By Anne McMullin
The Richmond District’s Kabuto Restaurant has been serving Japanese food to Bay Area residents since 1982. Current owner Eric Cho, who came to the United States from Korea in 1987 to study, purchased the restaurant in 2005 when the original owners retired.
Cho had worked in the restaurant industry for a number of years by then and he had discovered that he loved making sushi. When he took over the Geary Boulevard establishment, he kept the original name of the restaurant (“kabuto” is a type of helmet worn by ancient Japanese warriors) but slowly began to add more experimental Japanese dishes to the traditional menu.
Today, Kabuto’s menu is extensive. In addition to the more familiar yellow tail, salmon, and fatty tuna, they also feature barracuda, pencil fish, Spanish mackerel, sea bream, ocean trout, fluke and dozens of other fish and shellfish, depending on what is fresh and available.
Fish is ordered from wholesale seafood distributors every night and is delivered fresh the next day. Ordering fish for a Japanese restaurant is challenging, Cho shares, as you can only order small quantities since everything must be consumed the same day it is received.
Cho said the Bay Area has a lot of adventurous eaters that appreciate raw fish, but there are also plenty of cooked fish and meat options on the menu. Kabuto also has a lot of vegetarian choices, including pickled vegetables, grilled eggplant, vegetable tempura, seaweed salad and chawan mushi, a steamed Japanese egg custard.
Cho is always listening to his customers, checking out what other restaurants are doing and looking for new trends. He said that he strives to maintain a balance between keeping his many long-term clients satisfied, while also attracting new customers. He gives careful thought to his menu and may not add a particular new item until he carefully considers it for several months.
Kabuto has a number of unique “signature sushi” dishes on its menu, including the 1849 Oyster, made up of fresh oyster, sea urchin, marinated salmon row and a quail egg; seared Maine lobster with spicy sauce; and Sonoma duck, served barbecued with a Japanese spicy custard.
“When I make a dish and I see one of my customers really enjoying it, it makes me so happy,” Cho said.
Kabuto occupies a cozy space that seats 31 people, counting the tables and the seating at the sushi bar. Cho shared that his chef of 16 years, Shaw, painted the large Japanese calligraphy sign that dominates the wall above the sushi bar. The characters spell the word “rhythm” since, “everything has a rhythm … life, cooking, making sushi.” Cho said it is not surprising that his sushi chef is artistic, explaining that most good chefs are typically quite artistic since a great deal of emphasis is placed on presentation.
While he stressed that the fish and other fresh ingredients are the “main stars” of his dishes, a lot of care is given to creating dishes that not only taste delicious, but also look like a culinary work of art.
In addition to ordering from the regular menu, Kabuto customers can choose to order “omakase.” The word “omakase” means to “entrust” in Japanese and in its truest form, diners take a seat at the sushi counter and give the chef complete creative freedom to make what they want for them. The chef will typically take into consideration what they know about the patron’s tastes and preferences, as well as what fish are available.
Cho said that the popular documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, that profiled a famous Tokyo sushi master, helped to introduce American audiences to the concept of omakase.
Many Japanese restaurants in the Bay Area, including Kabuto, now also feature a set omakase menu, similar to a “Prix Fixe” menu, offering diners a sampling of dishes for a set price. Kabuto’s current omakase menu includes soup, sake, appetizers, five piece seasonal nigiri, a warm dish, four Kabuto signature sushi, chawan mushi and dessert.
Diner Chelsea, who was celebrating her 23rd birthday with a group of friends, raved about the omakase pre-set menu, describing it as, “one of the best meals I’ve ever had.” She was particularly impressed with the toro caviar truffle sushi, which is garnished with a piece of gold leaf. The group had driven up from San Mateo and she said, “We only wish we’d discovered this great birthday spot sooner!”.
Kabuto is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5:30-10:30 p.m., and Sundays 5-9:30 p.m. The restaurant is closed on Mondays. Dinner reservations are available.
Kabuto is located at 5121 Geary Blvd., at 15th Avenue. Phone: (415) 752-5652. For menus and more information, visit www.kabutosf.com.