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The freshest of fish served up Japanese style, with flair

The okoze fish, also known as the "devil stinger" (yum?), graces the front of the menu at this restaurant of the same name. As it's one of the least attractive fish I've ever set eyes upon, I couldn't imagine why Jason Kim, the owner of Okoze, would want the discriminating diner to associate his restaurant with this warty monstrosity. So I asked him. His response, "Because the meat tastes good." Ah! What a novel concept!

In a city overrun with sub-par sushi restaurants that claim to serve "fresh" fish in "hip" surroundings, Okoze stands out in every sense. The furnishings are contemporary Japanese décor at its best. On the wall behind the sushi bar, dark oak squares of varying sizes grace the wall. One the wall opposite, flowing bamboo hangs gently. One gets the sense in this establishment that yin is definitely in sync with yang. The restaurant is further furnished with rich, hand-sewn textile hangings. There's a beautiful simplicity at work here that carries over into the food.

And oh, the food! This is some of the freshest fish that has ever passed my lips, folks. Jason Kim is a man who takes his sushi seriously. Raised in Osaka, he began his sushi-chef training there and has been behind the sushi bar in some sense for the last 15 years. Only 4 years in America, Jason worked at Ebisu (one of SF's favorite sushi places) before opening Okoze. His attention to detail, from using the freshest of ingredients to the presentation itself, is nothing short of artful.

On our visit, he paraded out beautifully prepared dish after dish, from the sinfully decadent Golden Dinosaur ($6.95), a twist on sea urchin served deep-fried and topped with shiso (an aromatic, strong-flavored leaf) to the Saganaki ($8.50), tuna belly topped with garlic sauce; think pork belly, Japanese style. Heavenly! Other winning appetizers included the Toro Tar-Tar ($7.50) and the Ankimo Sunomo ($8.75), monkfish liver in a white wine vinegar.

The rolls offered are creative and tasty as well. We sampled the Salamander Maki ($13.50), a layering of salmon, shiso, and hamachi over tuna and caviar. Also wonderful was the Spicy Albacore Tempura Asparagus Maki ($6.50), which was coated with a crispy, popcorn-like rice that gave a double-crunch to the roll.

But the real star here is the fish. On any given night, there are at least 4-5 types of special varieties of fish being offered, in addition to the normal menu items. On our visit, we sampled Amberjack and Bluefin tuna, Spanish Mackerel, and the usual suspects of Sake, Yellowtail, and Albacore. All were of the excellent melt-in-your-mouth variety that is a staple of truly fresh and quality fish. Another plus: the fish-to-rice ratio was quite perfect. As it was unlike anything I had as yet sampled in San Francisco, I had to ask Jason where it came from. I'll just say here that he makes a two-hour trek each day to a fish market somewhere south of here. And trust me, it's worth the trip.

A complimentary dessert of freshly split orange is offered, and it's the perfect way to cleanse one's palate after so many intense flavors.

Wine, beer, and of course sake are served, as well as an unusual offering of plum wine, which actually matches quite well with the fresh fish.

I feel like I ought to say something bad about the place; I am, after all, a food "critic". Shouldn't I be criticizing something? But, alas I am failing in my duties. For those seeking the freshest of fish served up in authentic yet modern surroundings, Okoze brings something to the sushi scene that was missing before. There were many excited exclamations at our table that night, but my favorite of all was the one that my dinner companion uttered, at the end of our meal, with the utmost seriousness: "Jason is at one with the fish." And indeed he is. Perhaps he was an Okoze in a former life?