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Star Chef Seiji "Waka" Wakabayashi Returns
by LaWand Mathern on Aug 17, 2006
Talk about a Bay Area foodie's dream come true. Chef Waka is back. About six years ago, SF Station's Food Editor, Tracie Broom, was writing a piece for a now-defunct magazine about Marin restaurants. Sausalito's Ondine was recommended off-hand by a fellow foodie. Expecting a mediocre waterfront dining experience, she and her companion were completely blown away by the chef's creative cuisine and expert hand; it was obvious that this guy was one of the all-time greats.
Then Ondine closed, like many places after the dot com crash, and it was a mystery as to how one would ever again get to taste something so sublime as Chef Waka's lightly creamy coriander fettucine pad thai with diver scallops. Waka, we hardly knew ye.
But now he's back! Seiji "Waka'' Wakabayashi, formerly from Japan, worked at Spago in Los Angeles in the 80s, then stunned fortunate diners at Ondine in Sausalito during the dot com era. He moved to Dallas, where he opened two restaurants named Waka. Luckily for San Francisco, he returned to the Bay Area to open Bushi-Tei with Tak Matsuba in November 2005.
Dining at Bushi-Tei, one can't help but be swept away. Perhaps it's the passion of the staff, who rave about every dish and are enraptured by their chef. Or it could be Matsuba, the owner, who will sit and tell you stories about every little detail that went into the construction of the restaurant. Or it may be just the atmosphere itself that will make you feel like you are on a familiar vacation.
Located in the center of Japantown, Bushi-Tei quietly commands your attention. The restaurant is beautiful, a blend of modern elements and hints of Japan that pay homage to the owner’s past. Wood dating from the 1800’s was imported from Japan and is used in the construction of everything from ceiling panels to booths. This, mixed with large glass structures, mellow world music and candlelight, adds to the relaxing ambiance. With tables positioned to allow for intimate conversations, and a large communal table dominating the center of the room, this is a restaurant for any occasion.
Keen attention to detail is found throughout the restaurant. For instance, the water served is micro-structured electrolysis water with a ph balance of 8.5-9.5. Chef Waka and Matsuba custom designed the place-setting holders and the serving dishes. Perhaps the kickiest treat is the electronic toilet in the bathroom -- an experience in itself. The control panel is full of options that include direction, speed, and temperature. It’s even equipped with a drier.
Waka has created an a la carte menu with 10 starters and 7 entrees, with a daily changing tasting menu for $85. The food he creates uniquely combines the flavors of California, France, and Japan.
A knowledgeable and talented staff orchestrates dinner. It begins with homemade bread, artfully presented, and an amouse bouche: on our visit, a tart filled with cod brandade. We were indeed amused and eager to get into the menu.
We started with a delightful lobster and crab salad ($18). Dotted with papaya and delicate chrysanthemum leaves, it’s a clean-tasting starter with a slight smoky flavor from the bacon, finished off with ginger cream and curry oil.
Per our server’s recommendation, we moved onto big eye tuna tartare ($16) with tobiko caviar, avocado, wasabi-crčme fraiche and coriander seed. It’s beautifully presented, molded into a tower, and among one of the best in the city. Other entrees include a confit of quail wrapped in jamon Serrano and dotted with a quail egg ($16) and miso marinated Kobe beef ($18).
Main courses include a perfectly grilled and seasoned Sonoma lamb chop ($30). Accompanied by a yam puree, haricots verts and finished with a delicious wasabi-port sauce, this melding of flavors highlights Waka’s talents in the kitchen. Compared to the lamb chop, the grilled Chilean sea bass ($19) with baby bok choy and a ginger-tamari lime oil could not stand up. The texture seemed a bit off and distracted us from thoroughly enjoying this course.
Desserts also stand out. The apple dumpling ($6.50) is nestled in a praline of almonds, drizzled with a creamy caramel sauce, and topped with vanilla bean ice cream. It’s outstanding.
After spending an enjoyable evening with the owner, manager, wait staff, and chef, we were sad for our time to come to an end -- but we're eager to see what this wonderful spot has in store for our next visit.
by LaWand Mathern on Aug 17, 2006