I admit I’ve developed an aversion to Japanese restaurants here after my trips to Japan. The thought of Lion Kings and dragon rolls make my stomach turn as much as orange chicken does, and there was no way I could go back after tasting some of the best dishes in Japan, from smoky eel livers to thick sweet tamagoyaki. So when I found out about Kappou Gomi, a restaurant that refuses to serve sushi rolls of any kind, I was more than excited. I dragged my mum out to San Francisco on a windy Friday evening to try it, despite knowing that we’ll suffer traffic hell because of the opening of the new Bay Bridge.
The restaurant’s quiet exteriors would make it hard to miss on the busy street of Geary. It’s decorated simply inside with dark lacquered chairs and classical paintings, with a wooden shelf behind the counter proudly holding bottles of sake. We settled down with the encyclopedia-like menu, its sections divided by ingredient, with seven to eight entries below each for a different way of cooking it. So overwhelmed was my mum that she had asked for recommendations, who was treated not so helpfully by a chubby waitress whose horrendous attitude would ruin what otherwise would have been a good dining experience. After deliberating for a while, we ordered the shungiku ohitashi (savory garland chrysanthemums), yellowtail sashimi, maguro yamakake (grated yam with tuna), hirame usuzukuri (thinly sliced flounder), anago yuba tempura (conger eel fried with tofu skin), kamo sakamushi (steamed duck with sake), horaku egg custard, and ochazuke with ikura (rice with tea broth). It may seem like a lot, but I knew the dishes would be on the smaller side and wanted to make sure we had enough.
The yellowtail sashimi came first. Each slice was thick and buttery, although a tad too cold for my taste. A few drops of soy sauce easily brought out its fresh flavors. The price is a little steep for this one; six slices for $20.
The tempura was presented beautifully, and its thin layer of batter made it a joy to eat. The natural flavor of eel easily shone through, and the yuba skin was hot and crisp. Out of all the accompanying vegetables, my favorite was the shiitake, which was super cushy and juicy. My mum did comment that there was way too much oil though.
I ordered yamakake mostly out of curiosity at the slimy texture. The richness of the egg yolk and subtle sweetness of the soy sauce dashi mixture complemented the tuna well. To my surprise, the viscous consistency of the yam didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would, although my mum jokingly compared it to snot at the most inappropriate of times.
Ohitashi is a common way to prepare vegetables for side dishes by steeping them into a dashi shoyu base, and Gomi’s version was much accomplished as a palate opener. Cold, sweet, and salty, the crunchy vegetables were a refreshing interlude from the oily tempura. While beautiful, I only wished there were more chrysanthemum petals, as this ohitashi dish had a mixture of vegetables I hadn’t expected, including celery and brussel sprouts,
The usuzukuri wasn’t as thin as I expected, but the flounder was delicious with the tangy yuzu dipping sauce. Flavor-wise, I preferred the buttery yellowtail more though.
The steamed duck was probably one of the more disappointing dishes of the night. The broth was relatively bland and the slices of duck were overcooked, making the meat a bit tough to chew. The layer of fat and skin was almost rubbery and failed to add any richness to the dish. In fact, my mum had ceased to eat this after taking one bite, which was rare for her to do since she hates wasting food.
The horaku seafood egg custard was a much better improvement. Topped generously with shrimp, scallops, and crab, this dish was my favorite of the entire night. The thick slices of kabocha absorb the sweet and salty dashi completely, and its mushy texture complemented the silky egg custard well. The translucent gingko nuts were a welcome addition, its slightly bitter taste helped to tone down the flavorful dish.
By the time our ochazuke arrived, my mum and I were seriously stuffed. Perhaps I had ordered too much after all, but the enticing bowl of golden ikura had me uncovering the rice lid anyways. Ochazuke is one of my favorite dishes, and for me, embodies the tasteful simplicity of Japanese cuisine. Mixed with sour pickled vegetables, chopped umeboshi, arare (crunchy rice crisps), and steeped in tea (in Gomi’s case, dashi broth), it’s the perfect way to end a meal. As I popped each roe in my mouth and let the salty liquid lace with the the sweet rice and sour vegetables, I am reminded of the last time I had it in Yokohama in winter, and the pang of longing for Japan hit hard again.
During the entire course of the meal, I envied all the other patrons who had a polite server, especially the older warm Japanese hostess who helpfully supplied recommendations when confronted with such a voluminous menu. Our tea was never refilled nor was our overflowing table cleared by the chubby waitress, but always by another slighter and polite Japanese girl. We had asked for the bill after we finished and waited quite patiently as the waitresses bustled around to serve the full restaurant, but when my mum politely reminded the chubby waitress a second time after waiting five minutes, she quite adamantly half-yelled back, “I’m already doing it!” I’ve never seen such bad service in my life, and my mind was hard-set to tip her as little as was culturally acceptable. It was an unfortunate mar to the entire experience, and the Japanese hostess bowed almost apologetically when she handed us our check.
I do recommend coming to Kappou Gomi if you want a taste of authentic Japanese food, but it’s a little pricey ($110 for both my mum and me) so I would reserve it to treating only my family and best friends. Do order the egg custard, and lastly, avoid the chubby waitress at all cost!
5524 Geary Boulevard
San Francisco, CA 94121