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Otoro Sushi

Hayes Valley’s Low-key Sushi Hangout

Hayes Valley is a formidable spot to try one’s hand at a sushi restaurant. Japanese juggernaut Sebo and the popular Domo Sushi set the gold standard for the high quality and spotless presentation expected in the neighborhood. But every time you crave a little unagi, it needn’t be a special occasion. Otoro Sushi’s small dining room has managed to carve out a niche for itself as a less-expensive, drop-in spot that offers more exciting fare than your standard California roll and tuna maki. A step above your corner hole-in-the-wall sushi joint, a meal here will satisfy without necessitating $200 or a two-hour wait for a table.

The menu lists a nice variety of dishes; from noodles to ngiri, and both hot and cold small plates -- a nod to the hearty bites served alongside drinks in Japan’s izakayas. Don’t expect to call ahead for a table -- a notable trait in this reservation-challenged city. The dining room is small, but candlelight and dark wood create an ambience both sleek and cozy. While some items need a bit more zing, the food here is suitable to sate a sushi craving. Diners will have the most success focusing on the specials, posted on a board over the sushi bar.

The green bearded mussels ($6) were a favorite. Three good-sized mussels came baked with Japanese mayonnaise, imparting a flavor that marries savory oysters with the comforting richness of mayo. The restaurant’s namesake blue fin otoro -- a premium, fatty tuna from the underbelly -- is a worthy indulgence in lush nigiri ($10).

Otoro does a brisk business on oyster shooters ($5), perhaps because of its elegant presentation in a champagne flute garnished with ponzu and slivered daikon. The shooters are delicious, but meant for experienced shot-takers only, as the glass holds more liquid and oyster than can comfortably fit in the mouth at one time.

The regular menu is large, but dishes too often turn up lacking punch. A small plate of tori karaage ($7) provided a generous portion of marinated chicken with a crisp, non-greasy fry. However, the chicken alone was lacking. Some sauce or a sprinkling of green onions would have done the trick. The ika maruyaki ($7) suffered a similar bland fate, although the plate featured an impressive quantity of well-grilled squid.

Otoro has a small list of basic rolls, and a handful of the overly elaborate specialty rolls that ease many sushi neophytes into the more serious stuff. The negi hama roll ($5) was a simple, pleasant surprise. Green onion gave the necessary bite and balance to the chopped yellowtail.

We asked our server for a chef’s choice item. The perfectly named Chef Tadashi Maki, formerly of Sudachi, sent us the hip-hop roll ($13), a nicely balanced package with shrimp tempura and avocado topped with garlic and white tuna.

Service is attentive and friendly, if a little understaffed. Otoro has a broad sake list, including a flight ($11) that lets diners sample three varieties. Wine and beer lists are small and straightforward. The eatery seems to be popular with groups, and sakes and Sapporo beers flow heavily alongside the food.

When craving a gustatory blowout at Sebo or Domo’s intricate crudo plates, by all means, yield to these indulgent temptations. But, on those nights when you want to meet up with a pal, knock back some drinks and rolls and be pleasantly surprised when the check comes, Otoro is the restaurant that balances good food with good value that will fit the bill.

Hayes Valley

Reservations Essential? No.