Almost 13 years after taking over Akiko’s from his parents and transforming it into a traditional-contemporary sushi restaurant, chef Ray Lee is ready to open a project he’s been working on since at least summer 2021: Friends Only, a 10-seat sushi counter nestled in the Nob Hill neighborhood on California Street. Don’t consider it an Akiko’s redux; instead Friends Only functions as a research and development kitchen of sorts. What you’ll get at Friends Only is practically an entire omakase menu composed of special off-menu dishes you may have been lucky enough to try at Akiko’s. It’s a modern space that’s not stuffy by design. “We want to make it approachable,” Lee says. “We want to entertain, we want to educate you, and we want you to sit back like you’re in a first-class seat on a flight and we’ll just take you for a journey.”
The omakase experience feels like a fantastical sushi voyage, starring high-quality ingredients from Toyosu Fish Market in Japan and showcasing Lee’s method of dry-aging fish, with the sushi chefs as guides. The staff presents ingredients such as boxes of golden-hued uni from Hokkaido to diners, almost like a show and tell as guests eat their way through a menu with luxury elements like kaluga caviar and premium uni. A recent dinner offered bites such as katsuo, a cherrywood-smoked skipjack tuna; zuke, a 10-day dry-aged, soy-cured bluefin tuna; nama hotate, a Hokkaido scallop with flaky salt and colored sesame seeds from Kyoto; keiji sake, a hard-to-find dwarf salmon with the “richness and flavor” of full-sized salmon; and kegani chawanmushi, with horsehair crab and duck liver folded in and shaved autumn truffle on top.
The menu will change often based on the availability of ingredients but will focus on top-notch seafood. It doesn’t come cheap at $300 for the omakase experience, with no a la carte option to speak of, but it does offer something new. “What I’m doing is something a little different from what other sushi shops are doing: really just focusing on depth of flavor, texture,” Lee says. “If people already know dry-aging meat, steaks, stuff like that, it’s almost the same concept. What I’m doing is just drawing out moisture, more flavor development, mainly on the texture of the fish.”
Still, the experience isn’t intimidating. Case in point: the soundtrack. The music on the speakers is what the chefs like to listen to during prep, Lee says. Bob Marley, A Tribe Called Quest, Tears for Fears, and Robert Palmer songs keep diners moving through the meal, and engaging with one another and the chefs behind the counter. “My whole end goal is to have the best sushi ingredients and the best sushi experience,” Lee says. “Eating at a lot of these top-end sushi restaurants, if you sit there and those chefs are not engaging, you pay $500 to $600 per person and you stare at the chef for three hours — and that’s not fun to me. Going out should be fun. It should not be intimidating, but it should be intimate with your guests.”
New to the experience for those who’ve dined at Akiko’s is cocktails. There will be sake, of course, if that’s your preference — as well as wine, beer, and spirits — but beverage director Quade Marshall, most recently of Rickhouse, is bringing 20 years of industry experience to the cocktail options at both Friends Only and the upcoming Akiko’s at Avery Lane. At Friends Only, he’s focusing on “curated classics with our own twist,” he says, incorporating Japanese ingredients as he makes drinks to compliment the omakase menu. The signature Manhattan riff is dubbed the Cocomelon — named for Lee’s daughter and her favorite children’s show — using a Suntory Toki as a delicate base for the drink. The Foreign Delegate, meanwhile, is Marshall’s take on an 1890s cocktail called the Japanese Cocktail, with cognac as the base, house-made toasted white sesame orgeat, lemon juice, Jamaican-style bitters, and black dots of sesame oil with activated charcoal floating on top as an aromatic component.
Landing a seat at Friends Only may be a bit more difficult than your average sushi spot, however; much like the name, seats will be offered first to those on the Akiko’s email list, and any seats leftover will be released to the public on Tock. With two seatings each night for ten diners, it’ll be a tough reservation to score, but Lee says the experience will only get better with time. “It’s going to continue to evolve,” Lee says. “It’s going to be a really special place for Akiko’s regulars, and hopefully some of the people from the community and public can enjoy, too.”
Friends Only (1501 California Street) is reservation only, open Wednesday through Saturday for two seatings each night.