The term “Izakaya” is becoming more commonplace, at least on the West Coast, and in its rise in popularity comes the inevitable widening of the spectrum of experiences you might run across. At some Izakayas (Japanese Pubs), you might encounter the equivalent of a roiling frat party (the last 2 times we went to Honda-Ya LT (and have never gone back)). Or you might sit down to a quiet, peaceful meal, and enjoy excellent dishes while being able to carry a thoughtful conversation without losing your voice (e.g., Morinoya or Kinjiro). Finding ourselves in San Mateo a bit longer, we decided to try Izakaya Ginji (thanks @BradFord @beefnoguy for the recommendation!), hoping for something less like Honda-Ya and more like our L.A. favorites.
It turns out, Ginji is something a little bit different…
Walking in, the staff at Izakaya Ginji greeted us warmly, and from the Yakitori grill already busy cooking up delicious Yakitori skewers (front and center) to the old-school Japanese signage, this felt like a welcoming, casual, relaxing place to sit down, eat and enjoy some cool, refreshing Nihonshu (Japanese Sake). In other words, my favorite type of Izakaya.
It turns out Izakaya Ginji is a family operation, opened up by two brothers, Daisuke Nishimoto (who works the stoves in the back as well as curates their extensive Sake menu), and Shingo who mans the Binchotan (Japanese Charcoal) Grill in front.
Ura Gasanryu - Fuka - Junmai Sake (Yamagata, Japan):
We were initially skeptical of ordering only a Junmai Sake (i.e., Sake that is made with no additives beyond the basic water, yeast, koji and rice)). We’ve had some simpler Sake in the past that weren’t Ginjo or Daiginjo that were just unpleasant. But this came recommended by our resident Sake expert, @beefnoguy, and Chef-Owner-Sake Guru Daisuke also seemed pleased when we ordered this…
The Ura Gasanryu exhibits this flavorful sweetness (no sugar) on the palate, but it’s so light at the same time and finishes dry and clean. It is downright shocking how good this “simple” Junmai Sake was! It was an excellent, refreshing drink, so smooth and clean that some of our friends exclaimed was the best Sake they had ever tried. (To be fair, they haven’t had any of the absurd Sake we’ve had recently at Raku and Mori Sushi, but regardless, this was very good!) Thanks @beefnoguy!
Tsukune - Chicken Meatball Skewers:
And our orders from the Yakitori grill started to appear, starting with the Tsukune first. There is a very good balance of seasoning from the Marinated Ground Chicken, and I absolutely love the fact that you can order the Yakitori with Shio (Salt) or Tare (Soy Sauce-based Sauce).
Ginji’s Tsukune doesn’t topple Torihei 1st Generation’s amazing Tsukune, nor Aburiya Raku’s offering, but this was quite enjoyable and delicious.
Asparagus & Bacon Skewers:
Excellent! Smoky Bacon, slightly crisped and Asparagus cooked all the way through on the grill.
Ingen Goma Ae - Boiled String Beans Dressed in Sesame Sauce:
Just cooked through, the Green Beans are tender, but still have a bit of a snap and body to them. The Sesame Sauce is lightly nutty. Perfect for the warm weather.
And all of these dishes were pairing very well with the Ura Gasanryu.
Momo - Chicken Thigh Skewers:
Juicy, lightly smoky, and tasty.
One thing I wish Izakaya Ginji had would be Sansho Pepper in addition to the Shichimi Togarashi condiment, but either way, these were tasty.
Negi Banban - Chicken & Scallion Skewers (with Citrus Ponzu Sauce):
Lightly tart and savory, the Chicken Thigh with Scallions were a nice change from the usual offerings.
Kinpira Gobo - Stir Fried Burdock and Carrot:
(Apologies for some of these messy photos… perhaps too much Sake was flowing this evening.)
Tasty, but perhaps a touch too overseasoned (too sweet, a bit oversauced), but overall a nice fibrous, crunchy dish that’s a good contrast with the other dishes.
Nasu - Eggplant Skewers:
Fantastic! Nicely smoky, the Eggplant was creamy tender in the center, and the Katsuoboshi Bonito Shavings on top gave it a nice briny contrast.
Shichida - Muroka Nama Junmai Ginjo Sake (Limited Edition) - Saga, Japan:
I was so excited to see this offered on the Premium Sake Menu (curated by Daisuke-san). When discussing Sake we loved, Daisuke-san disappeared and came back with this option. Hearing @beefnoguy rave about this earlier, we were glad to have the opportunity to try this considering it’s a limited release.
First, @beefnoguy was right! This Shichida Muroka Nama Sake is very unique: It’s fruity, dynamic, really lively, but it also has natural carbonation (bubbles)! It’s not super fizzy like a Champagne, but there’s this tingly, playful deliciousness. And it finishes clean!
This was fantastic! And another excellent Sake offered at Izakaya Ginji. This was 2 of our group’s favorite Sake of the night. (It was my 2nd favorite.)
Mune Shiso - Chicken Breast & Shiso Herb Skewers:
It’s hard to make Chicken Breast Yakitori Skewers not dry (naturally lean meat); sadly, Ginji’s Chicken Breast falls into this common occurrence. It’s dryish, overcooked, but the combination of Shiso Herb (so fragrant) and smoky Chicken Breast is still appealing.
And it was fantastic with the Shichida Muroka Nama Sake!
Garlic Teriyaki Tontoro (Pork Cheek Meat, Onion, Zucchini, Garlic Teriyaki):
This arrived on a piping hot sizzling plate. It is pretty tasty, sweet, garlicky, but thankfully not so overly sweet like generic “Teriyaki.” The Pork Cheek Meat is still moist and tender.
Agedashi Tofu - Deep Fried Tofu with Dashi Broth:
Nicely crispy exterior, perfectly fried, with a nice Dashi Broth with some Daikon, Ginger and Green Onions.
Petite Tomato Skewers:
Hakuro Suishu Shikomi Mizu - Natural Mineral Water (Yamagata, Japan):
We were originally going to order @beefnoguy’s other recommendation, a Hakuro Suishu, but Daisuke-san informed us they were sold out. But he quickly disappeared and came back with this bottle of Hakuro Suishu Water. Apparently this is the same Natural Mineral Water (from a 5,000 year old source according to the brewer) that they use to make the Sake. Daisuke-san offered us a bottle to taste the source of the water.
It was seriously “soft” and “round.” It was a pleasing, clean, refreshing taste of Water. It’s hard to describe but it was quite nice.
Mentaiko Carbonara (Stir Fried Udon with Spicy Pollock Roe):
This is in the Yoshoku (Western-influenced) vein of Japanese dishes, Ginji’s version of a “Pasta Carbonara,” but cooked with Udon instead, and using Mentaiko. This was really great: Devoured in seconds, the thicker Udon Noodles combined nicely with the creamy Carbonara Sauce infused with Spicy Pollock Roe, giving it a nicely briny taste.
Takoyaki (Deep Fried Pancake Balls with Octopus Inside):
These were thankfully slightly crisped, and fluffy inside. They aren’t as good as the Takoyaki from E.A.K., but considering how bad Takoyaki has been in So Cal, it’s a welcome dish for us.
Ebi Tempura (Shrimp Tempura):
Ginji’s Tempura is a lighter fry, not overly oily, and having a nice crispness. For an Izakaya, it’s of pretty good quality, but obviously doesn’t come close to Tempura specialists like Inaba (for reference). But it’s still quite enjoyable and another great pairing with the Shichida Muroka.
Ryusei Nagomino Karakuchi Sake (Hiroshima, Japan):
Another bottle not on the regular menu (but on Daisuke-san’s Premium Sake menu), I’ve never heard of Ryusei Nagomino before. And, hearing Daisuke-san talk excitedly about this (and all the Sake we had, as well as other offerings), it was like taking a Sake Class. Fascinating notes about the brewers he’s met and information about what makes each Sake so unique.
This Ryusei Nagomino Karakuchi was just as unique from the others we tried tonight: A full bodied, almost bold start, but another clean, dry finish!
Tori Kara Age (Deep Fried Chicken):
Very good Kara Age: Nice morsels of juicy Chicken Thigh, deep fried to a slight crunchiness, not overly salty. And a very nice match for the Ryusei Sake.
Lollipop Chicken (Chicken Drumette, Sweet Soy, Aonori):
These were a bit overly sweet for my tastes, but they were Deep Fried Chicken Drumettes (from the Wing), coated in a Sweet Soy Sauce and some Sesame Seeds and Aonori. Besides that, it was nicely fried, and another tasty dish for the evening.
Sake Onigiri (Rice Ball with Salmon Flakes) + Ume Onigiri (Rice Ball with Japanese Pickled Plum):
The Rice is fairly typical Steamed Rice - a bit too dense, slightly dry - but what elevates this Onigiri is the fantastic, crispy Nori (Seaweed) wrapper. That crisped crunch when you bite into an Onigiri made with great Nori is one of those happy joyous occasions, something folks like @CiaoBob @MaladyNelson @bulavinaka and others look forward to. This was great for those reasons, but I wish the Rice was just a touch better. But a great Onigiri for an Izakaya.
Their Housemade Tsukemono (Pickled Veggies) were fantastic as well.
Kokuryu - Crystal Dragon - Tokusen Ginjo Sake (Fukui, Japan):
Our final Sake of the evening, this was another great bottle recommended by Daisuke-san. We’ve seen Kokuryu (“Black Dragon”) on many menus around California, but this Tokusen Ginjo “Crystal Dragon” was something I haven’t seen before.
And it was outstanding! Extremely smooth, soft and gentle with a really clean, dry finish. Really really great!
Yogurt Cheese Mousse (Topped with Fresh Berry Sauce):
We wouldn’t have thought of ordering this, but our server enthusiastically recommended it, so we tried it. It was really surprising, silky, sweet, with a light tang, and nicely balanced by the fresh Blueberries and Raspberries Sauce.
Service was warm, attentive and very good. It’s not a formal dining space, but in this casual Japanese Pub experience, Izakaya Ginji’s service (from its servers to the Chef-Owner) were outstanding. In addition, the QPR was ridiculous: For the Sake, every single bottle was well below $100, which is shocking considering most fancier Sake in L.A. get marked up above $100 easily. This ended up being roughly $80 per person total (including tax & tip), which is really crazy considering how much great Sake we had.
Izakaya Ginji’s dishes are generally very solid and well-done: Their Yakitori Skewers aren’t as good as places like Aburiya Raku, their Small Plates don’t approach the level of finesse of Kinjiro or Raku either. However, what makes Ginji stand out is its warm, welcoming atmosphere and good-to-very-good dishes.
From the moment we stepped in, to the time we left, we felt like we were welcomed into someone’s home. The servers were smiling and welcoming, and always happy to serve and meet our needs, the Chef-Owners were cooking and serving as well.
And then you get to the Sake Menu, which is simply outstanding for a humble little Izakaya like this. This isn’t some fancy bastion of showiness like some places, there is no pretentiousness, but yet they manage to carry some of the most delicious and harder-to-find Sake we’ve had outside of Mori Sushi and Aburiya Raku (without the price tag)! Getting 4 completely new, untried Sake, and having all 4 deliver outstanding, smooth, delicious drinking experiences, all because of Chef-Owner Daisuke Nishimoto’s informative and enthusiastic recommendations is a joy, and dramatically increased the our dining experience this evening. (@TheCookie, here’s your Sake class.)
Izakaya Ginji is definitely a “nice, neighborhood spot.” From the menus and reviews I’ve read online, there are probably many Izakaya far better than Ginji in SF, but the warmth, inviting, humble atmosphere, and fantastic Sake menu and Sake lessons and stories from Daisuke-san make this one neighborhood spot we’ll be glad to return to, time and again, whenever we’re visiting San Francisco.
301 E. 4th Avenue
San Mateo, CA 94401
Tel: (650) 348-1110