe this year to make Eastern European food at Bar Tartine. I haven't tried the food under Chef Schofield (already left) or owner Mari Takahashi.

              Sebo can be long drawn out dinner because the 2 American sushi chefs are normally concentrated on the omakase meals for those seated at the counter. In the past the izakaya menu was limited to Sundays (see Melanie's comments), but in April they added a selection of 7-10 small cooked dishes.

              Halu is tiny, so get there early. But sometimes coming early means that some prep work is not ready yet. And when it gets busy they have trouble keeping up with orders. The ramen is average. They have good yakitori, and don't forget to check the blackboard of specials.

              Your list doesn't mention Ippuku in Berkeley.
              Nojo is overrated, and I haven't tried Ki yet.

              -----
              Sebo
              517 Hayes St, San Francisco, CA 94102

              O Izakaya Lounge
              1625 Post Street, San Francisco, CA 94115

              Halu
              312 8th Ave, San Francisco, CA 94118

              Izakaya Restaurant
              1335 N 1st St, San Jose, CA 95112

              Nombe
              2491 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110

              Ippuku
              2130 Center St, Berkeley, CA 94704

              Nojo
              231 Franklin St, San Francisco, CA 94102

              Ki Sushi
              540 Howard St, San Francisco, CA 94105

              1. re: pauliface

                Been in the mood to get some okonomiyaki recently. Where else have you tried. I heard some good reviews for Genki.

                Okonomiyaki seems like one of those things that should be served in a specialty place.

                Back in the 90's I thought I remembered Izumiya doing a passable job; and I thought I recalled teppan tabletops there. But they clearly don't have those now. Perhaps my mind is playing tricks.

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                Izumiya
                1581 Webster St Ste 270, San Francisco, CA 94115

                1. re: jman1

                  I have had okonomiyaki at Izumiya recently, and it was pretty good (although not much else was, esp the service).

                  -----
                  Izumiya
                  1581 Webster St Ste 270, San Francisco, CA 94115

                  1. re: Windy

                    yeah, Izumiya's is okay, and definitely better than chotto. But it's good, not great.

                    -----
                    Izumiya
                    1581 Webster St Ste 270, San Francisco, CA 94115

              2. We are currently relatively spoiled for choices (after years of neglect). I'm eager to see how we measure up to the NY market the next time some of my Japanese friends visit from the East Coast. Note: not trying to compete with Japan.

                I've fallen way behind and haven't been to a bunch of the new places; especially the higher end, new places with woody/hip interior design (perhaps a reaction to Hime which had good food, but didn't last).

                I've always found Oyaji to be good, but not great. Maybe the menu isn't quite focused enough. I found the atmosphere at Nombe to be uncomfortable and the food didn't measure up given their pretensions; might be different with a new chef. O Izakaya doesn't serve good food; but the drinks are fine. Haven't been to Hana Zen in years (things got really shabby about 6 years ago and stopped; was better when they were part of a Japanese chain). The Izakaya type offerings at Tanuki are alright and they throw in a sushi bar too (like Oyajii) if you want to mix offerings. Sawaii as decent izakya type offerings at a reasonable price point (and good sushi too); a good addition to the mid-Sunset. Atmosphere isn't so great for a night of drinking with the buds.

                I have recently been visiting Ju-Ku. Very simple and casual; no pretensions. The friend (kushiage) offerings are good as are some of the other menu items. Kushiyaki is alright, but not great. Friendly owner (used to work at Oyaji I understand).

                Current favorite is way down in Los Altos, Sumika Grill. Best for kushiyaki.

                I've been negligent and not yet visited Sozai (nor the more ambitious Chotto, Ippuku, Nojo). Not to mention the more old school places in San Mateo.

                Good to read all the reviews here!

                -----
                Oyaji Restaurant
                3123 Clement St, San Francisco, CA 94121

                Sumika
                236 Central Plz, Los Altos, CA 94022

                Hime
                2353 Lombard St, San Francisco, CA 94123

                Hana Zen
                115 Cyril Magnin, San Francisco, CA 94102

                Izakaya Restaurant
                1335 N 1st St, San Jose, CA 95112

                Nombe
                2491 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110

                Ippuku
                2130 Center St, Berkeley, CA 94704

                Chotto
                3317 Steiner St, San Francisco, CA 94123

                Nojo
                231 Franklin St, San Francisco, CA 94102

                1. Seems like I've had a different experience at Nombe than a lot of people. I've been going there regularly for the past year. It changed a lot in January (prices went up, portions went down, quality got erratic). We stopped going for a couple of months, but it seems to be picking back up. They've started experimenting with Kaiseki cuisine, which I'm really curious to try since it's basically the total opposite of Izakaya. There aren't many chefs outside of Japan who are truly good at Kaiseki and those who are charge an arm and a leg (for good reason though).

                  I have always enjoyed Sozai. They have takoyaki, which I love, and a fair number of dishes you don't normally see.

                  Sebo is also fantastic. There's less izakaya than most places, but it's vey good and true to the Japanese palette. The sushi is absolutely amazing.

                  I tried Nojo recently and was less than impressed. It felt superficially Japanese to me somehow. I'm going to give it another chance because I don't think a single mediocre experience can tell the whole story, but I had a hard to reconciling the reviews it has been getting with my own experience. They did have an uni and okra chawanmushi, which is regret not ordering.

                  -----
                  Sebo
                  517 Hayes St, San Francisco, CA 94102

                  Nombe
                  2491 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110

                  Izakaya Sozai
                  1500 Irving St, San Francisco, CA 94122

                  Nojo
                  231 Franklin St, San Francisco, CA 94102

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: weshoke

                    I agree with you about Nojo. I went there after I ate at Chotto and I thought Chotto's flavors were better. Both had a very high-end atmosphere, but at least Chotto had more funky Japanese styling compared to Nojo's sleek, modernized look. Service great at both, but for me something was off on the flavors at Nojo. I did order the chawanmushi, which on that night was summer tomatoes and okra, and I liked the custard texture but didn't enjoy the tomato tartness in the mixture.

                    Photos from Nojo dinner: http://focussnapeat.com/2011/09/13/ad...

                    There are so many izakayas now, but still I think the one that captures the flavor and vibe I think Japanese izakayas should be is Ippuku in Berkeley.

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                    Ippuku
                    2130 Center St, Berkeley, CA 94704

                    Chotto
                    3317 Steiner St, San Francisco, CA 94123

                    Nojo
                    231 Franklin St, San Francisco, CA 94102

                    1. re: singleguychef

                      I recently went back a second time to Nojo. I find everything there is just bland. The only good skewer that is with getting is the pork jowl. We had a Japanese waiter and since I was with my wife who speaks Japanese, we go into a detailed discussion of the menu with him. When we asked him what he liked the most and whether he liked this or that dish, he did the typical Japanese thing when they don't want to tell you what they actually think because it will be saying something negative too directly. He did say the pork jowl was the best and that was spot on. Everything else wasn't nearly as good as other spots like Nombe or Izakaya Sozai.

                      This time we ordered the chawanmushi. It was too watery. I wanted to like this place because it's only 2 blocks from home. I don't think I'll be coming back. For that neighborhood, Sebo is my goto hands down.

                      -----
                      Sebo
                      517 Hayes St, San Francisco, CA 94102

                      Nombe
                      2491 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110

                      Nojo
                      231 Franklin St, San Francisco, CA 94102

                  2. Update!

                    Made it to Izakaya Souzai last week.
                    Fantastic.
                    Different than Chotto. I like them both, for different reasons.
                    Souzai is more geniune, more informal, cheerier busier happier nicer.
                    Probably the food is better and the sake list is definitely much cheaper.

                    But Chotto has its charms. It has a more refined and quiiter feel, and the food is definitely great (Loved that grilled squid!)

                    I will probably go to Sozai 2 or 3 times for every 1 time I go to CHotto, but I will return to both.

                    Oh. And the uni.
                    They had uni from maine, priced at $13, on special.
                    When I buy those little flats at the market, they cost $9.
                    This was probably as much as you get in one of those flats, but it was as good as I've ever had. Fantastic Uni. And I love uni.

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: pauliface

                      I recently visited Chotto for the first time. Atmosphere was a bit less Japanese than other Izakaya, price was toward the high side and dishes where a mixture of traditional and inventive. I liked it. Seemed to be a good fit for the neighborhood. Service was friendly and Western.

                      I have a bias for Japanese / less expensive izakaya, so I surprised myself a bit. Quality of the meat in the kushiyaki was very good; all the skewers were well prepared. Quite juicy and flavorful. The inventive dishes all worked. Service at the bar was informal but attentive.

                      Price was high, but if you stop in for a drink and a hearty snack, you can get out for $40 or $50. Since it's small plates, you can control how much you eat (and drink). Looks like it would be pretty easy to spend $100 if you are a bit eater/drinker.

                      I still prefer the great charcoal chicken flavor at Sumika, but Chotto ranks as a close competitor. As the above poster says, I will probably visit the traditional places more often, but Chotto will be in my rotation (especially when visiting friends in that 'hood).

                      I haven't been to Nombe recently, but based on my experience, Chotto ranks a good bit higher.

                      -----
                      Sumika
                      236 Central Plz, Los Altos, CA 94022

                      Izakaya Restaurant
                      1335 N 1st St, San Jose, CA 95112

                      Nombe
                      2491 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110

                      Chotto
                      3317 Steiner St, San Francisco, CA 94123

                      1. re: jman1

                        Also, I should update Ju-Ku where there have recently been some changes. The gregarious manager (from Oyaji) has recently departed to pursue other opportunities. He's been replaced by a friendly Korean Japanese women who previously managed a wine bar in Japan. There was also a new waitress when I visited recently. The owner/chef is still cooking in back. I noticed that they recently added ramen to their lunch menu. It appears that business is slow overall.

                        Food is still reliable. It's good to quite good, but not great. It will provide expected Japanese flavors, but won't wow you. Think of it more as a neighborhood drinking place with good snacks. Some of the friend dishes can be a bit oily; sometimes the grilled skewers are a bit dry. But, there is more than enough good to outweigh the less good. It's friendly and the prices are low (10 skewers for $18); much less expensive than the high end places. Depends what you're looking for on a particular night.

                        -----
                        Oyaji Restaurant
                        3123 Clement St, San Francisco, CA 94121

                          1. re: pauliface

                            Depending on what you are looking for, I strongly recommend a trip down to Los Altos to visit Sumika. Tops for anything chicken related. Good grilled vegetables. And, surprisingly good deserts. Also, strong sake and sochu offerings.

                            -----
                            Sumika
                            236 Central Plz, Los Altos, CA 94022

                    2. I loved Chotto. My main reference points are Ippuku in Berkeley, Nombe (pre chef change) and a couple of yakitori joints I've been to in NY.

                      Food at Chotto was much more refined than the above. Really nuanced balance of flavors. Standouts: corn and green onion fritter perfectly fried with a lovely dashi broth. Pork belly was among the best preparations of pork belly I've had anywhere - crisp skin, melt in your mouth fat, and a pickled cabbage that served as a nice foil for the richness of the dish. Also loved the desser of sweet potato donuts with black sesame ice cream.

                      Everything we had ranged from very good to outstanding - this was one of the best meals I've had this year. I was also quite comfortable with the price. More expensive than Ippuku but so different - I'd compare the experience more to eating at a nice Italian or Californian restaurant using stellar farmers' market ingredients, in which case the price point is similar.

                      I'm not sure that Izakaya is quite the right name for this place given that it clearly has a more elegant feel in atmosphere and food than the other Izakayas I've been to. Regardless of the "authenticity" I thought the food was outstanding and will definitely be back.

                      1. Tried Chotto. Bacon mochi was awesome. Pork belly excellent. Pork jowl (which finally made me realize what the "grilled pork neck" they serve at Thai restaurants is), duck, chicken heart skewers, grilled mackerel, and agedashi all good. Wouldn't order the goma ae again. Small but good selection of sake and shochu.

                        I wouldn't go out of my way to eat there the way I would Ippuku, but it's a solid place.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          Also, the risotto was good but couldn't detect a trace of uni, so kind of pricey for a bowl of cheesy rice.