Chef David Yoshimura is frustrated. Not in an immediate sense — in fact, about one week out from the August 18 opening of his much-anticipated debut restaurant Nisei, an ambitious Japanese tasting course destination, Yoshimura exudes an aura of remarkable calm. On a cloudy Sunday afternoon, he stands under the skylights in the restaurant’s compact kitchen, gently coaching and encouraging a crew of mask-wearing chefs as they run a mock service for a table of diners.
The inky black walls of the dining room still await the final pieces of decor, but the clean white banquettes and modern velvet seats give the space a dignified air. Outside, pedestrians on the streets of the Russian Hill neighborhood rubberneck as they try to steal a glimpse inside. “Literally every single day someone walks by and they’re like, is this a Japanese restaurant?” Yoshimura says. “I’m like, yeah, and they’re like, oh, so ramen or sushi? And I’m like, no. And they’re like, so then what is it? And I’m like — yeah, exactly.”
Yoshimura’s frustration stems from the narrow understanding many diners have of Japanese food. He previously worked as chef de cuisine at Californios, the Michelin-starred restaurant where Val Cantu’s thoughtful tasting menus force diners to second-guess everything they thought they knew about Mexican cuisine. Similarly, at Nisei, Yoshimura hopes to widen diners’ understanding of Japanese cuisine. He won’t serve sushi — though there will be fish — and there won’t be ramen — though there may be noodles. The omissions are intentional. “I was frustrated with the stereotype of Japanese cuisine in general,” Yoshimura says. “I wanted to show people the strength of Japanese food.”
Instead of sushi or ramen, Nisei’s tasting menus will be grounded in washoku, a traditional Japanese approach cooking that emphasizes seasonality and balance. Yoshimura describes it as “Japanese soul food.” But Nisei isn’t traditional either. The restaurant’s name, a term used to refer to the American-born children of Japanese immigrants, is meant to convey exactly that. Raised in Houston and born to a Japanese immigrant father and American-born mother, Yoshimura says he often spent summers at his Japanese grandmother’s house. “[My grandmother] would make food that was not traditional Japanese,” Yoshimura recalls. “She would make kind of a hodgepodge of American-Japanese food, things like sushi casserole and hot dog sushi, or she would make washoku food like oyakadon, somen, and things that you don’t usually see on sushi menus.” These experiences shape Yoshimura’s menus today. “It’s honestly who I am and the food that I grew up with,” he says. “It’s not traditional Japanese, and it’s not American food, it’s a blend of both.”
That means Yoshimura eschews the lighter flavor profiles you might associate with Japanese cuisine. He takes liberties combining sharply contrasting flavors, packing the sweetness of ripe banana into dorayaki and then topping the delicate confection with a gob of salty caviar. He doubles down on the savory complexity of black curry by coupling the thick sauce with rich karaage-fried sweetbreads, and he balances the mild sweetness of thick scallops with a roasty pine nut miso sauce and a dusting of crunchy miso granola. The kitchen benefits from a pair of portable binchotan grills, where they give American-raised unagi a shiny lacquer and serve it in thick slices alongside blistered shishito peppers. Each of the restaurant’s tasting menus will conclude the savory half of the meal with a multi-component course called “ichiju sansa,” or “one soup, three sides.” Here Yoshimura can show off a near-constant rotation of local vegetables he’s got pickling in-house, underscoring the seasonality of the menu.
Yoshimura’s also a certified sommelier and has thoughts about Nisei’s beverage pairings. The work is a collaboration between Yoshimura and Nisei general managers Ian Cobb and Mayanka Somiah. Sake will be “a supporting character” rather than a star. “The idea is Japanese food can stand up to wine, it can stand up to all the other beverages in the world,” Yoshimura says. “My flavor palate is very intense. Most of the time Japanese food is subtle. This food, it’s not. It has a Western palate, so with that in mind we should be able to pair with everything.” Next door at Iris, the more casual cocktail bar connected to Nisei, bar manager Ilya Romanov will pull together a list of Japanese-inspired cocktails to sip alongside izakaya-type snacks — some of which fans may recognize from Yoshimura’s pop-ups.
Yoshimura, who’s also spent time in the kitchen at New York’s wd~50 and Michelin-starred Tokyo restaurant Kagurazaka Ishikawa, says there’s no where he’d rather be opening Nisei than San Francisco. Not only does the Bay Area have “the best produce in the nation,” the chef says, it’s also got the highest concentration of Michelin stars in the country. And Yoshimura isn’t shy about his aspirations. “Eventually I want to, yeah,” he says of earning a star at Nisei. But accolades aside, he’s also attempting to make the restaurant an “honest” representation of his own experiences as a second generation Japanese-American. “I grew up in America making Japanese food and this is what came out of it,” he says. “I work with the food that’s around me, but I do it through a Japanese lens.”
Nisei debuts on Wednesday, August 18 and will be open Wednesday through Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m. A 12-course tasting menu costs $157 per person. Proof of vaccination will be required. Reservations are available on the Nisei website.