By Sandy Leung
Located in the heart of San Francisco’s Union Square District, in the famous Hotel Nikko’s, Anzu fuses together the flavors of Japan and America into seamless harmony. Anzu uses only the freshest ingredients and unique flavors that leave you with a set of culinary memories that will leave you inspired and appreciative of the Anzu team’s immense creativity, effort and dedication to both their craft and their customers.
As you walk through the quiet and regal marble-filled lobby of Hotel Nikko, you stop to appreciate the bright orange flowers against the dark palette of a large modernist oil painting. You then board the escalators, passing by a series of Japanese art displays, such as high-end pairs of traditional footwear and matching folding fans adorned with beautiful trees, leaves and bird illustrations.
Next, you enter another lobby that is larger, more open and well-lit. You look up and towards the far back wall, and see a brightly lit, colorful, and transparent panel of bubbles, with Anzu written very subtly in the center. You stroll across a series of large and brightly lit orange lamps with shapes reminiscent of jellyfish and flower bulbs. In between these moments of bright light, on your right, you see fancy, dark suede chairs and rectangular marble pillars and minimalist white orchid plants. On your left, you pass by a miniature Cable Car dog bed with a San Francisco skyline in the backdrop.
You walk up the stairs and are greeted by friendly staff and décor that is classy, modern and sophisticated. Behind the sushi bar, there is a transparent wall like an aquarium without fish, with ANZU written in the center. The wall has a series of bubbles coming out from this clear wall with multi-colored lights projected from the bottom that switches seamlessly to each color of the rainbow every 10 seconds. Jazz music plays in the background and the vibe is both romantic and family friendly at the same time. The wait staff are friendly, attentive and professional. Your glass of water or wine never drops below a certain level before someone comes to refill it promptly. They bring out each of your courses in a timely manner, leaving enough time to digest and reflect on the last dish, while you eagerly await the next course.
They offer a Prix Fixe Menu as well as the option to order individual items. I decided to go with ordering individual items for more flexibility. The staff is wonderful at offering suggestions on what drinks to pair with the type of food you are indulging in, as well as suggestions on the various dishes that they find to be most popular amongst their customers. Overall, my experience at Anzu was one-of-a-kind. Anzu also offers Anzu To You, which is a food truck version of the dishes that Anzu Restaurant & Bar offers.
I. ANZU REVIEW WITH DISH COMMENTARY BY EXECUTIVE CHEF MICHAEL RAUB
Below we have comments regarding the inspirations behind each dish that was prepared by Anzu’s Executive Chef, Michael Raub. We also have my detailed sensory notes for each of the items that my taste buds were so lucky to experience.
BREAD & BUTTER
SE: The salted butter was good; if you happen to also order the Truffle Hamachi dish, now is the time that I suggest you dip the bread into the onion and tobiko sauce (if you decide to order the Truffle Hamachi as well).
SE: This grilled yellowtail dish was very buttery and memorable; who can resist the subtle presence yet bold flavor of truffle oil? The tobiko caviar and Bonito flakes leave your mouth with a slight Ramen back-palate that is very meaty and savory. The Hamachi pairs extremely well with the onions, tobiko caviar and yuzu vinaigrette while the umami flavors of the onions and Bonito flakes blend together seamlessly. The tiny green sprouts add a nice touch of color that adds to the delicate presentation of this dish.
MAGURO TUNA NIGIRI
MR: Our sushi chef came up with this, but we both loved the freshness of the fish.
SE: This is a very fresh piece of fish; it’s light and has a great texture.
WATERMELON & TUNA POKE
MR: I like that the colors complement each other; but the textures are quite different, (thus) giving your mouth both a crunch and meaty umami flavor.
SE: Their special sesame crisps are home-made multi-grain crackers that are made from 30 grains. Referred to as a “hippie cracker”, it was slightly sweet yet savory and crunchy. This dish has a subtle form of back-palate but the combination of watermelon and tuna is simply refreshing. This dish is very pretty and elegantly presented; the watermelon and tuna poke in the sea shell lay on top of a bed of salts and spices; the small pieces of star anise add to the “by the seashore” type of ambiance this dish was going for. Overall, it is a refreshing and highly photogenic dish.
CRISPY MIYAGI OYSTERS
MR: I love to make lighter versions of the classics. In this case, we were using cauliflower puree instead of mayo to make a classical Sauce Gribiche.
SE: The braised pork belly is fatty and pairs extremely well with the crispy oysters. The crunchy nature of the oysters are complemented by the cauliflower gribiche puree; the flavors are decadent and the tastes are rich and mayo-ey. The baby arugula adds a touch of green to the dish and the shaved horseradish has a bold flavor that complements the equally strong flavor of the deep-friedness of the oysters.
ROASTED RED BEET SOUP
MR: I wanted to have a ubiquitous pink course for Valentine’s Day, but also have some unexpected flavors that paired well together.
SE: This decadent vegetable soup is the ultimate highlight of the evening. It deserves a Michelin Star for the perfect pairing and quality of the ingredients. The earthy and slightly sweet beet soup pairs beautifully with the smokey sturgeon fish and creamy yet light cheesy caviar crème fraiche. The soup was the perfect temperature where it was not too hot nor too cold. The caviar crème fraiche and the subtle beet flavors offer a very creamy and warm presence on your palette. As you get the little pieces of smokey sturgeon in each spoonful, your culinary palette is extremely happy with this soft, warm and earthy beet soup. There is an excellent textual contrast of the crunchy and crispy croutons against the smooth and creamy liquid nature of the liquid.
The beet soup has a beautiful and natural reddish maroon color; it reminds you of yogurt and raw berries. The dark wood piece under the bowl offers a smokey presence that awakens your olfactory senses. The incredibly photogenic dragon egg bowl that the soup comes in is a simple yet unique looking shape; the dark stone-like nature conjures up an ancient and precious culinary moment. This dish would be fitting for a ruling queen within a realm such as the world of Game of Thrones. I would only recommend that the sturgeon to beet soup ratio to be raised slightly. Other than that, I would visit Anzu just for this soup in the future.
MISOYAKI BLACK COD
MR: This is our signature dish. While many restaurants have a miso marinated black cod, ours stands out with the perfume of smoke we added to it prior to roasting it.
SE: This black cod has a texture that is just fall-off-the-bone amazing. The shaved leeks and carrots offer a nice gentle crunch to the soup. The ginger dashi offers a great umami flavor. The edamame wontons have a very subtle flavor. However, the cod is divine and the most memorable part of this dish; it possesses this slightly sweet yet salty soy flavor that really complements the more simple and lighter flavors of the soup and shiitake mushrooms. This Misoyaki Black Cod was so flavorful, my taste buds were quite confused as we were almost sure that there was pork or chicken in it!
CRISPY SKIN 38 NORTH DUCK BREAST
MR: These awesome ducks come just 38 miles north of San Francisco in the town of Petaluma. We love the flavor of the birds and the awesome conditions that they are raised in!
SE: The duck breast has a great smokey flavor to it and the skin is very flavorful. The meat is not gamete at all which is hard to perfect when it comes to duck. The toasted farrow verde is a great choice to balance out the boldness of the duck’s flavor. The sweet chip was crunchy, sweet and pleasant; the pickled vegetables offer a nice sour contrast to the slightly sweet and savoriness of the rest of the dish.
The bold flavor of the celery branch and the creaminess of the sun choke puree offered a great savory flavor pairing with the pinor noir reduction. The slightly sweet and salty pinot noir reduction sauce also goes extremely well with the savory duck meat. The only suggestion that I wanted to provide is for the sauce to duck ratio to be slightly higher as I found myself asking the waiter for some more sauce for the duck.
The non-pickled vegetables are simply steamed and help balance out the saltiness of the duck meat. The duck skin is slightly too fatty but it is extremely difficult to find duck that does have lean skin in the West Coast. The meat was perfectly medium rare. I would recommend that the pieces of duck be sliced thinner to offer a slightly more user-friendly experience for the customer when it comes to eating and chewing. The croutons also had a special carraway spice on them which provided for a very memorable set of tiny square shaped pieces of bread.
MR: The flavors in this dessert are near and dear to my childhood. I spent many warm summer days with a creamsicle after the ice cream truck rolled away.
SE: The lemon custard flan is paired with some mint and crunchy meringue pieces with a blood orange au jus sauce. There was also some salt which complements the sweetness of the custard flan very well. It reminds me of a Tartine Lemon Tart in terms of the sour yet sweet flavors of the lemon custard flan.
The entire dish looks like a piece of art from the MOMA, where the blood orange au jus sauce is spread throughout the dish in circular motions, showcasing a mesmerizing artistic culinary presentation. The colors of the lemon custard flan are yellow and bright; the tiny pieces of mint offer a great complementary contrast to the bright yellow lemon custard flan bricks, just like yellow flowers on green stems. The pretty blood orange au jus sauce complements the orange as they are next to one another on the color wheel; this whole piece just gives off the feeling of “refreshing summer bliss” to me.
VIRGIN PINEAPPLE EXPRESS
SE: This drink is one of the best non-alcoholic drinks that I’ve ever laid my taste buds onto. The flavors of freshly squeezed pineapple juice and ginger beer offer a very fun and delicious citrusy experience. This drink offers a classy experience that tastes similar to a very sophisticated mojito.
The ginger flavors inside the drink offers a lightly spicy kick to the drink and the piece of candied ginger allows for a nice sweet break in between sips. The yuzu and simple syrup sweeten the drink in a subtle and natural way while the lemon triangle and mint sprig add to the sophisticated presentation of the drink.The drink can get a bit watery if left out for too long so I highly recommend drinking it without too many breaks in between to avoid the wateriness from melted ice.
SE: This martini pairs well with the lychee syrup and flavors but the liquor to syrup ratio was just a bit high so the flavors of the hard liquor was slightly overpowering. I would suggest for a sweeter approach and slightly less alcohol to prevent the drink from being too bitter.
Mio Sparkling Sake
SE: This is a great rice sake that has a sour and sweet flavor. The sparkling nature offers a great effervescent presence of the sake to pair exceptionally well with savory and umami-filled dishes like the Crispy Skin Duck and the Misoyaki Black Cod. The gentle sweetness and slight fruity back-palate reminds me of the lightness of another sparkling sake called “Ho Ho Shu”.
II. INTERVIEW WITH ANZU’S EXECUTIVE CHEF MICHAEL RAUB
In May 2015, Chef Raub became Executive Chef at the Hotel Nikko San Francisco, overseeing the menu planning production and execution for Restaurant ANZU and the banquet department. From the moment he set foot at Nikko, Chef Raub’s energy, influence and personality began guiding the culinary team to a higher level of quality. Michael’s positive changes are illustrated in the strategic planning he emphasizes, the pace and standards his team sets, the high-quality cuisine he presents and most notably, the creative menus he designs.
1. How did join Anzu?
When I became the Executive Chef for the hotel. I was previously the Chef de Cuisine at the Palace Hotel and the St. Regis.
2. Can you describe Anzu's cuisine type to a tourist?
Anzu’s concept is Sustainable California prime with Asian flavors.
3. What is your favorite dish to prepare from the Menu and why?
I love to see food go out with the produce we buy from the farmer’s market. It’s cool to see someone else’s hard work paired with ours like on our Asparagus Salad right now.
4. What are your inspirations for Anzu's Menu?
I love to watch the seasons change mildly in Northern California and watch the bounty change as well. I love being outdoors riding my bike and seeing all the beauty this part of the world has to offer us each and every day.
5. Can you sum up your experience so far at Anzu in 3 adjectives?
Fun. Creative. Busy.
6. Can you tell me 3 emotions that you want a customer to feel when they eat food that you have prepared?
Nervous. Joy. Overwhelmed.
7. How do you go about making sure that the fish and seafood that you offer is always fresh and in season?
Being aware of the markets. It is easy to tell once you have had your morning cup.
8. As a chef, what is the creative process that goes into each dish?
Not much of a process other than seeing something cool at the market. Cooking it and tasting it. I try to just make the food I would want to eat.
9. Who are 3 people that have inspired you?
Marco Pierre White. Mother Nature and my Wife.
10. Would you describe yourself as a culinary artist? If you were to pick an artist in history (culinary artist, painter, entertainer) that you can identify with most, who would it be and why?
I don’t consider myself anything other than a chef. Art is what others make of it not for me to decide. If I would compare myself to one artist, it would be the Author Chuck Klosterman.
11. Did you always want to be a chef when you were a kid?
No, I wanted to be a Rock Star. Being a chef kind of happened while chasing that dream.
12. If you weren't a chef, what would your dream job be?
An airline pilot or a musician.
13. What is your idea of a good meal?
The best thing I have ever eaten is usually after finishing a 100 mile ride. It’s all in perception at that point.
14. Do you also cook a lot at home? If so, what is one dish that you love to make?
My wife does most of the cooking at home. (Big shout out to her blog The Shared Plate!) When I cook at home, I usually make pizzas with my kids or grill.
15. If you can have one last meal on earth made by anyone in this world, who would it be made by and what would you have?
I would like the opportunity to have one last meal cooked by my Grandmother. She always made me feel so nourished and that would be a cool feeling to start the next journey.
III. MORE INFORMATION
ANZU RESTAURANT & BAR
222 Mason Street
San Francisco, CA 94102 (Union Square)