It’s been more than a full calendar year since customers sat at the chef’s counter at Ju-Ni, the one-Michelin-starred sushi destination in NoPa. That’s set to change this week as chef Geoffrey Lee and partner Tan Truong prepare to invite customers back to the restaurant for omakase service. Sort of.
Beginning Friday, March 26, the duo is taking its one-Michelin-starred omakase outdoors with a new curbside sushi counter. Omakase set-ups have graced the streets of New York City, but Ju-Ni is among the first to bring the concept to San Francisco. The counter, made of wood and plexiglass, runs the length of the curb in front of the restaurant. Customers are separated from Lee by plexiglass, with a small opening at the bottom where sushi courses are served. The counter can serve 12 customers at once, with guests divided into sections of four people each.
The counter may look different, but the menu is mostly staying the same. Ju-Ni is offering a 12-course omakase to start, consisting of 10 pieces of sushi, a soup, and dessert. The menu is seasonal, but the Truong says one of the restaurant’s longtime staples — its ikura salmon roe topped with shaved monkfish liver — will be returning. The full experience costs $138 per person, a slight decrease from the $169 price tag of its most recent indoor omakase.
With a little imagination, and especially if they squint, customers might feel like they are perched at the indoor counter of one of their favorite omakase restaurants. “People tell us it looks like something you would see in Tokyo,” according to Truong. “Some of the fish markets there have set-ups with a similar vibe, obviously without plexiglass.”
Like countless restaurants across the Bay Area, Ju-Ni closed its dining room following the state-mandated shutdown of restaurants and bars in March 2020 and has yet to reopen. Over the last year, the duo has been serving some exceptionally photogenic chirashi bowls for takeout and delivery in order to stay afloat, but the goal was always to return to its roots. “We didn’t know if we would ever be able to serve indoors again,” Truong says. “We have been brainstorming ways we could safely get back to what we were doing.”
Omakase is a uniquely difficult experience to replicate during the pandemic, according to Truong. Some restaurants in the Bay Area have been able to reopen for indoor dining with minimal contact between workers and customers: Waiters take orders and servers drop off food, but prolonged contact is kept at a minimum. Omakase service, on the other hand, can demand prolonged, face-to-face contact between chefs and customers — the exact opposite of what state officials and the Center for Disease Control recommend. “There was no way to safely do it indoors,” he says.
More than a year after closing its chef’s counter, the staff at Ju-Ni is fully vaccinated and Truong and Lee are ready to give omakase another go. Their outdoor chef’s counter, now reservable through Tock, is open from Wednesday to Sunday, 4 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.