The pandemic hit Bernal Heights hard, knocking out restaurants and small businesses one by one.
Among the casualties was the longtime neighborhood staple Ichi Sushi, a postage stamp-sized omakase joint. Now, a new restaurant has risen from Ichi's ashes, one that is both familiar and distinctive with its former chef de cuisine, Erik Aplin, at the helm.
With just eight seats at the bar and 14 in the dining room, Chisai Sushi Club is intimate. There's a wooden bar, ocean-blue walls, and a single painting of the long gone Victorian-era Cliff House at Ocean Beach. But there's no sense of exclusivity here. Chisai is a neighborhood cafe, a tiny ecosystem of friendly staff, good music, and unpretentious diners. But its food? That's something special.
Chef/owner Erik Aplin, former Ichi Sushi chef de cuisine, has revived the old space as Chisai Sushi Club.(Marc Fiorito, Gamma Nine Photography)
At our table, nestled into corner windows hung with blue drapes, I feel at home—and that's by design. It's part of why chef/owner Aplin called his first solo effort a "club." He wants you to feel welcomed, like you're a part of something good. Nearly every chef calls their team a family but this one really is. Around 75 percent are veterans from Ichi, including Aplin's wife, who he met on his first go-around behind this sushi bar back in the mid-2010s. Most of those who remain worked with Aplin during his later stints at restaurants like Robin and Akiko's.
"It's not just a special occasion place," Aplin tells me. He's set his omakase tastings at a reasonable-for-SF prices: $80 for the 13-course "chisai," $110 for the 17-course "oki" and $65 for the 12-course vegetarian "yasai." Any higher and he'd price out family and friends, the ones he knows and the ones he hasn't met yet.
The business of dinner begins with a stripped down drinks menu. Aplin recommends a sake from the twice James Beard–nominated Oakland brewery Den Sake, with effervescent aromas of orange blossom and nectarine and undertones of caramel. We try a second style too, a lightly sweet, estate-grown and bottled ginjo from Marumoto Brewery in Japan. It's our server's favorite.
A parade of omakase follows. There are fresh raw oysters topped with earthy, mushroomy snail—yes snail—caviar and Aplin's take on the classic San Francisco crab louie, made with Dungeness and miso-cured egg yolk. Then, plates of nigiri file out from behind the bar one after another like fishy little soldiers. Each is simply but thoughtfully prepared with a dab of sauce or a light glaze to enhance the exquisite natural flavor of the raw fish: buttery fluke with finger lime, slightly seared king salmon with miso butter, fatty tuna with truffle. It may be a cliché but it is not an exaggeration to say that each is so fresh and so light that it literally melts in my mouth.
I'm skeptical when raw mackerel combined with sweet mustard and dill lands on the table, an homage to Aplin's half-Norwegian heritage. But the intense fishiness I associate with the Scandinavian staple never comes. The nigiri is unexpectedly bright, slightly sweet with an herbaceous backbone, and undeniably fantastic.
Besides the omakase tastings, Chisai has around half a dozen supplementary dishes to add on to your meal, including an uni carbonara with udon noodles, uni cream, bacon and sea urchin; and several hand rolls, including the seafood tower, which is made with scallop, uni, ikura, and nori butter. Eventually, Aplin expects to offer more a la carte options.
At meal's end, pastry chef Lola Testu brings out dessert: lemon yuzu ice cream with a sweet fish-shaped cornmeal cake filled with huckleberries. It's a delightful, palate-cleansing punctuation mark on a meal worth far more than its asking price.
Chisai is exactly the inclusive, approachable sushi club San Francisco needs—and I'm its newest card carrying member.
// Chisai Sushi Club, 3369 Mission St (Bernal Heights), chisaisushiclub.com
The intimate interior at Chisai Sushi Club, formerly the beloved Ichi Sushi, feels familiar—like home.(Marc Fiorito, Gamma Nine Photography)