Chef David Yoshimura’s Nisei Restaurant Celebrates One Year In San Francisco
Last month, Nisei, located in San Francisco’s Russian Hill neighborhood, celebrated a full year in business. Formerly of Michelin-starred Californios, Chef David Yoshimura opened his debut restaurant to much acclaim. This inimitable tasting course destination pays homage to his Japanese-American heritage through washoku style Japanese cuisine, presented in modern, elevated ways.
One of the driving forces of the restaurant is Chef Yoshimura’s desire to expand diners’ expectations and understanding of what Japanese cuisine is. On the menu you won’t find traditional sushi, ramen or noodles, but rather you will find creative iterations of these foods in what he’s described as “Japanese soul food.”
“Many people think Japanese food is limited to sushi and ramen,” says Chef Yoshimura, “when in reality Japan has a rich food culture which is constantly evolving.”
Courses on his innovative one year anniversary menu included things like kabayaki grilled unagi alongside three pickled side dishes of narazuke melon, fermented carrot and pluot pickled daikon, served with furikake rice; richly marbled wagyu katsu paired with a thick black curry and chanterelles; and a multi-component course called “ichuju sansa” or “one soup, three sides” of crab shinjo, tobiko, calendula and crab soup.
As a certified sommelier, Chef Yoshimura also puts tremendous thought in to the beverage pairings as Nisei. He works alongside Nisei’s phenomenal general manager, Ian Cobb, to showcase a selection of sakes and wines that complement the menu of bold flavors that come with each of the 11 courses on any given tasting menu.
Next door is sister bar, Bar Iris, a chic bar that offers a seasonal selection of Japanese-inspired cocktails to enjoy alongside Izakaya-type snacks like crispy nigiri with smoked roe, cured trout, rice, and nori or wagyu tartare with cured jidori yolk, miso mustard, chive and lotus root. The cocktails are unique to the season and incorporate surprising ingredients. Popular drinks include the Middlechild with gin, verjus blanc and snap pea; and the seasonal special, Side Hustle, with cantaloupe, egg white and shochu.
“The vibe and atmosphere of Iris is sleek and sexy, complementing the beautiful cocktails,” says Chef Yoshimura. “Food at Iris are small riffs off of Izakaya food, a teaser to the food next door.”
We chatted with Chef David Yoshimura on the first year in business, his goals with Niesei, menu inspiration and more. Here’s what he had to say.
How has the first year in business been for Nisei?
There have been many ups and many downs this year at Nisei. Overall, we are very happy with where we are now.
Did the pandemic affect opening at all?
The first ideation of Nisei was projected to open in May of 2020. After the government shut down, I switched the concept to bento boxes until we secured our home on Polk St. We opened with a bang in August 2021, but the Omicron variant significantly slowed down business last winter.
Talk about the menu at Nisei. What's the inspiration behind it? How does it change the perception of what Japanese cuisine is?
The menu has a base in washoku style Japanese cuisine, but is presented in a modern form. People are very familiar with Traditional Japanese dishes, but when plated in a fresh rendition, it adds a refreshing change of pace This changes the guest’s perception of what Japanese cuisine is and can be.
The tasting menu at Nisei features 11 courses and a total of 20 menu items. There are caviar and wagyu supplements as well if guests are interested. We offer a wine or sake pairing, as well as a multitude of rare spirits from our bar cart.
You've expressed frustration with what people consider Japanese food. Talk about this and what you hope diners take away from a meal here.
Yes, I am frustrated with the American perception of what Japanese food is. I am in a unique position, as a Japanese American chef, possessing the opportunity to educate diners to what Japanese cuisine offers from the past and into the future. I hope diners see that Japanese American cuisine can be pushed as far as any other cuisine on the planet. This was an important lesson I learned from Val Cantu at Californios and his relationship to Mexican cuisine.
What's the process like to create your tasting menus? How has your background and childhood influenced your cuisine at Nisei?
First, we almost always rely on the seasons to guide our menu changes. Furthermore, at Nisei, I like that the creation of dishes is a collaborative effort. Usually I will speak with the cook in charge of the dish to be changed and bounce ideas off of them. After a couple renditions, trial and error, it eventually makes its way to the menu.
When I was growing up, I ate many home style Japanese dishes, like Teriyaki, Sukiyaki, or Oyakodon. I try to use these familiar flavors and dishes to recreate dishes at Nisei. And like many other chefs, I use my past kitchen experiences to guide how I prepare and plate my food to the highest degree possible.
Talk about the thoughtful wine and sake pairings and how they complement your dishes.
Ian Cobb has spearheaded our wine and sake pairings for over a year now, and has done an excellent job. I am fortunate enough to be a certified sommelier as well, so Ian and I usually try several pairings with each new dish until we find the perfect match. Ian has a lot of experience with Japanese cuisine, therefore he chooses beverages to complement a cuisine which typically is lighter in style, and leans toward seafood.
Talk a little bit about Bar Iris next door.
Bar Iris is the proud work of Ilya Romanov. Ilya creates masterful cocktails, drawing inspiration from Japanese cuisine and beverages. The beverages are deceivingly simple, but each cocktail contains an immense amount of work put into it.
Anything exciting in the works?
Nisei and Iris have evolved in the last year faster than I could have imagined. We are constantly reinvesting into the restaurant, refining ourselves to make the experience better each day.
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