[alert type=red ]Update 12/25/2016: This is the saddest restaurant news of 2015 for me. Ino Sushi is now closed; Inoue-san has retired. There’s a new restaurant called An Sushi there now but I am distraught that I won’t be able to try the always perfect and always authentic sushi by Inoue-san anymore. There was nothing quite like it outside of Tokyo. Thank you for the 9 years of delicious meals, sir![/alert]
The Perfect Ino Sushi
Yes, I said “perfect.”
I have been to Ino Sushi now perhaps 30-something times over the course of the last few years. When all is said and done, it remains as my favorite sushi restaurant in San Francisco.
Actually, perhaps the entire country.
While I have been to sushi bars in Japan that at least rival the skills of Inoue-san, I have yet to go to one Japanese restaurant on either coast of this country that could hold a candle to Ino Sushi.
Nigiri isn’t just about the fish, you see. There’s a combination between the taste of fresh fish put atop the perfect sushi rice that brings the flavor of fish to life. The temperature of the rice, the texture and consistency of the rice, and exactly how sticky that rice is or isn’t — all of these things make a monumental difference in the taste of sushi. Having fresh fish to even be considered as a “good sushi” to me is a given; but offering me awesome fish without the perfect nigiri rice is like being a fantastic photo with no frame; the world’s best lover without a lover in sight; or a great dancer with no partner to show off your potential. It can still be great sushi, but it can’t touch greatness in my book.
At Ino Sushi, you get all that and then some.
The restaurant is tiny. It seats, at best, 25 people or so. It’s located inside the mall, and has no outside signage. You just wouldn’t drive by it and accidentally pop in, and even if you were strolling through this mall — chances are that you will walk right by without knowing about this treasure as it doesn’t even have a window to make you notice that a Japanese restaurant exists in here. They close on Sunday and Monday, and with regular hours (and last call at 8:30 PM), there is really a limited amount of time in a week where one is able to try this amazing restaurant.
But once you do find it, your preference for sushi changes forever. Inoue-san, the owner and master behind this artistry, will serve up some of the greatest omakase you have ever had.Each piece he slices is absolutely the freshest fish you will find in San Francisco; you taste quality in each piece that you will be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. He has some fish here that you don’t readily find at other Japanese restaurants, like Engawa, or Pike — but even the choices you find anywhere else like Maguro and Uni is stellar at Ino Sushi.
And then there’s the stuff he prepares himself.
His Ikura makes even typical “salmon roe haters” reconsider this delicacy and become a fan. His Ankimo, which is monkfish liver (pictured to the right) is phenomenal. Since the first day I ever tried Ankimo, I have tried Ankimo almost anywhere it’s available on the menu, and it’s almost always good, but Inoue-san’s Ankimo is in a class of its own. This would be a contender for my last meal on the planet. The plain liver of monkfish becomes a worthy opponent to foie gras in flavor and richness once Ino-san is done preparing it. He offers this as sashimi or nigiri — and while I love it as sashimi, too, the combination between this, a piece of nori, and the sushi rice makes it simply phenomenal. You can’t miss this order when you try Ino Sushi.
He usually carries freshwater and seawater eel, and both are as amazing as you will ever find. Cooked perfectly, it maintains all of its freshness, and is served piping hot. It simply oozes with flavor and moisture, and invariably, people will moan as they chew through this amazing dish.
I’ve introduced various people to Ino Sushi, ranging from people who claim to know good sushi to people who existed on this planet believing they did not like sushi. All have walked away from this restaurant absolutely loving the food. My last visit was with my high school friend who came to town from New York and took me to dinner, and he stated, “That was the best sushi of my life!” That’s him shown above, enjoying a piece of Toro at Ino Sushi. It was his first time trying the Ankimo, which he absolutely loved. He was already an uni-lover, so he needed no convincing to try it at Ino — and he was duly impressed. The transformation was when he tried Ikura, which was never one of his favorites, but he acknowledged that Ino-san’s Ikura is simply different. It’s not fishy; it’s not sticky; it’s just fresh and clean-tasting with no lingering aftertaste. We drank outstanding Kikusui sake (and at $15 per big glass, it better be good), we went to town on this night trying basically all the choices. The Saba at Ino Sushi is simply AMAZING. (Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of this right now!) Mackerel is one of those fish that naturally have outstanding taste, but due to how fast it can spoil, it’s only those of us who fish who have had a chance to eat truly fresh mackerel. Most others, especially in restaurants, don’t have a choice but to eat cured mackerel. The fish is heavily salted, then cured in rice vinegar to prevent it from spoiling before it is served. While always one of the cheapest fish available, it truly is one of the best-tasting when prepared properly. Not surprisingly, Inoue-san makes one fabulous mackerel, cured perfectly. Once in awhile, he will wrap it in vinegar-infused white seaweed, and the combination of the fish, seaweed and rice is truly enough to make me think, at least for a minute, that I could die a happy girl right then and there.
The logic of Omakase at Ino Sushi
Call me a snob but I am just not big on going to sushi restaurants and placing an order. The chef knows better than anyone else what is best in his selection, and once you establish a relationship with him — I like to trust my entire experience to him. It’s a give and take; the more you go, the better knows and understands your true appreciation for good taste, and the more often you will be given the best he has on that evening.
On some mass food review sites, you will find some unappealing reviews of Ino-san, though all will agree that the fish is phenomenal. You have to understand that the experience here is not about service; it’s about a master of sushi offering you something you can’t easily have elsewhere. He prepares the nigiri and you get to pay for it and eat it – simple as that. You don’t go here expecting awesome service; you go here expecting to be treated to a sushi experience of a lifetime.
While I am big on restaurant staff and owners “making” the experience for the customer, at Ino Sushi, I expect and demand only one thing: the best sushi ever. Handing him your trust, you need not ask for more or less of anything. You don’t ask for substitutions, and while you’re free to dole out compliments or moans, if necessary — you don’t ask the chef to add more or less of anything to what he deems as perfect already. And he’s right. It is actually perfect.
I always finish up my meal at Ino Sushi with a Natto Maki or handroll (pictured above). It’s a simple and clean handroll with a fermented soybean concoction (natto) with some green onions. It’s a sort of acquired taste, but it’s always a nice finish to the meal. And traditionally in Japan, you finish off with this. So I do, too, though I could just as easily eat it to kick off the meal!
The cost at Ino Sushi is significant, though invariably, about $100 of the bill is from the sake alone for me. That Kikusui goes down like sweet water, and is hazardous to the bill.
You do not order “rolls” at Ino Sushi outside of simply maki type rolls like the natto-maki shown above — not if you want any respect at all — and if you just let Inoue-san take you on a journey through the sea, you will most likely never want rolls again.
Ino Sushi is located inside the Miyako Mall. My suggestion is to park in front of the Kabuki Hotel or inside the garage, then walk through the side doors that can be accessed via the driveway of the Kabuki Hotel. Once inside, turn to the right and walk down the stairway — and Ino Sushi will be the small restaurant located to the left as soon as you pass the bathrooms. (There is another Japanese restaurant before this; that is NOT Ino Sushi.)
Call to make reservations for the sushi bar because walking in on any given night between Tuesday and Saturday (the days they are opened) will not get you seating. Once you have secured reservations, go to this dinner with a no-max credit card and a mentality where you are prepared to try the best that this man offers. Trust me on this — you will not be disappointed.
Really great post. I've been meaning to come to Ino for a long time as I continue to search for sushi in the city that matches the awesomeness of SushiZo or Mori in LA. I've heard that Ino isn't really keen on people taking pictures there, so I'm glad to see you got some really great shots!
I'm sure you will love it, although I have not tried either place in LA that you mentioned. I've always taken photos at Ino Sushi; he has never indicated to me he doesn't like it but then he also knows why I'm taking photos, so….
Do let me know if you try Ino Sushi, I would love to get your feedback!
I agree with most of your very well written review. The best Nigiri I've had in the City, and equal with Sakae in Burlingame for the Bay Area. A few weeks ago I was able to sit at the bar at SushiZo in LA and it was easily the best Nigiri I've ever had, and that includes Masa in New York. I'm heading back to Ino later this week and can't wait to compare again.
Just at there yesterday and I have to say every word of this post is true.
As a San Francisco native, I've been eating sushi for 40 years. On my first visit to Eno Sushi in Japan Town, I was prepared to spend well over $100. I was by my self, did not have a reservation, arrived early, and was coldly welcomed. The elderly woman who seated me made sure that I was aware of a $30. minimum. The sushi chef also made a big deal out of making sure that my first single order of uni was not included in the combination that I had previously ordered.
After visiting hundreds of sushi bars in the USA, France and Japan, I've never been insulted in this way. Letting me know it was nothing personal, I heard another couple, who arrived shortly after me, get the same treatment. The sushi was excellent but the pieces were small, and quite frankly I've had better, especially when served with warmth and hospitality.
My order, with saki, was $65. A small order for me. After leaving I went directly to another sushi bar and spent another $50. in a much friendlier atmosphere. I will never go to Eno sushi again nor recommend it to anyone.
I know what you're describing, and there's good reason I called him "Sushi Nazi" for a long while, hah. BUT, if he does begin to like/respect/tolerate you – and you're doing omakase at the bar — he does offer some of the best sushi available in the US– classic and traditional sushi.
Sorry you had a rotten experience though. That sounds far from pleasant.
looks amazing! when you gonna fly out here so we can try it?
As soon as the airforce gets me there. I have my fingers crossed to head out that way sometime soon
Why did they close?
A huge loss and connection to the “real”
Dale Snoopy Hahn, he retired. There’s a different sushi place there now but I’m not sure that anything can live up to Ino. :-(
Yes. That’s usually the problem where the succeeding owner doesn’t live up to the standards of the original owner set. But you never know
I’ve been going to Ino Sushi for 20 years (remember when it was located on the side of Japantown Bowl?). It took me a full five years before Noburo-san deemed me a regular. Everything I know about sushi I learned from him. The sushi rice, aging of the fish, and the paramount importance of a clean sushi case when picking a sushi restaurant.
He could be tough with the uninitiated, and I saw him kick out a few would be patrons over the years. Dip your gari (ginger) in the soy sauce (which he made himself) and you’d find yourself banned.
We’d talk about sushi and golf, his favorite subjects, and I learned to just sit and eat whatever he put in front of me. Ino was the only place in SF that served real Edomae sushi, and his ankimo was the best I’ve ever had anywhere. I’ll miss him and his wife, Yuko. It seems that the San Francisco I fell in love with is slowly disappearing. Hope shokunin spends many a year on the golf course enjoying his retirement.
So he was very particular about the people who could appreciate this sushi as well as the time and care that it took to make it himself
It took me about four years before he treated me like I was human, and even to the end, that was about as much as I could expect. There was one day some years ago when I walked in and he — SMILED AT ME — and I got weak in the knees LOL.
Very cool! That smile made it all worth it
I wish he had a son he could have trained to carry on his legacy.
Theodore Kim — agreed on his ankimo. And that white seaweed wrapped saba…GOOD GOD. And everything else — just the best of everything in the world. I just wrote up a review on one of SF’s most expensive Japanese restaurants–and while good, it couldn’t hold a candle to Ino Sushi. Not a half-ass candle, even.