Review: Innovative Japanese dining with a California twist

The yin-yang synergy of Hime, a new world izakaya — a Japanese pub — starts outside on the sidewalk in front of a giant Buddha that gazes serenely at six lanes of Lombard Street traffic. Those of us who have driven past this location for 30 years dimly recall that this 1950s-style ranch house used to be a coffee shop and pie bakery.

Now, Hime’s interior — antique wood, bamboo, shimmering orange and yellow window covering, leather chairs, Japanese chests — glows mysteriously in soft, low light.

I went to Hime with a culinary purist who vowed never to come back. This is not a traditional Japanese restaurant. In fact, the only Japanese I saw on my visits happened to be cooks with extraordinary asymmetrical haircuts and rakish bandanas who all move with lightning speed behind the counter. They call out as you walk by, but it is their cooking that calls to me — an uninhibited mix of Japanese ingredients and California invention.

The signature dish is jalapeño sashimi, either made with hamachi ($8.80) or maguro ($8.80), shaved slices of hot green chile and ample olive oil, soy sauce and scallion. Too hot and oily to pass for Japanese, this sashimi is nonetheless irresistible. I don’t go here without ordering it.

The hot section of the menu holds the most treasures, such as beef and potato croquette ($4), creamy inside, crisp outside; and tsukune ($3.50), little grilled chicken meatballs which you dip into a poached egg as a sauce.

My readers know that I’m a sucker for tongue, in this case thin slices of grilled tongue ($7.50), salty and very peppery with a pile of undressed baby greens, a terrific combination.

After a week of eating okonomiyaki in Osaka — that city’s iconic street food — I had to try one at Hime, where this savory pancake was soft, full of shredded cabbage, topped with smoky flying fish roe and drizzled with Worcestershire sauce and a dab of Japanese mayonnaise ($8). Everything mushed together in just the right comfort-foody way.

From the cold section, try kobe-style beef tataki ($9), little piles of hand sliced beef tartare with the aromatic crunch of garlic chips.

Gomae ($4), cold cooked spinach, gets a creamy sesame dressing, almost like tahini. I loved it. The purist turned up her nose.

The cooks create many sushi rolls, both classic and innovative. My two favorites are the Jennifer roll ($9.95): eel, hamachi and sushi rice encased in elegant green ribbons of avocado brushed with teriyaki; and the dramatic Yakuza roll — tuna, salmon and hamachi wrapped in seaweed, then radish sprouts, avocado and flying fish roe, then sushi rice, more tobiko and gold-leaf garnish. Can you taste each fish? No, but the effect is sumptuous.

For dessert, vanilla ice cream sauced with thick, creamy, bitter green tea that forms a green crust as it chills ($6.50) is radical and exciting.

I go here to drink sake because of Hime’s excellent selection and generous, overflowing pours. A glass of a light, fragrant Kubota ($12), an elegant daiginjo, is my cup of tea.

What’s so endearing about Hime is the check — amazingly reasonable for a meal of so many lively dishes, smartly presented, easily shared and fun to eat. If the traditionalists don’t approve, that only leaves more room for me.

Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

Hime

» Location: 2353 Lombard St., San Francisco

» Contact: (415) 931-7900 or www.himerestaurant.com

» Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

» Price range: $7 to $14

» Recommended dishes: Okonomiyaki, Kobe beef tataki, maguro or hamachi jalapeño sashimi, seafood gyoza, beef croquette, Yakuza roll, ice cream with green tea

» Credit cards: All major

» Reservations: Accepted

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