Chef David Yoshimura’s thoughtful and moving take on Japanese home cooking, transformed into a series of finely composed, richly flavored dishes at his year-old restaurant Russian Hill niseifor a memorable dining experience.
A former two-Michelin-star Californios chef, Chef Yoshimura made his Nisei debut amid the summer 2021 pandemic. The nine-course tasting menu ($198) takes diners on a journey through the flavors of rustic cuisine. Japan – the balanced, seasonal and traditional cooking style known as Washoku. You’re likely to look for some kind of raw fish item on the menu, but sashimi and nigiri aren’t the stars here.
Instead, some flavors familiar to omakase fiends arrive in different forms — like a small Maine scallop amuse-bouche rendered in cooked, almost raw, and dried form; or ankimo (monkfish liver) in pâté served on raspberry milk bread.
The “main” meat dishes on the most recent menu featured Yoshimura’s simple version of Japanese curry – here with breaded and fried slices of squab breast – and a final comforting savory dish of tender unagi (eel) with rice and some furikake.
The highlight of the meal, for me, was a soup course which came early on the menu – listed only as “Suppon. negi, mochi” – with negi being Japanese green onions. The umami rich broth, with at first I thought it was beef, was like the perfect winter warming bowl. And as Chef Yoshimura would reveal, this is actually his take on turtle stew – the rich turtle soup found these days mostly in New Orleans, but versions of which are also popular in Asia. (One of Chef Corey Lee’s first three-star Michelin Benu menus, circa 2010, featured a “snapping turtle velouté” that diners raved about, and New Jumbo Seafood Restaurant in the Outer Sunset makes turtle soup for banquet menus.)
“Although terrapin stew is not something I grew up with, turtles are still a very popular ingredient in Japan and throughout Asia; they are also something that is still widely used in restaurants in New Orleans today,” Yoshimura tells us.
“Nisei’s concept is to showcase the marriage of Japanese and American cuisine, which is exactly what I was hoping to do with this dish,” Yoshimura says. “I wanted to show that terrapin, although considered an exotic ingredient, is more accessible than guests might think. I was inspired by my time in Kohaku, where I first learned how to make suppon. The dish I am currently serving prepares the terrapin in a very simple way to show guests the flavor of the turtle and nothing else.The stew is then topped with mochi and negi as a nod to another popular soup called Ozoni. Guests have been very receptive to this dish so far and I hope to be able to introduce more unique ingredients as the menu continues to evolve.”
Despite multiple surprises and delicious bites throughout the meal, this stew was the kind of thing I still thought about when I went to bed and longed to taste again the next day – a food memory that I don’t won’t shake very easily or soon. And while I had an excellent terrapin stew in New Orleans, this version is more refined and more deeply flavored than anything I remember.
Terrapin’s stew was a popular 19th century American delicacy and a prized dinner for gold rush-era settlers in San Francisco – so much so that demand for it may have led to overfishing by ships traveling up the Pacific coast. A ancient history of San Francisco restaurant tradition had several downtown locations sharing the same live sea turtle to trot out to guests as turtle stocks dwindled – while cooks in the kitchen offered substitutes for fake turtle stew or “turtle soup green”, as it was also often called.
Nisei’s version is good enough to help a modern palate understand what all those prospectors were asking for.
nisei – 2316 Polk Street – Find reservations here.
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