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Shimmy Shimmy Sushigroove

When sushi came into American vogue during the mid-eighties, it was heralded as ‘the food of the gods.’ Raw fish was new to the American palate, and even more than most new ethnic cuisine, seemed dangerous and decadent. It was the sustenance of brokers and starlets, dignitaries and diplomats, and not necessarily intended for consumption by the mortal remainder of the population. Like the raw egged Caesar salad of the thirties, sushi in the eighties embodied a paradoxical duality of classic s.plicity and eccentric frivolity.

Unfortunately, there has been a steady decline in the cultural cache of eating sushi. Though some of the country remains unable to articulate the practical difference between Maki and Nigiri, most of us credit sushi with possessing a bit more exoticism and excitement than that of the lowly burrito. The bulk of San Franciscan sushi culture, in particular, is comprised of low cost, and sometimes low quality, sushi bars without much enthusiasm or creativity in either menu or preparation. The real tragedy of the local proliferation of sushi bars is that, by becoming mainstream, they have become (dare I say) common. Needless to say, I was unimpressed when I heard Sushigroove was making a bid for the city's best sushi; years of bland Miso and loose wraps had jaded my palate.

Prior to my visit, I had heard no reports of actual dining at the small Russian Hill restaurant on Hyde Street; I had heard reports from ‘window diners’ who were taken by the dramatically lit interior and nightly packed tables, not to mention the handsome and smartly dressed cast pressed into the street-side booths. The night that I was supposed to arrive, however, I nearly missed the place, walking by it twice before ducking into Swenson's Ice Cream on the corner of Hyde and Union, only to be told it was just across the street and down a half a block.

If the outside is slightly indistinct -or, more accurately, discreet -the inside might be taken for one of the darker episodes of Miami Vice. The far wall is back-lit evenly through an amber translucent glass, evoking a colorized hollywood backdrop a la The Burning of Atlanta or a smoldering post nuclear summer. the small (and small number of) tables lend themselves well to imagining oneself part of an elite group of post-peak celebrities dining in self-imposed seclusion. (luckily for a number of us would-be undiscovered superstars, cell phones were permitted).

As one might expect from its surroundings, Sushigroove is not pedestrian fare; it borders on the aristocratic and is the first sushi restaurant in years which I’ve had to live up to instead of the other way around. Expecting the usual bland California rolls and staid Unagi, I was pleasantly surprised by the eclectic composition of the menu. See the Techno Maki roll ( $8.50), an assortment of fresh fish inside out, and the Jungle roll ($5.00), a Maki of yellowtail, papaya and tobiko.

I started with a bowl of Miso soup ($1.75). The broth was fresh and full-bodied without being over salted or weak. The real delight, however, was in the appetizers. The Tuna Tar Tar salad, albeit a bit soupy, dissolved on the tongue and was well paired with the combination of capers, pungent salsa, and spicy ‘dressing’ on a bed of crisp bitter greens. I finished the salad only to be tuna tempted once again, this time by the seared Ahi Tuna salad ($8.50) sliced thin and served with a delicate, but not negligible, sauté of ginger, garlic, onion, soy sauce and chives.

Perhaps it was the Sake (chilled, unfiltered and served in a double martini glass) but by this point I was fancying myself blessed. The waiters, sushi chefs, and hostess (general manager Michelle Drinks) were not overbearing or detached. Instead, they treated the meal and the patrons as if they were enacting a performance which, with understood elegance, would speak for itself.

Out of the selection of sushi and sashimi that followed, Shiro Maguro albacore and the grilled japanese eggplant were exceptional. The former was offered Sashimi style (plain on an unwrapped clump of rice) and was so delicious on its own that my usual addition of wasabi, ginger, and soy sauce struck me as something so close to palate heresy that I chose to abandon it altogether. In fact, despite my fondness for that trinity of sushi condiments, I rarely .ployed them at Sushigroove. In general, the flavor of the fish itself was enough to carry the roll. However, one should not neglect rolls boasting chef Koko Mizuno's spicy 'sauces.’ In both the Dynamite roll (tuna in extra spicy sauce, $5.00) and the Firecrackers (extra spicy scallops, $4.50), the sauce transforms the roll into something beyond tasty raw fish. While the consistency of the latter roll was a bit too creamy, the bite of the sauce countered any .plication of blandness.

I left Sushigroove a bit heady and a little drunk. As I turned onto Green Street at the end of the block, I glanced back at the subtle and quite restaurant facade and couldn't help wondering if I hadn't been involved in some sort of sushi-laden fantasy island episode...