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Eastern refinement meets the Western appetite

Tucked into the second floor lobby of Hotel Nikko off Mason Street lies Anzu, an unconventional Japanese restaurant that claims the dual title of steak house and sushi bar. It's unfortunate that Hotel Nikko provides a most icy and impersonal environment for Anzu. When entering the restaurant, one wishes to seek refuge from the lobby's bland cosmopolitanism, its chrome, glass and marble decor; One hopes to be immersed into an intimate eastern setting of scarlet walls and lacquered folding screens that can be found in other Japanese restaurants such as Nobu in Manhattan, for example. No such refuge is offered by Anzu's interior. Instead, its furnishings simulate the over-upholstered approximation of comfort that bedecks the hotel lobby.

The restaurant's sushi bar manages to compensate for the lack of visual stimulation in the decor. Emanating a scent of fresh sushi tinged with piquant hints of pickled ginger, its pervasive aromas seem likely to tantalize and awaken the most meager of appetites. A cocktail bar specializes in inventive sake cocktails like the Blue Z martini (Momokawa "Diamond" Sake, Blue Curacao and Skyy Vodka), or the Sake on the Beach (you guessed it). Sidestepping the more adventurous concoctions, we opted for the purity of a chilled bottle of sake instead. The Nigori proved a lovely accompaniment for a starter plate of sushi. An unfiltered sake with a milky hue, it contained a fair amount of residual sugar and gave off refreshing hints of pineapple and cinnamon.

The sushi was as fresh as its fragrance would have suggested, and served in generous portions ($5 for 2 pieces of nigiri). Its selection, however, was limited to the standard tuna, prawn, yellowtail, salmon and halibut. Our favorites: white tuna, freshwater eel and clam, were disappointingly absent from the menu. Perhaps the idea was not to encourage diners to indulge in a full meal of sushi, but to give reason to sample Anzu's other fine offerings as well. We were fortunate not to have been satiated on sushi, for Anzu's newly appointed Chef de Cuisine, Mark Pettyjohn, kept us intrigued throughout the meal with his assortment of inventive, Asian-fusion dishes.

We couldn't pass up some picks from the specials menu. For starters, the pan seared day boat scallops were deftly handled to showcase their tender texture. Served with potato cakes and a sweet corn pudding drizzled with a port sauce, they displayed a masterful commingling of complementary flavors. The roasted Hawaiian swordfish was the highlight of the meal, a fish perfectly cooked in a crust of a crumbs and coriander that sealed in its flavor. It was served over a curried banana sauce which revealed its sweetness only upon its coupling with the coriander crusted fish.

Making our way to the entrees, we sampled the sea bass with baby bok choy and seafood gyoza ($20.50). The consistency of the fish was buttery and silky, cooked in an understated mushroom shoyu broth that enhanced its natural flavor. Altogether, the dish demonstrated a light yet well paired combination of fresh ingredients. Then there was the matter of the restaurant's featured menu item. It being a steakhouse, we felt compelled to order one of the restaurant's prime cuts. Neither of us being avid red meat eaters, we at first weren't prepared to admit what a satisfying experience it was to taste this fine piece of ribeye ($30). A thick and tender cut of meat served free of the bone and free of unnecessary embellishment, it achieved near perfection in richness of flavor and simplicity of presentation.

Our indecisiveness in confronting the dessert menu was remedied by our waitress who recommended the warmed chocolate truffle cake and the Thai tea crème brulee (each at $6.50). Although the chocolate cake was decadent enough to fulfill our expectations, the consistency of the crème brulee didn't display the smooth, creamy texture that makes it such a traditional favorite among dessert lovers.

Admittedly, Anzu might not provide the most intimate setting for a date (our table for two, for example, was too broad to allow for hand holding), but the restaurant's corporate ambiance makes it a perfect spot for entertaining clients, and its diverse menu selection is sure to cater to each and every one of your guests' culinary leanings. Anzu's other claim to fame is its weekly Jazz Sunday Brunch (KKSF broadcasts live from the hotel every Sunday). Featuring a buffet filled with American and Japanese favorites, not to mention all you can drink mimosas, it's guaranteed to please out of town family members and guests ($38 per person).