Chef David Yoshimura’s Nisei Restaurant Celebrates One Year in San Francisco
Last month, Nisei, located in the Russian Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, celebrated a full year of business. Formerly a Michelin-starred Californios, chef David Yoshimura has opened his first restaurant to great acclaim. This inimitable tasting class destination pays homage to its Japanese-American heritage through washoku-style Japanese cuisine, presented in a modern and elevated way.
One of the restaurant’s driving forces is Chef Yoshimura’s desire to expand diners’ expectations and understanding of what Japanese cuisine is all about. On the menu, you won’t find traditional sushi, ramen, or noodles, but instead you’ll find creative iterations of these foods in what he described as “Japanese soul food.”
“A lot of people think of Japanese cuisine as just sushi and ramen,” says Chef Yoshimura, “when in reality Japan has a rich food culture that is constantly changing.”
Courses on its innovative one-year anniversary menu included things like grilled unagi kabayaki alongside three marinated side dishes of narazuke melon, fermented carrot and marinated daikon pluot, served with furikake rice; richly marbled wagyu katsu served with thick black curry and chanterelle mushrooms; and a multi-component course called “ichuju sansa” or “one soup, three sides” of shinjo crab, tobiko, calendula, and crab soup.
As a certified sommelier, Chef Yoshimura also puts a lot of thought into drink pairings as Nisei. He works alongside Nisei’s phenomenal General Manager, Ian Cobb, to present a selection of sakes and wines that complement the boldly flavored menu that accompanies each of the 11 courses on any given tasting menu.
Next door is the sister bar, Bar Iris, a chic bar that offers a seasonal selection of Japanese-inspired cocktails to enjoy with Izakaya-style snacks like crispy nigiri with smoked eggs, dried trout, rice and nori or wagyu tartare with dried jidori yolk. , miso mustard, chives and lotus root. The cocktails are unique to the season and incorporate surprising ingredients. Popular drinks include the Middlechild with gin, white verjuice and snow peas; and the seasonal special, Side Hustle, with cantaloupe, egg white and shochu.
“The vibe and atmosphere at Iris is classy and sexy, complementing the beautiful cocktails,” says chef Yoshimura. “The food at Iris is little riffs of the food at Izakaya, a teaser of the food next door.”
We spoke with Chef David Yoshimura about the first year in business, his goals with Niesei, menu inspiration and more. Here’s what he had to say.
How was Nisei’s first year in business?
There have been many ups and downs this year at Nisei. Overall, we are very satisfied with the current situation.
Has the pandemic affected the opening at all?
Nisei’s first ideation was to open in May 2020. After the government shutdown, I changed the concept to bento boxes until we secured our home on Polk St. We opened with a bang in August 2021 , but the Omicron variant significantly slowed down its activity last winter.
Talk about the menu at Nisei. What is the inspiration behind? How does this change the perception of what Japanese cuisine is?
The menu has a washoku-style Japanese cuisine base, but is presented in a modern form. People are very familiar with traditional Japanese dishes, but when presented in a fresh version, it adds a refreshing change of pace. It changes the customer’s perception of what Japanese cuisine is and can be.
Nisei’s tasting menu includes 11 dishes and a total of 20 dishes. There are also caviar and wagyu supplements if customers are interested. We offer you a wine or sake pairing, as well as a host of rare spirits from our bar cart.
You expressed your frustration with what people think of as Japanese food. Talk about it and what you hope diners take away from a meal here.
Yes, I am frustrated with the American perception of what Japanese food is. I am in a unique position, as a Japanese-American chef, having the opportunity to educate diners on what Japanese cuisine has to offer from the past and the future. I hope diners will see that Japanese American cuisine can be taken as far as any other cuisine on the planet. This was an important lesson I learned from Val Cantu in Californios and its relationship to Mexican cuisine.
How is the creation of your tasting menus going? How did your background and your childhood influence your cooking at Nisei?
First, we almost always rely on the seasons to guide our menu changes. Also, at Nisei, I like that creating dishes is a collaborative effort. Usually, I will speak with the cook responsible for the dish to be changed and offer ideas. After some rendering, trial and error, it finally made it to the menu.
When I was growing up, I ate a lot of home-style Japanese food, like Teriyaki, Sukiyaki, or Oyakodon. I try to use these familiar flavors and dishes to recreate dishes at Nisei. And like many other chefs, I use my past culinary experiences to guide how I prepare and prepare my dishes to the highest degree possible.
Talk about great pairings between wine and sake and how they complement your dishes.
Ian Cobb has spearheaded our wine and sake pairings for over a year now and has done an excellent job. I’m also lucky enough to be a certified sommelier, so Ian and I usually try several pairings with each new dish until we find the perfect pairing. Ian has a lot of experience with Japanese cuisine, so he chooses drinks to complement a cuisine that is generally lighter and leans towards seafood.
Talk a bit about Bar Iris next door.
Bar Iris is the proud work of Ilya Romanov. Ilya creates masterful cocktails, drawing inspiration from Japanese food and drink. The drinks are deceptively simple, but each cocktail packs an immense amount of work.
Something exciting in the works?
Nisei and Iris evolved last year faster than I could have imagined. We are constantly reinvesting in the restaurant, refining ourselves to make the experience better every day.