Dining

Dynamic Duo: Pabu and The Ramen Bar

Michael Mina's new FiDi spots are neighbors but worlds apart

The Ramen Bar and Pabu, Michael Mina's newest Japanese duo, which made their splashy debut in the Financial District last month, may share the same tony 101 California address and sushi master, Ken Tominaga (of Sonoma's Hana Japanese), but whether you chose door No. 1 or door No. 2 depends entirely on mood, timing and the size of your wallet.   

Ravenous with little more than a ten spot at lunchtime? Join the crush of workers slurping down big bowls of soup noodles ($11-$16), donburi and composed salads ($12 each) in a setting evocative of a jaunty old Japanese fishing village. Tominaga cooks in the lighter style of his hometown of Tokyo—so expect fresh noodles, hunks of braised pork belly, bamboo shoots and an unctuous soy-cured soft-boiled egg floating in an amber-colored, house-made pork-, chicken- and dashi-based broth.

If time is more of an issue than money, order ahead online (there's an app for that) and grab a bubble tea to go.

For the real magic, though, head next door to Pabu, the higher-end half where Tominaga and crew turn out stellar traditional and contemporary izakaya-style shared plates from behind a long maple and lacquer sushi bar. The space features a variety of dining nooks, including semi-enclosed wood booths, an ikebana-inspired atrium and two private rooms.

If money's no object, order the omakase ($95), an eight-course tasting menu of the chef's choosing, or the real-deal A-5 Wagyu beef ($34 an ounce; three-ounce minimum), garnished with pea tendrils and yuzukosho. You'll also do just fine cobbling together a meal from the one-page a la carte menu—hot and cold small plates, robatayaki and shabu-shabu and entrees.

Yes, the raw fish preparations—showcasing top-of-the-line fish sourced locally or flown in from Japan's Tsukiji Market—are the stuff of Jiro's dreams (kohada, marinated gizzard shad, is one benchmark by which sushi chefs are judged—and they pass easily here), but don't overlook the cooked creations. It's hardly a purist's maki, but the shrimp tempura/avocado/spicy tuna/pine nut combo ($20) delivers a strangely satisfying hit of sweet, salty and spicy in every bite.

The Happy Spoon ($8)—a one-bite wonder featuring a single briny kusshi oyster nestled in ponzu crème fraîche topped with fresh uni and two types of fish roe—has gotten a lot of buzz, and we can see why. We also fell hard for the ikayaki ($13), tender grilled whole squid served with Japanese mayo and togarashi seasoning, happily discarding our skewers in recycled sake cans.

Another perfectly executed classic is okonomiyaki ($10), a savory Japanese pancake stuffed with pork belly and Monterey squid and topped with a sunny-side egg, waving bonito flakes and sweet soy sauce; it's the perfect excuse to knock back another bottle-conditioned pale ale from Japan.

And then there is the bar itself (pabu is slang for pub), a commanding 80-seat lounge area with floor-to-ceiling booths and throbbing retro music inspired by Quentin Tarantino soundtracks. Mina's go-to cocktail guru, Carlo Splendorini, employs just about every trick of the trade, going above and beyond with flaming Japanese whisky ceremonies during which complementary fruits or spice are torched to order and smudged on the outside of the glass to increase the olfactory pleasure of one of the dozen premium whiskeys ($16 to $225).

Overall, dinner here is a blazing good time.

Pabu 101 California St. San Francisco CA 94111 415-668-7228 The Ramen Bar 101 California St. San Francisco CA 94111 415-684-1570

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