Dining At Yokai, San Francisco’s New Hi-Fi Bar & Restaurant
Chef Marc Zimmerman was majoring in music engineering in college in Indiana before he decided to scrap that for a career in cooking instead.
Now, however, he’s managed to combine both those passions into one: Yokai, his second San Francisco restaurant, which opened in September, just four blocks away from Gozu, his first that debuted in 2019.
Located in the SOMA neighborhood, Yokai is named for the Japanese word for “ghosts or spirits,” which is appropriate given its extensive bar program that spotlights Japanese and American spirits.
The music emphasis is apparent right when you step inside to find the host stand outfitted with two turntables and shelves of vinyl records. You can’t miss the large speakers behind the bar, too. But the music, while lively, is not intrusive, as I found when I dined as a guest of the restaurant last week, when jazz was very much the music of choice on that weeknight.
The restaurant is housed in what was the first permanent structure built on Mission Street after the 1906 earthquake. It was home to Salt House restaurant until 2020. With exposed brick walls, riveted steel girders and wood beams, it has an industrial-chic vibe that seems to be hitting all the high notes already, especially with the after-work crowd that packed it the night I was there.
Chill out with the Trou Normand ($16), a specialty cocktail of Calvados, Lillet, Macvin du Jura, and a fresh shiso leaf that was herbaceous, autumnal, and refreshing.
Chef de Cuisine Jessie Lugo, who worked with Zimmerman at Gozu and Alexander’s Steakhouse in San Francisco, oversees the operations here, which also features live-fire cooking, but with a more casual approach.
While Gozu concentrates heavily on Japanese A5 Wagyu, using not only prime cuts but also lesser known bits to great effect, Yokai has a broader reach that melds Japanese and California influences.
Prime the taste buds with the crudo of supple, buttery tasting striped jack or shimi-aji drizzled with olive oil and dotted with ginger and wasabi for a burst of sweet, tingly heat.
Follow that up with crispy and chewy-tender focaccia ($6), which gets a boost in flavor from sourdough and seaweed. Spring for the optional herb and caviar dip ($30) to make things even more interesting with added briny, smoky, and deep savory notes.
Wild bay greens ($15) constitutes a big bowl of crunch with kale leaves tossed in a floral, resiny evergreen vinaigrette and plenty of pine nuts.
Next, one of my favorite items from Gozu, which made the trek here: Wagyu gyoza ($5 each). The thin skins, which get crisp on one side, hold an incredibly juicy, beefy filling. Japanese chili oil on the bottom of the plate adds just enough heat.
Wild California mushrooms ($14) come heaped in a hot stone bowl and garnished with nasturtium gremolata, which adds a peppery vitality to these woodsy, meaty tasting shrooms.
Definitely try some of the skewers that are grilled over Japanese binchotan. The Ora King salmon belly ($14 per skewer) gets brushed with creme fraiche, and finished with matcha and dill. It is so rich and succulent that it practically dissolves on your tongue.
A special that night was grilled duck hearts ($10 per skewer), finished with a little black garlic and sweet peppers. Smoky and toothsome, the hearts are so concentrated in dark meat-poultry flavor, like duck leg squared and then some.
Steamed edamame ($8) goes a little luxe with warm cultured butter. It’s like eating popcorn, where you’re sorely tempted to lick your fingers.
With its potent oily taste, grilled mackerel usually gets a finish of salt, soy sauce and fresh lemon at traditional Japanese restaurants as a counterbalance. Yokai gets more creative, garnishing the smoky mackerel ($27) with pickled mustard seeds and honey-preserved ramps for a piquant burst.
You’ll definitely want to enjoy it with the homey, nutty and fresh starchy taste of perfectly cooked Koshihikari rice dusted with furikake ($9).
I can never pass up mochi cake ($14), and this double chocolate one hit the spot. Served warm atop a pool of toasted rice milk and drizzled with chocolate syrup, it was moist and slightly bouncy with a nice touch of salt.
When I once asked Zimmerman if cooking was in any way like making music, he said there were definite parallels. “When you’re working all together as hard as you can, there’s a lot of romance and reward.”
At Yokai, he’s managed to achieve both.
More: Dining at Gozu