Sakae in Burlingame is an elegant sake experience

Just in from Honolulu, sake importer Chris Pearce instructed me to meet him at Sakae Sushi & Grill in Burlingame, a 10-minute taxi ride from San Francisco International Airport. Pearce, the son of a Western journalist posted in Japan, speaks fluent Japanese, started World Sake Imports in Honolulu, and founded the U.S. National Sake Appraisal, the largest sake competition outside of Japan. This man lives and breathes sake. While sipping chilled artisan sake at this small, modestly decorated neighborhood place, Pearce asked the sushi chef to prepare the meal.

After little bowls of minced vegetable salad coated in seasoned mashed tofu, the chef presented an elegant platter of sashimi including exciting, crunchy/fresh shimaji (striped jack); softer but dewy sea bass; clean, tender Pacific halibut; toothsome tai snapper; and a huge, dramatic sea snail, very chewy with bright green innards that tasted like congealed sea.

Creamy steamed monkfish liver with chile-infused grated daikon earned its “foie gras” moniker. Deep fried aji (mackerel) bones — the whole skeleton cut into thin rectangular sheets — were spectacularly crispy and baconlike. Then a hearty fish-head stew with hunks of tender daikon warmed and comforted after many glasses of seductively thirst quenching sake.

Sushi, made with rice, of course, is only served after sake. Traditionally, the two are not taken together. To finish, we had lightly vinegared mackerel sushi, the acidity contrasting with the oiliness of the fish. We ended with a restorative bowl of miso soup.

This omakase meal, food chosen by the chef, flowed inevitably, like a mountain stream. The progression of textures and flavors was subtle but distinct; the quality of the raw materials high; the preparation skillful. With ample sake, it cost $160 a person including tax and service.

On a second visit with two local Japanese friends, we sat at one of a handful of tables and, for the most part, ordered ourselves starting with delightful Dewazakura Izumi Judan ($15 for an overflowing 6-ounce pour), one of those flawless ginjo sakes that you really don’t want to stop drinking.

Ankimo, steamed monkfish liver, was particularly delicate and creamy that night and I was charmed by tatami i’washi, a lacy sheet of pounded dried sardines toasted and served with sweet Japanese-style mayonnaise for dipping.

Butthe chef’s omakase sashimi plate ($60 for two) was, frankly, hit or miss; three out of six fish were lusterless.

Highlights of the meal included a fried lotus root “sandwich” filled with shrimp paste; and must-order aki nasu to aki saba no miso ae, creamy deep fried hunks of Japanese eggplant and squares of deep-fried mackerel in a salty, chunky, slightly fermented soy bean paste called moromi. It’s scrumptious and autumnal.

We ended with uninspiring sushi except for Santa Barbara uni (sea urchin roe), that was as nutty and fresh as it could be.

The bill was astoundingly high — but that was because we were charged twice for the $60 omakase sashimi, tricky to figure out from three handwritten pages stapled together. Corrected, the tab came to $100 a person.

If you want the best of Sakae, sit at the sushi bar, order sake from the heady by-the-glass list, let the chef compose the meal, and be prepared to spend at least $150. Anything less may not be worth it.

Sakae Sushi & Grill

» Location: 240 Park Road, Burlingame

» Contact: (650) 348-4064 or www.sakaesushi.com

» Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Friday; noon to 2:30 p.m. Saturday for lunch; 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday for dinner

» Price range: $100 a person with sake

» Recommended dishes: High-end sashimi and sushi ordered at the sushi bar; fried lotus root with shrimp paste; fried eggplant and mackerel with chunky miso; dried sardine “tatami,” elegant sakes by the glass

» Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express

» Reservations: Not taken later than 7 p.m.

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

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