Issue 12.3: June/July 2009

Sashimi and Swing

story by Patricia Unterman
photo by Laura Plageman

When Shotaro “Sho” Kamio was honing his knives in his little restaurant in Sendai, Japan, he had no idea he was destined to become a central figure in San Francisco’s jazz scene. Then one night, his future wife walked in—a young American studying Japanese culture. A baby later, Sho and his family moved to San Francisco and helped open Ozumo, a groundbreaking Japanese restaurant and sake bar on the waterfront. Reviewers raved.

There he met Kaz Kajimura, a jazz impresario who’d started a little Japanese restaurant/nightclub in North Berkeley in 1973. He named it Yoshi’s, after his wife, who wanted a place to dance. Yoshi’s changed venues several times, eventually settling into Oakland and becoming the most important jazz club in the Bay Area; some of the best acts in the business played Yoshi’s stage: Dizzy Gillespie, Betty Carter, Max Roach, Oscar Peterson, Diana Krall.

The only thing that goes down better with jazz than absinthe, possibly, is top-notch Japanese food. Kaz recruited Sho, and in 2007 the pair opened a second location, Yoshi’s San Francisco, on the ground floor of the Fillmore Heritage Center, part of a long-simmering redevelopment project. Once the hopping center of the San Francisco music scene, the Fillmore district languished through the ’80s and ’90s. Now, after a little more than a year in business, the $10 million, 420-seat club has not only brought jazz back to the Fillmore, but its 220-seat restaurant, bar and sake lounge are among the city’s most exciting venues for inspired Japanese cooking.

For example: the roasted big eye red snapper, with crisp skin and buttery flesh, strewn with rosemary, sage and thyme; it could easily be one of the best dishes in San Francisco. Some items are best shared, like addictive battera—Japanese box-pressed sushi topped with pickled saba (mackerel). Others you want to keep for yourself, like the striking deconstructed chawan mushi with hot, smoky egg custard, sea urchin and salmon roe. Creamy sake kasu-glazed black cod comes alive with pickled shimeji mushrooms. Juicy pork ribs are a hands-down favorite on the izakaya menu. With an artisanal sake list that allows for plenty of quality tasting, who needs absinthe?

With its ravishing food and the finest jazz in the Bay Area (two shows a night, seven nights a week), Yoshi’s has put the Fillmore back on the map. HH