by Risa Nye
Ichi Sushi’s husband-and-wife co-owners Tim and Erin Archuleta began their courtship with bubbly and bivalves back in 2004. As Erin likes to say, they fell in love over oysters. A couple of years and many oysters later, Tim and Erin launched a successful sushi catering business—which led to the opening of Ichi Sushi, now in its second location near San Francisco’s Bernal Heights.
Tim, who grew up in Sacramento, readily admits that when he was younger, he didn’t like fish at all, let alone raw fish. Today, however, as ICHI’s executive chef— following many years of apprenticeship and training— he’s producing some of the best sushi in San Francisco. But the quest for perfection never ends: to quote the revered octogenarian sushi chef Jiro (in Jiro Dreams of Sushi ), “I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top … but no one knows where the top is!”
Erin and Tim, partners who keep their at-work roles separate, created a restaurant that has garnered praise and honors from all corners: they’ve been written about in the New York Times; the San Francisco Chronicle; Edible: San Francisco; 7×7; AAA’s VIA magazine; Lonely Planet’s San Francisco, and San Francisco magazine among others. Ichi Sushi was included in the Chronicle’s Top 100 Restaurants this year, and was named one of America’s Top Restaurants in the Zagat 2013 guide and Zagat San Francisco Bay Area Guide 2013’s Top 20 Restaurants; Eater SF named Ichi Sushi one of its 38 Essential San Francisco Restaurants for the last three years; and Ichi came out on top several times in the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s Best of the Bay.
Full disclosure: I first met Erin, a transplanted Midwesterner from Flint, Michigan, during the early days of 826 Valencia— author Dave Eggers’ non-profit tutoring center/pirate supply store in the Mission District of San Francisco. Erin held the title of Director of Field Operations and Strategy, and I volunteered there as a tutor. In the intervening years, it’s been fun to follow her trajectory as the successful Bernal Heights catering business grew and became the current restaurant on Mission near 29th Street. She and Tim will soon be opening Ichi Kakiya up the street at Ichi Sushi’s original site, 3369 Mission, serving those romance-inspiring oysters (in addition to other things) with a continued focus on sustainability and the local, seasonal ingredients that Tim and Erin feel so passionately about. Sustainability and community are at the core of what Tim and Erin do. Erin is a development board member for The Center for Urban Education and Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), and is actively involved with the newly formed Mission Bernal Merchants Association.
Since Ichi Sushi first opened, I’ve been watching as the kudos accumulated. After reading one great review after another, I decided the time had come to see for myself. I contacted Erin and we set a date for the three of us to meet at the restaurant.
I arrived before the doors opened, and a small crowd had already gathered on the sidewalk. Once I got inside, the staff welcomed me (“Irasshaimase!”) as they prepared for the evening’s guests. I took a moment to study the mural on the large wall to the left, which instructs diners on the proper etiquette of eating sushi. The mural’s vivid graphics depict the do’s and don’ts of sushi consumption: eat in one bite, rice side up, no soy sauce, clean your entire plate! As Erin describes it in the “Mural Project” video on the ICHI Sushi website, the mural is intended to be “accessible and light-hearted.” As Tim puts it, the mural illustrates the way sushi and sake are consumed in Japan. Artist Erik Marinovich adds, “The illustration style is bold, simple, clean and fun, with a little wink.” And for those who are new to this type of food, the mural is friendly, instructive and playful. (Now that I understand the proper method, no more “two bites” for me.) Another wink: look below the smiling tuna for a tip on the proper place to rest your chopsticks.
We gathered at a table in the Ni Bar at the rear of the restaurant. This area is set up to provide an izakaya experience: a more casual place to gather after work for drinks, sake, small plates, and conversation—similar to the Italian tradition of aperitivo. Depending on your evening plans, the izakaya might be a good place to spend time before being seated at tables or at the sushi bar up front. The Ni space and its furnishings mirror the style of the mural: bold, simple, and fun, with that wink again—the light fixtures are composed of sake bottles. The bar menu offers an assortment of sashimi, cold plates, hot plates, skewers, and several sides. Available beverages include a trio of cocktails, a short list of wine, beer and soft drinks—and a comprehensive list of sake and shochu, a type of clear Japanese spirit that is usually distilled from barley, rice, sweet potatoes, or buckwheat. The larger omakase menu includes sushi, traditional rolls (“the gateway to sushi,” Tim says), some specialty rolls, additional hot plates, cold plates, skewers, a variety of daily specials, and beverages.
Erin says the first time she came into the space (then a market), she “knew immediately” that it would one day be the site of their restaurant. Now, she says, “It’s my sushi living room!” Once the building became available, the Archuletas and their architect transformed the space into its present format, with sushi bar and table service in front, bar seating and open kitchen in the back.
Before our tasting session began, Chef Tim asked me if there was anything I didn’t like. (No.) He then made several recommendations—my introduction to “omakase” (translated as “I’ll leave it to you” or chef’s choice). I commented on the similarity to a restaurant I went to in New Orleans, where patrons have the option of setting the menu aside and telling the server to “feed me.” (Small plates keep coming until you wave a white flag or you hit your spending limit.) Putting my trust in Tim, I began my Ichi Sushi adventure.
After a refreshing and flavorful Iceberg cocktail (Junmai sake, fennel, yuzu—a Japanese citrus— and green tea ice), our first dish was Albacore Tuna Tataki: seared albacore tuna, sudachi (another type of Japanese citrus), shallot-shiso vinaigrette, micro greens, and fried garlic. This blend of flavors—delicately balanced, textured, and beautifully presented—was an excellent way to start. Our next dish consisted of assorted sashimi: yellowtail, ocean trout, and tuna. Following Tim’s lead, I dipped each tender and deliciously fresh piece of fish into my tiny bowl of soy sauce. (Fish + soy sauce= OK; already perfectly seasoned sushi + soy sauce= not OK, as per mural instructions.)
The Miso Asari clams—a bowl of clams, ground pork, and burnt garlic kuro oil in a rich broth— came out next, and my reaction to the explosion of tastes made Tim laugh (which is actually easy to do—he laughs a lot, as does Erin). “That’s the reaction we want to our food,” he said. This dish was included in San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer’s 2014 list of Top 100 Dishes, and it would make it to my list too, if I had one. The dish is so layered and flavorful, I had to balance my eagerness to eat it with my reluctance to arrive at the final spoonful. The combination of ingredients, surprising and perfectly paired, add up to create an unforgettable taste sensation.
Our final dish was Umi Masu Iridashi: a piece of ocean trout lightly fried and placed in a bowl of well-seasoned broth. Again, a taste combination that blew me away with its delicate intensity, which may sound like an oxymoron—but I can’t think of a better way to describe it.
The environment and the food at Ichi Sushi reflect the passions, skills and personalities of the pair who created it. As chef Jiro says, “You must fall in love with your work.” It’s clear to me that the Archuletas have done just that.
Ichi Sushi + Ni Bar, 3282 Mission St, SF. www.ichisushi.com
Risa Nye lives in Oakland. Her articles and essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Monthly, Hippocampus magazine, and several anthologies. She writes about cocktails as Ms. Barstool for Nosh at berkeleyside.com and about other things at risanye.com.