SFReview

Much like your favorite pair of white sneakers or an intimate Tiny Desk concert, simplicity always pays off. Nisei knows this well. The Japanese fine dining restaurant in Russian Hill is churning out dishes with flavors that are big, bold, and let every ingredient shine.

When you walk into the restaurant, you’ll immediately notice that the dining room keeps things simple, too. It’s all black and carpeted. And the only pops of color are from a white banquette and three vibrant paintings on one wall. But the stark interior sets you up for the task at hand: diving into Nisei’s 12-course tasting menu that’s packed with more hits than an Adele album, and also pushes the boundaries of Japanese fine dining.

The menu is based on washoku, a Japanese approach to cooking that focuses on seasonality and balanced flavors. At Nisei, this also means taking traditional dishes and playing with fun twists. For example, their dorayaki is the size of a quarter and gets filled with banana instead of the usual red bean paste. It’s then crowned with a little scoop of caviar.

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Each dish looks simple, but don’t underestimate the punch in every bite. Exhibit A: Nisei’s take on a croquette, and your first course of the evening. You’re presented with a bite-sized flavor bomb: creamy potato, uni, and smoked pepper relish that sits atop a wooden box like a surprise gift. And as soon as you pop it into your mouth, it explodes like a delicious, potato-filled water balloon. In this moment, you’ll realize you’re in for something special.

The standouts keep coming, like the flawless piece of unagi. It’s grilled over binchotan and served with only two shishito peppers and a slice of summer squash, ensuring that nothing distracts from the soft, flaky eel and the sticky soy glaze. At some point, multiple servers will descend on your table at the same time to explain the next course and unveil a steaming bowl of suimono so clear you’d think it was water. But the fragrant broth is actually the most memorable dish of the night, practically knocking you out of your chair with its intense flavor and warmth. And when the servers return later, seemingly out of nowhere, to pour a zingy ginger syrup onto your kakigōri from a miniature saucepan, it’ll take all of your self-control not to ask for seconds.

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The last course is the ichiju sansai, or “one soup, three sides.” It comes with savory miso broth, a bowl of rice, and a protein (it might be striped bass in a rich koji butter sauce on one occasion, and grilled squab on another). There will also be three types of pickles, which are sliced thinly and fanned out like cards. The whole thing is beautiful and deceptively simple—it’s also the night’s most filling dish.

Once the plates are cleared, you’ll wish you could hit restart, go back to the potato croquette, and do the dinner all over again. But since the tasting menu is $174 per person, you probably won’t be dropping in here on a whim. Just keep Nisei in mind for your next special occasion meal—they’re leading a master class in the art of simplicity, and it’s one you should experience at least once.

The food menu at Nisei changes regularly depending on what’s in season, but here’s an idea of what you can expect.

Food Rundown

Croquette

The potato “croquette” starts the meal off on an excellent foot. The creamy potato isn’t deep-fried or breaded in panko, but instead rolled up in a potato chip-like shell and topped with uni and smoked pepper relish. It’s a one-bite wonder that explodes with texture and a briny flavor from the uni.

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Dorayaki

Nisei’s take on a dorayaki is a tiny, button-sized pancake stuffed with banana, rather than the usual red bean paste—and it gets a savory kick thanks to a neat scoop of caviar on top.

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Matsutake Suimono

This broth is so clear it could pass for a bowl of hot water—but one sip and you’ll be transported to an immediate state of soup-induced bliss. It’s comforting, immensely flavorful, and something you’ll crave every time the temperature dips below 60.

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Scallop

With its golden-brown crust and bits of pine nut granola, we wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a photo of this scallop immortalized in an exhibit at the deYoung. But it tastes incredible, too. Make sure you get every last drop of the creamy pine nut miso sauce.

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Unagi

Nisei sources their unagi from the only eel farm in the US. It’s brushed with a thick, sticky soy glaze, and thrown on the grill over binchotan. There are no fancy ingredients or distractions here, just a perfectly-cooked piece of eel that melts in your mouth.

Ichiju Sansai

Nisei’s ichiju sansai—or “one soup, three sides”—rounds out the savory courses, and pretty much encapsulates everything we love about this place. It’s served simply with just four dishes: miso broth, a protein like squab or striped bass, pickles, and rice. This is comfort food at its finest.

Kakigōri

This shaved ice dessert has little balls of Asian pear, a scoop of pear sorbet, small puffed rice balls, and ginger syrup poured tableside. It’s light, refreshing, and tastes like eating a spoonful of sweet, crunchy snowflakes.

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