For more than a decade, Akikos has been one of San Francisco’s favorite destinations for pristine sushi — particularly for diners willing and able to splurge on the restaurant’s omakase experience. In 2009, self-taught chef Ray Lee took over his parent’s business on Bush Street, which first opened in 1987, ushering in a new era for the restaurant, one built on his obsession with the finest ingredients and inventive cooking techniques.
Now, Lee’s ready to level up Akikos once again: On January 10, he’ll officially debut Akikos at Avery Lane, the restaurant’s new location on the ground floor of a luxury residential high-rise at 430 Folsom Street. Lee says he’s still sorting out the plan for the former Akikos space but, in the meantime, is focused on getting settled in Akikos’s spacious new 2,700-square-foot home designed by San Francisco-based firm AvroKO. A dramatic 24-seat Chef’s Stage anchors the dining room, where patrons will have a front-row seat to watch Lee, head sushi chef Shinsuke Hayashi, and the rest of the team at work.
The restaurant’s omakase experience remains the menu’s focal point, featuring a mix of small plates and nigiri ($250) that marry high-end ingredients including sea urchin, caviar, and wagyu beef with local flavors and seasonal ingredients. Lee also applies contemporary techniques to classic Japanese dishes such as Japanese egg custard, dumplings, and shokupan, and infuses his sushi with bold and unexpected flavors with help from time and smoke.
Here are the techniques and inspiration behind three dishes at the new Akikos at Avery Lane — dishes that showcase Lee’s approach to aging fish and emphasis on sustainably sourced, single-line caught fish:
The tasting menu begins with an assortment of otsumami, or small bites like sashimi, wagyu-filled dumplings, and this decadent take on chawanmushi. Lee says his version of the egg custard draws on a bit of nostalgia. “My grandmother made it for me, my mom made it for me, and I became obsessed with it when I took over Akikos because I couldn't really make it like my mom did,” Lee says. “But over time I got the texture down, the timing down.”
At Akikos he uses the savory custard as a platform to showcase seasonal ingredients, which means the specific preparation may change throughout the seasons. But in all cases, it starts with ensuring you achieve the correct texture: delicate, light, and silky smooth. “To cook perfect chawanmushi, it’s all about timing and temperature,” he says. “If you even over-steam for 25 seconds the texture of the egg is different.”
To add textural contrast, typically the complimentary ingredients are fried or grilled and often include a scattering of scallions. Instead, Lee incorporates strands of snow crab into the eggs along with a roasted scallion-infused oil — before adding a shower of black truffles. “Who doesn’t like truffles and eggs?” Lee laughs.
Lee’s shokupan makes for an indulgent bite. The candy bar-shaped small plate starts with milk bread, of course, which gets toasted over the restaurant’s charcoal grill. The goal is to give the batons of bread a nice char and imbue them with a smoky flavor. Then come the toppings: a generous layer of toro, the prized fatty underbelly of tuna, and an even more generous layer of caviar. Specifically, Lee opts for golden Kaluga caviar, which offers a little more pop to contrast the smoothness of the toro. Finally, the dish gets a dash of gold flakes. “It’s a treat — this is my version of a PowerBar or a protein bar,” Lee jokes.
The culmination of the tasting menu comes in the form of a parade of nigiri. Lee sources much of his fish from Japan and ages it at the restaurant for anywhere from four to 10 days. Though he uses a dry ager, Lee’s careful to iterate that he doesn’t, technically, dry age the fish featured in Akikos nigiri — rather, he uses the dry ager to closely control the temperature and humidity of the air around the fish.
Doing so allows him to slowly draw out the moisture in order to emphasize the residual oil and flavor of each specimen. He checks the fish in the dry agers every day in order to catch each at the apex of flavor. “My philosophy on aging is I'm going to take the best quality I can find, fish from Japan or anywhere, and I'm going to age it until it’s ready to serve at the best time,” Lee says. “You can get fresh fish and you could serve it right away, but I don't think it tastes the same seven or eight days later when it’s at its peak.”
Lee’s proud to have akamutsu in the nigiri lineup. The deep sea perch isn’t cheap to source, in part because the best specimens (including those used at Akikos) are single-line-caught by skilled fishermen. Because the fish reside in frigid, deep waters, they store extra fat to keep them warm. The result is a white fish that also boasts a fatty texture, not unlike toro, which is prized for its melt-in-your-mouth quality.
Lee cures the akamutsu to draw out moisture before washing it in a vinegar dressing and lightly searing the skin. Most often it’s served with ponzo and onion jam or, for a simpler flavor profile, a straightforward combination of Meyer lemon and salt. “For me, my favorite preparation is just lemon and salt,” Lee says. “You can really just taste the quality of the fish.”
Kinmedai, or golden eye snapper, marks another high point of the nigiri courses. Typically, Lee ages the deep sea fish for about seven days before searing the skin and serving it with lemon and salt. The high-fat-content snapper would usually be the second piece of nigiri delivered to customers, following a piece of zuke, or soy-cured bluefin tuna dressed in fermented jalapeno soy with chiles and served atop warm sushi rice. Lee explains Akikos takes a unique approach to coursing; while some chefs sequence courses from most mild to most boldly flavored, building up to a final bite, Lee takes a less direct approach. “We take you on a journey — to remind you that you’re here, wake up,” the chef says. “We’ll take you up and down with different colors, textures, lean, fat.”
The otoro nigiri certainly falls on the fatty end of the spectrum. While “toro” refers to all the fatty meat on a tuna’s belly, “otoro” refers specifically to the fattiest front portion — even more highly prized for its marbling. Lee ages the pink fish for as long as 21 to 28 days to draw out the most flavor. He tops the delicacy with even more premium ingredients, either osteria or Kaluga caviar.
All of Akikos’s nigiri builds on the sushi rice recipe that’s been passed down from his parents. The restaurant’s “secret vinegar recipe” uses a 10-year-aged red vinegar, he shares, which gives the rice an extra acidic boost. “It works really well with a lot of the fatty fish we use,” he says. “It kind of cuts the flavor. For me, everything is about balance.”
Aside from the revamped omakase menu, which Lee and the team have been dialing in over at their freshly opened (and extremely exclusive) omakase counter Friends Only, longtime Akikos fans will note a few other changes with the move. For the first time, Akikos will have a full bar. Beverage Director Quade Marshall — who formerly worked at bars including Rick House, Pagan Idol, and Alexander’s Steakhouse — wrote a menu that emphasizes Japanese whisky and Japanese flavors. The Cocomelon Manhattan, for example, stars Suntory Toki whisky and the Foreign Delegate blends cognac, Toki whisky, and house-made white sesame orgeat.
The restaurant will be open Tuesday through Saturday and will serve lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays with dinner seatings from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Reservations can be made via OpenTable on the Akikos website. “I promise you this is something special,” Lee says. “There’s nothing like this in San Francisco.”
Akikos at Avery Lane (430 Folsom Street in San Francisco) opens on January 10.