| April 2012
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By Karen Topakian
Store Trek is a regular Voice feature profiling new stores and businesses in Noe Valley. This month, we introduce a sushi bar on 24th Street whose name in Japanese means “monkey.”
Saru Sushi owner and chef Billy Kong arrives early at his 24th Street restaurant to start preparing his fresh fish and traditional sauces. Photo by Pamela Gerard
Saru Sushi Bar
3856 24th Street near Vicksburg
When Billy Kong opened Saru Sushi Bar, he knew he didn’t want it to look like a traditional sushi restaurant.
“When the customer first walks in those restaurants, they’re kind of afraid to sit at the counter,” says Kong, who noticed this behavior while working at Sushi Sam in San Mateo and at Hotel Nikko’s Anzu Restaurant in downtown San Francisco. “I want a warm, cozy restaurant.”
Kong shed the traditional garb—a Japanese happi coat—and installed wood cabinetry to convey a less formal atmosphere. He and his fellow sushi chefs wear casual button-front shirts to let customers know they don’t need to dress up, he says.
Saru Sushi, located at 3856 24th St. in the former home of Tamasei Sushi, may have abandoned the traditional look but not the classic preparation. The restaurant makes its own ponzu, miso, fish, and unagi sauces with great devotion to detail. Kong says unagi takes 10 to 13 hours to prepare the Japanese way, and his fish marinates for two hours in the house miso sauce.
Even learning the traditional methods takes time, says Kong, who is originally from Hong Kong. While at Sushi Sam, he says he spent three months learning to make miso soup because there weren’t any written recipes. “You have to mix it by taste,” he says.
Customers won’t find chicken or beef teriyaki on the menu because Saru Sushi concentrates on the seafood. “I try to carry much more fish than other restaurants,” Kong says.
There are 40 kinds of fish and shellfish, many served in combination. The “N.V. Roll” features deep-fried prawn, eel, snow crab, and masago (capelin roe) with avocado and a sweet soy glaze ($11). For $14, you can taste a hamachi (yellowtail) truffle with truffle oil, ponzu, garlic chips, and scallions. Veggie rolls come in cucumber, avocado, asparagus, shitake, inari, pickled radish, sweet potato, and ume shiso ($5).
Appetizers, salads, soups, sashimi, nigiri, daily and weekly specials, and nine kinds of sake round out the menu.
“I’m still learning about this neighborhood, what people really want,” says Kong, who opened in Noe Valley, he says, because of its mix of young families and professionals. “Even though they like fish, what kind of fish do they like? Oily fish? Blue-skin fish?”
After eight months of renovation to fix slanted and broken floors, the restaurant now sports a stylish modern decor and seating for 24—at the sushi bar, at three small tables up front, and at a table for eight in the back room (where a painted prehistoric figure dominates the scene).
Kong didn’t expect a packed restaurant when he opened his doors on Feb. 1. “We overwhelmed ourselves with takeout,” he says. Due to the rush, Saru Sushi has stopped filling takeout orders on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights.
“We want to focus on the customers who come in,” says Kong. “We want to make sure someone who comes in enjoys it. It’s what they deserve.”
Saru Sushi does not take reservations, but you can call ahead to be put on the waiting list. The restaurant is open Tuesday through Sunday. Lunch is from noon to 2 p.m. Dinner hours are 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. (5:30 to 10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday).