Bushi-Tei, Asian-French Fusion in JapanTown ~ a bang for your buck

I am someone with more than one food intolerance (not technically allergic, but can’t properly digest gluten, eggs, dairy and pineapple). For special celebrations, I do not look for the most romantic or most trendy spot in town. Instead, I look for a place that is focused on the food. If the kitchen understands food, they will understand my unique needs and help me navigate the menu accordingly.

Bushi-Tei in JapanTown, which bills itself as “French California Fusion”, has received stars from both the San Francisco Chronicle (3 in 2006) and the Michelin Guide (1 in 2007). Chef Seiji Wakabayasi was named a Rising Star by the chef’s club, Star Chefs. Loaded with such accolades, I expected the food to be stellar (pun intended), but could a French-trained Japanese Chef take out the butter and cheese and still serve excellent food? The short answer: yes!

(To read Michael Bauer’s 2006 review in the Chron, click here.)

I started with the miso marinated Wagyu beef, minus the blue cheese. Stuffed and rolled with cress, apple and fennel, it was served sushi style in 5 pieces. I often need to add salt to my cheese-free menu. The Wagyu is luscious and creamy; the cheese would add an umami tang and salt. With a sprinkle of salt, the Wagyu was less overwhelming and melded nicely with the flavor of the stuffing.

Stefan started with the lobster and crab with chrysanthemum leaf (edible flowers are ever-present in my current dining world) with the ginger cream on the side. My cream-free bites presented fresh seafood with a zing of c’leaf and a salty note of bacon. Able to enjoy the ginger cream, Stefan declared the dish outstanding ~ with every bite the salad hit every part of his palate and created a sublime whole.

Our server steered me towards the Kurobuta pork and beans for the main course. Pork quickly becomes over-cooked and I would have liked mine served with 2 fewer minutes on its hide. Perhaps my taste buds were still recovering from the Wagyu…) Apple ginger chutney makes the dish pop and provides needed contrast. No flavors were missing in my pork-n-beans.

Stefan ordered the big eye tuna with rock shrimp risotto. Served with a coconut red curry, the risotto is slightly creamy and orange-hued but the tuna is the star. Lightly seared and perfectly raw in the middle, do not use a knife. Enjoy this dish fork-solo. Stefan said the tuna was “the best dish he’s had this year” for its complex flavors, striking presentation and supreme attention to beautiful ingredients.

A few notes:

+ Chef Wakabayasi likes ginger and works it in to the menu in subtle and striking ways. Accustomed to the pickled ginger of sushi restaurants, the warm note of ginger is present in at least 5 dishes on the menu. Ginger here does not overwhelm but serves to intensify flavors. Chef Waka calls it his “secret ingredient”.

+ The wine list does not seem to match the exquisite food (see Chron review, above).

+ When I asked for salt and pepper, I was presented with a paired set of finely ground salt and pepper. Why no fresh pepper or a pepper grinder on the table? And, when another table asked for salt, our service was removed without consultation. Does the restaurant only own one set of salt and pepper shakers?

+ Form over function? While every detail of tableware is thought-out, the chopsticks were a bit difficult to use. Twigs in their natural form are lovely, yes, but their utility is somewhat limited. Ditto the beautiful but narrow-handled and hard to hold fork.

+ Form over function, part 2: There is a large community table (“stammtisch”, in German) in the middle of the room. I am glad we were not seated there for this special-occasion meal. I don’t mind a community table, but this one is one “seating width” too large and it would be difficult to talk to someone seated on the opposite side.

+ Service was uneven. Our waiter initially handled my unique requests well but did not communicate to the busser. I was offered wheat bread twice and my dessert was presented with a wafer I was unable to eat. Rather than take my plate to the kitchen and remove the wafers there, this was done on the spot. I did not expect this from a Michelin 1-star. See above note about salt and pepper service. But our water glasses were always full.

In sum: A foodie bang for the buck. Go for the superior food and expect the food to be excellent. The food bill for two of us was less than $100 including dessert. Bring your own wine and ask to be seated at a small table.