In recent years, a new wave of young, up-and-coming Asian-American cooks have come into their own to bring us a new take on Asian fusion. Sometimes it’s a mix of American suburbia and Filipino food (sisig nachos). Or ramen gets fanciful with tortilla chips and jalapenos. At the Ramen shop, Japanese food receives a high, experimental dose of California cuisine’s ethos, with its shoyu Meyer lemon ramen.
While many of these places have a fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants, experimental and playful vibe, few offer a sense of mature restraint as does Izakaya Rintaro, the new Cal-Japanese restaurant that recently took over Chez Spencer’s spot in the Mission.
Rintaro has been years in the making. Chef-owner Sylvan Brackett, who grew up in California in a family with a strong sense of its Japanese heritage, has been cultivating his approach to Japanese food since leaving Chez Panisse, where he spent many years as an assistant to Alice Waters.
At Peko Peko, Brackett's Oakland-based catering business, locally-grown ume (Japanese plum) was sourced to make pickled plums and umeshu. Other traditional Japanese comfort foods were translated for palates well-versed in the pure minimalist flavors often found in California cooking.
The translation works very well. At Rintaro, Brackett's first restaurant venture, simplicity isn’t boring.
The hitokuchi oden, a dish of simmered cod cake, egg and daikon, is a take on a common street fare. But gone is the textureless slice of fishcake. In its place is a flaky, chewy, savory and decidedly un-fishy version, made from scratch. Accompaniments — a chunky but tender piece of daikon infused with broth, a farm egg and a pouch of tofu with a slice of mochi inside for a bit of chew and sweetness — are an assortment of comforting contrasts.
Equally delicious — and interesting to eat — is the whole, crispy fried petrale sole, doused with a soy and mirin sauce and a generous dollop of freshly grated daikon to cut the oil. Its coating is light and tender, and one can taste the salt – without it tasting salty. If you’re brave, you can eat all the bones, some of which crumble in the mouth. It is a wonderful dish to linger over with a friend.
It seemed, on my evenings there, that anything with egg in it was ecstatically delicious. Dashiko tamago — a rolled omelet made with Kaki Farm eggs — seemed magically impregnated with a savory goodness that its humble looks belied.
Do not miss the keihan, a cleansing bowl of rice, rich chicken stock, shredded Riverdog Farm chicken and a bit of refreshing shiso. Another must-try: the not-too-sweet ginger chiffon cake, light with a bite of spice and extra-zesty lemon syrup.
Very little here could be called slapdash or unconsidered.
With golden-hued wooden beams, it’s a beautiful space, more elegant than trendy, though it has a youthful energy. Service is on its way to achieving a warm polish, and is refreshingly, sincerely nice — one host even apologized to me for making me wait — 40 minutes, drink in hand — on a busy Friday night.
The restarant seems to know what it wants to be. From its traditional architectural decor to its deeply-installed knowledge of local ingredients, Rintaro manages to affect a sense of timelessness – while at the same time being extremely current.
Location: 82 14th St., S.F.
Contact: (415) 589-7022, www.izakayarintaro.com
Hours: 5:30 to 11 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 5:30 p.m. to midnight Fridays-Saturdays
Recommended dishes: Simmered cod cakes ($12) crispy fried petrale sole ($25), omelet ($8.50/small), ginger chiffon cake ($9)
Reservations: Not currently accepted