Discovery: Alexander's Steakhouse, Wakuriya, and Sushi Yoshizumi

People often ask me why I write so many reviews and try so many restaurants. 

One reason is that I like variety.  Trying different cuisines is a fun way to keep things interesting and novel. A more important reason may be the idea of discovery. 

Akin to a child tasting ice cream for the first time or a young adult hearing their very first concert, the discovery of something new and special is always thrilling and exciting. What's perhaps as important is that these discoveries are most usually fortuitous happenstance - lucky finds that have become some of my most memorable meals - and that without all the sampling of restaurants they would never have been found. 

In my short time chronicling my restaurant adventures (whether writing or taking photographs), I've only been lucky enough to feel like I've stumbled upon something truly special three times and each has been memorable.

The first was Alexander's Steakhouse (Cupertino).  My parents took me soon after it opened and it quickly became one of our family's favorite special occasion restaurants. Chef Jeffrey Stout received his Michelin star in 2011 but the accolades came even earlier  when Alexander's opened in 2005. It's one of the few steakhouses (usually too meat centric) to have received a Michelin star in the country.  Peter Luger, New York's iconic steakhouse, is another. 

Although it took almost 7 years, I was lucky enough to meet Chef Stout and even throw a dream Foodspotting event at Alexander's before his departure and Alexander's subsequent loss of their Michelin star in 2014.  

It's great to see Chef Stout back at his new restaurant, Orchard City Kitchen (Campbell) and back with Michelin as the South Bay's sole Michelin Bib Gourmand recipient for 2016. 

Wakuriya (San Mateo) is the next great restaurant upon which I stumbled.  Opening in 2008, Wakuriya serves a traditional Japanese kaiseki meal. At the time, I was pretty unfamiliar with all the forms of Japanese cuisine but learned kaiseki was a set meal consisting of primarily of cooked dishes and focusing on the art of plating. 

Wakuriya is a tiny place run by a husband and wife team and very traditional. I was able to get a reservation and made it a date night. 

The dinner was unique and truly like art while tasting delicious and delicately prepared. They even gifted my date a nice pair of chopsticks and she later wrote about her experience on Yelp and received one of Yelp's first Review of The Day for Wakuriya. 

Flash forward to Wakuriya receiving a Michelin star a year later and reservations became near impossible to obtain. Michael Bauer of the SF Chronicle wrote that it was as challenging to get as the French Laundry, both due to demand and the extremely limited seating.  Personally, I've never been able to return. 

Sushi Yoshizumi (San Mateo) is the most recent stellar restaurant and is by far my favorite.

Step inside and you're transported to an authentic edomae sushi gem, complete with a gorgeous lacquered wood table made by a Japanese carpenter and 9 seats of sushi bar-only seating that is already hard to get a reservation and will only be harder after their much deserved recent Michelin star recognition. 

The space is the realization of Chef Akira Yoshizumi and the menu is omakase only, selected nightly by the chef and featuriing organic and sustainable choices both locally and internationally.  The emphasis is on nigiri sushi, but a selection of sashimi, appetizers, and cooked dishes freshly made as you make your way through the menu keeps everything diverse and interesting.  

Flavors are outstanding and the the famous "umami" is well represented from the first seaweed salad with diced strawberries to the finishing fish bone broth to complete your meal.  Standout appetizers include the tender cooked octopus marinated in miso as well as the perfectly fresh Santa Barbara uni with house made ikura over rice.   

But the nigiri sushi is the star and it's not surprising that sushi aficionados alike have already shared that Sushi Yoshizumi compares to any sushi establishment in the Bay Area. 

Fish selection and the varied preparations (vinegar, seaweed, salt, smoking) are a treat and even often overlooked details for the Bay Area like the rice temperature (warm in hand) and soy sauce (house made with sake, mirin) are perfectly on point.  

While the fish selection may not be novel to frequent sushi diners (maguro, salmon, kinmedai, anago, ika, hotate, toro), the quality very well could be and is admirably chosen more for sustainability and flavor than rarity.  

However as great as all the above is, the very best part of Sushi Yoshizumi is likely Chef Yoshi-san himself.  Our original weekend dinner was changed to a weekday night and through both luck and happenstance, we found ourselves with the best seats in the house as well as the entire attention of the small staff.  Little touches from the waiter enthusiastically reciting the entire sake menu to Chef Yoshizumi sharing the components of each nigiri selection as well as how best to consume each piece definitely add to the dining experience. 

While I don't consider myself anywhere near a sushi expert, I've always been a bit skeptical of omakase.  How often is the experience one of engagement and showcasing both the very best the chef offers and what you'll enjoy?  I simply think of the omakase experience at a super busy sushi establishment (think nearby Sushi Sam's for example) and know it's a completely different than anything here.  Let me order a la carte there.  This is the real deal.  Sushi Yoshizumi is quite simply the best omakase experience I've ever had.          

I've been to enough establishments where waiters monotonously describe dishes to know that real passion for food is hard to fake and even harder to miss.  They're the exception, but always memorable. Chef Yoshizumi has that same passion and best of all is happy to share that.   

As I told my own stories of overcooking chawanmushi, curing my own salmon roe, and even my dreams of buying Costco A5 Wagyu beef, I did so not for any agenda but simply to share my own love of food.  

Chef Yoshizumi graciously responded in kind, often laughing and opening up about each dish and even throwing me a tip or two.  In turn, I felt comfortable enough to eat sushi with my hands (I know it's traditional but have never done it), to forgo any wasabi, and to know at the end of the meal that when he shared that I had tried all his best cuts and every fish that he truly meant it.  

Exploration + Discovery = 3 special restaurant experiences.  Above, you have my three favorite restaurants where I felt as if I stumbled upon something special before the masses.  Where will my next memorable experience be?  I don't know, but I'll keep on looking.


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