In the dark, walking on the sidewalk towards the restaurant, it can be easy to miss Halu's door, if not for the small bench outside, groups of folks milling about, the shoji screens covering up part of the windows, and the numerous items plastered on the door and windows - most are old concert flyers and menu pages, advertising the bill of fare; others are clearly warning notices - unless you're truly, awfully oblivious - you'd see that Halu definitely does not serve any sushi in any form, nohow, nowhere. "No Sushi Today (or Tomorrow)," the signs proclaim; and "Sushi Free Zone" just for good measure.
Halu's popularity a good sign that the lack of sushi is clearly not a problem.
To my delight, and cautious anticipation, we returned from Japan to a number of Izakayas opening in San Francisco. We loved these establishments in Japan, known for providing beer, sake and small noshing plates to their patrons. Roughly translated, the kanji for Izakaya 居酒屋 indicates sake-selling establishment (酒 - sake-ya). We already have Nombe in the Mission, Bushi-Tei Bistro and O Izakaya in Japantown, Halu in the Inner Richmond and Izakaya Sozai in our neighborhood, the Inner Sunset.* And perhaps because Izakayas are the New Big Thing, there appear to be a number of these bar-and-small-plates restaurants opening in our area over a fairly short span of time. And I of course want to check them all out. Kasumi is in the Outer Sunset on Ocean and has, thus far, received some somewhat tepid reviews. Chotto, in the Marina, is in a part of the city we don't much like to frequent. So Nojo -- in our old stomping grounds of Hayes Valley -- won out. Chef Greg Dunmore reached the Bay Area by way of Atlanta, a graduate of the CIA in Hyde Park, NY. Dubbed a rising star chef in 2006 by the SF Chronicle, he first worked at the Michelin-starred Terra with Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani who mentored him in Japanese cuisine. Sone soon asked him to become executive chef of Ame (Asian fusion at the St. Regis Hotel), where he stayed for 4 years and also earned a Michelin. After realizing he had a passion for Japanese yakitori and izakaya-style cooking, he's now opened his own Izakaya-style establishment. Nōjō, the japanese word for farm (農場), brings together this passion and reflects his commitment to small farms and seasonal ingredients. It's important to note however, that the food at Nojo seems to be distinctly Californian and heavily influenced by Japan, not the other way around.
Small note: I started this post before we left Osaka on the 29th. Since then, we've been to Takayama and Shirakawa-go where we didn't have broadband access. We're now in Kanazawa, in a little guesthouse called Minshuku Ginmatsu. We wish we had another night here but we journey to Kyoto this afternoon.
What does one do when one has just spent a somewhat stressful and bewildering wandering about of one of Osaka's wards, looking in vain for an address that does not appear to follow any rational arrangements of ordering principles? What to do when you are the lucky beneficiaries of Japanese helpfulness and generosity, in the form of a wonderful couple out on a walk back from the suupaa, complete with cute long-haired daschund puppy and armed with gentle graciousness and working mobile phones with maps? What to do when the above-mentioned angels deliver you quite efficiently to your destination, just in time for your 7:30pm yoyaku (reservation) and you awkwardly burst upon a teeny, tiny sliver of a room where there are 2 seats left at the 8-person counter and all eyes swivel towards you? And, after getting through the formal bowings and greetings to the chefs behind the counter, after you've managed to order some sake somewhat successfully, what to you when you realize that you probably can't decipher in any meaningful way the beautiful calligraphy on the hand-written menu and that the chef does not appear able to communicate back, despite his smiles and goodwill?