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A Likely Local Secret

A red lantern and lit-up tree on Guerrero at 22nd Street are the only landmarks that identify Kiji, a Japanese restaurant that replaced La Foccacia last fall. Although it's not likely to attract foodies from far and wide, it exudes a friendly, neighborhood charm. Enter through the red door and, like many Japanese restaurants, the sociable sushi chefs will belt out a warm, enthusiastic greeting.

Conceived by chef-owner Eddie Hong from SushiGroove, Kiji's décor intersects traditional Japanese with contemporary California. The wasabi-colored walls, bamboo-like ceiling, red-beaded lights, and black trim give it an elegant, chic ambience. Couples and small groups should try to sit in the front of the three rooms near the window, while big groups will prefer the privacy of the back room.

On weekends, this seemingly off-the-beaten-path spot attracts a crowd, so make reservations or expect to join a couple or two outside by the lantern. Otherwise come on a weeknight and get seated right away. Start off with one of their 30 premium sakes or order the sampler ($10) of three different sakes ranging from sweet and fruity to dry and fragrant.

Going well beyond raw fish, the diverse menu includes everything from seared beef nigiri and sautéed eggplant to broiled fish and chicken teriyaki. The red and white tuna poke ($12.95) consists of a "red" maguro atop a seaweed salad and "white" albacore paired with cucumber salad. The hamachi-stuffed shittake ($7.95) mushrooms were a unique, meaty combination with a sweet sauce that seemed odd, but worked. The slim, seared slices of the albacore tataki ($13.95) were beautifully presented on a long, rectangular dish, but the serving size was disappointingly small.

The two biggest hits at our table were the Kiji cucumber roll ($8.95) and the hamachi kama ($8.95). The crispy cucumber of the Kiji roll is wrapped around red tuna, avocado, and shiso then topped with a spicy sauce to bring out the flavors in a light, refreshing bite. Don't pass up the hamachi kama (yellowtail collar) -- but be warned that there's no elegant way to eat it because the best meat is tucked away.

Moving onto raw fish, a good rule of thumb is to order the daily special. That day it was otoro -- blue fin tuna belly, with a buttery bite that's worth the $15 splurge. The hamachi belly ($4.50) and sake belly ($3.95) were equally fresh, as was the eggplant nigiri ($3).

As for the makimono, the rainbow roll ($15.95) is a sure bet -- a California roll on the inside topped with tuna, hamachi, salmon, albacore, and flounder. The adventurous should order the burrito-inspired Valencia roll ($7.50) -- tuna, avocado, and cucumber topped with fresh-made salsa. Unagi lovers will like the Guerrero roll's ($8.95) yellowtail, eel, and avocado combo. The only disappointment was the bland and chalky yama imo (mountain yam) roll ($4).

While expertly prepared, the dinner servings are anything but generous. Both the broiled salmon dinner $13.95 and the beef teriyaki ($15.95) seemed more like appetizer portions than dinner, but they did come with fresh mixed greens, miso, and rice.

The service is genuine and friendly, although a bit spotty. Our server worked efficiently, but her knowledge of the menu was scant, and she couldn't confidently recommend specialties. Kiji is great for big and small groups, as well as raw fish lovers, vegetarians, and carnivores. You'll find everything from young Noe Valley families with newborns in tow to Mission hipsters out for a bite.

Fresh fish from the sushi bar and well-executed dishes from the kitchen ensure a good meal. And the elegant décor, eye-catching preparation, and friendly staff add to the charm of this neighborhood spot.


Reservations Essential? No