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Chic Sushi and Whiskey Lounge where SOMA meets the Mission

Nihon, a chic, understated little Japanese restaurant/whiskey lounge, opened quietly in early 2006 on a nondescript corner of Folsom and 14th, causing quite the buzz in the Mission and surrounding neighborhoods. The Dajani group, also owners of Tsunami Sushi, Bar 821, and Café Abir, have consistently added to the invigoration of the Divisadero strip with their hip, affordable operations. Word on the street is that their latest venture, Nihon, does much the same for its location. Despite the presence of Chez Spencer bistro, the area is known mainly for housing Rainbow Grocery and a handful of big-box retailers beneath a dominating freeway overpass.

Nihon is modeled after the Izakaya style of informal dining in Japan; all food is tapas-style, meant for sharing. This arrangement creates a lively atmosphere that can get quite loud. On multiple occasions we found the place buzzing with singles, couples, and groups engaged in conversation.

The design is impressive and theatrical, with loft-like ceilings, and a modern, rich design themed with deep red. Making the most of the space, they've created a bar with lounge seating on the perimeters, and they've allocated the dining area to the mezzanine that overlooks the bar below.

The focus here is on beverages and small plates -- very small plates. If you are a whiskey fan, this is the place to go. Nihon offers over a hundred, with over eighty single malts. Prices range anywhere from $8-15 for a 2 oz. pour; 4 oz pours are also available. If a bottle is more your style, you can have it stored for you in the private bottle service room. The bottle room is a swank lounge at the top of the stairs. Awash in an amber glow, you can't help but feel special here.

Nihon also offers sake, beer, and premium beverages. This list is long and impressive, and should please not only the casual drinker but also the connoisseur with everything from a beer to a vintage bottle of '95 Dom Perignon ($260).

The contemporary Japanese cuisine is served with a modern, stylized twist. With a menu filling both sides of a page and daily specials, there is a lot to choose from, including: appetizers, salads, Robata, specials, sashimi, Maki sushi, and house rolls.

One will find similarities to Tsunami, the sister sushi restaurant on Fulton, with an emphasis on sushi rolls with unique combinations. For example, the 1974 roll ($13) mixes spicy scallop, cucumber, asparagus, salmon, and lemon resulting in a tantalizing combination that is refreshing and addictive. Fans of spicy rolls will love the Samurai A ($13). With spicy tuna and jalapeno topped with avocado and habanero, it's spicy on all levels and bursts with layers of flavor.

Other items on the menu include the coke Kobe beef ($9). It's served in a bowl with chunks of Kobe beef in a broth-like sauce of coke, sake, soy sauce and ginger. It's a great appetizer and one of the larger items on the menu. One of our favorites, the tuna carpaccio ($12), is served with rock salt that allows you to focus on the beautiful cut of tuna. A variety of Robata items are offered including the lamb ($8). It was grilled perfectly with subtle hints of the moromio miso marinade. We just wished the bites were larger.

There are only a few desserts offered; we chose the green tea cheesecake ($4). It was rich and tasty, but drizzled with Hershey's syrup, it lost its allure. The hip wait staff is friendly and attentive. Servers are familiar with the menu and give great food and drink recommendations.

Nihon is a perfect place for friends to hang out and get some bites while enjoying the lounge-like ambience and hipster crowd. Their mission statement declares that their purpose is "to create a party atmosphere for us and our guests" -- and thus they have.


Reservations recommended? Yes