Eating at this hidden bay area Japanese restaurant is like stumbling across Narnia

For a long time, Kaiseki Saryo Hachi had an air of secrecy – a restaurant that only existed in a whisper among connoisseurs. Pop-up born of a pandemic with Michelin credit, it did not exist on any map. You had to text the owner directly to get a reservation and order the menu you wanted in advance, although there was no obvious menu online. And it was housed in a ramen shop in a mall in Burlingame, sandwiched between a yoga studio and a sports memorabilia store. Meanwhile, on Instagram, people posted collages of their meals there: steamed chawanmushi that appeared to sparkle and king crab shells filled with eggs and carefully selected meat. Honestly, it was the fear of missing out that made me persist in trying it myself.

So, was Kaiseki Saryo Hachi just a dream? Spoiler alert: Narnia is real, and it only takes a small step in a wardrobe. As a long-time restaurant enthusiast, I’ve encountered my fair share of “hidden gems” – surreptitious dinners on bridges, street vendors with fancy hours, and the Instagram glut of pop-ups just for people. DM – but Kaiseki Saryo Hachi was probably the most hidden of them all.

I’m not too proud to admit that the first time I tried to go I screwed up. When the owner, Yuko Nammo, texted me asking what I wanted, I panicked and ordered what I saw on the website. I ended up eating ramen. It wasn’t bad – in fact Nammo’s light, organic chicken was some of the best I’ve had in the Bay Area – but it was clear I had swerved on the wrong exit.

I kept trying. Instagram-fueled envy aside, the fact that kaiseki is a relative rarity in the Bay Area has added to the appeal. A precursor to modern tasting menus, kaiseki is an elaborate, multi-course style of Japanese cuisine that emphasizes seasonal ingredients and strives for a constant balance of colors, textures and various cooking techniques. Only a few restaurants here, including Ranzan in Redwood City and Wakuriya in San Mateo, are dedicated to this genre.

Close-up of the Hassun Seasonal Course at Kaiseki Saryo Hachi, which includes duck, sweet potatoes, chestnuts and more.

Carolyn Fong / The Chronicle Special

When I finally got a reservation in July, I was faced with a procession of complex summer dishes, a $ 200 per person menu with 10 courses that impressed me the entire process. The excitement of getting there was a seasoning in itself, but that doesn’t mean the food didn’t stand on its own. There was a tomato poached in a glass goblet flanked by blanched English peas and topped with an apricot beret of sea urchin eggs; steamed freshwater eel in clear, lightly seasoned broth; and grilled Wagyu steak served with a delicately charred small onion and a wobbly poached egg. Delicate thorny ash leaves, shiso and nasturtium flowers decorated the plates. Each dish flourishes in color and visual texture, the vibrant imported tableware transforming tables into the bright, geometric paintings of Hilma af Klint.

Tasting menus aren’t a revolutionary dining style, especially here in the Michelin-starred Bay area, but kaiseki is unique in its formal rigidity. Even newcomers to this style will easily understand the rhyme and reason for technique-driven progression; seeing how a confident restaurant fits into the pre-determined menu format can be a pleasure in itself. A chef can decide which of the traditional techniques, such as steaming, frying, grilling or simmering, can be featured on a given menu. How, for example, will he interpret the price of rice? At Kaiseki Saryo Hachi, that could mean a small bowl of rich curry with fried Wagyu beef, or a bowl topped with kombu-dried glittery seafood and a quail egg yolk – two somewhat common dishes cooked with the greatest care.

Boston Bluefin Tuna and Half Moon Bay King Salmon Sashimi served with Chrysanthemum at Kaiseki Saryo Hachi in Burlingame, California.

Boston Bluefin Tuna and Half Moon Bay King Salmon Sashimi served with Chrysanthemum at Kaiseki Saryo Hachi in Burlingame, California.

Carolyn Fong / The Chronicle Special

It also aims to demonstrate the mastery by cooks of various culinary techniques. Over the course of a night out, you’re likely to come across sashimi, fried foods, something steamed, and a modest but potent broth. On a recent visit, the fried dish featured freshwater eel and a refreshing, ethereal combination of chopped baby ginger and green onion, the latter being a familiar combination to lovers of Cantonese cuisine.

The highlight of my first meal was the Hassun dish, a set of small seasonal bites served on a long dish, the eponymous “hassun”: a sprout of bright pink pickled wasabi; an exquisite spiral of delicately cooked duck breast with a noble blanched bean; and a rectangular omelet with karasumi, a salty slice of compressed mullet roe. The most seasonal phase of the map, the Hassun is the most dynamic. When I returned in September, the scenery had completely changed. The beginning of autumn brought eel skin, grated and simmered in soy sauce; lemon jellied mozuku seaweed; chestnuts; and a tender baby abalone the size of a human ear. The supremely delicious tiny bites embody the ephemeral aspect of seasonal cuisine: Yes, the bounty of the season is an amazing thing; but wow, it’s so sad he’s gone so early.

Dessert is often straightforward in a kaiseki meal, perhaps well-cut fruit in a bowl, although at Saryo Hachi it can be stretched into three courses. Superfans of Basuku will be delighted to find slices of the famous Basque-style Basque burnt cheesecake, the rich cake a great introduction to whipped matcha, and a final dish of fresh fruit and sherbet.

The sign on the window still says “Ramen Saryo Hachi,” but the restaurant no longer serves ramen: it’s now a full-fledged kaiseki restaurant, and, yes, you can finally make a reservation the usual way on Tock. Still, the special dining flair remains here.

Interior of Kaiseki Saryo Hachi with guests David Torres, Winnie Chow and Michelle Chou and Chris Hsu, with owner Yuko Nammo in the background.

Interior of Kaiseki Saryo Hachi with guests David Torres, Winnie Chow and Michelle Chou and Chris Hsu, with owner Yuko Nammo in the background.

Carolyn Fong / The Chronicle Special

Eating here is intimate: only one seat per night, with only a dozen seats in the café-like dining room. In this way, the restaurant departs from the tradition of kaiseki served in places with neat decor. Japanese books, on sake and gastronomy, pile up on the shelves, giving the space an informal and lived-in feel. It’s hard to get too serious when you can see people walking past the windows, pumpkin and spice lattes in hand, which can make dining here more comfortable for those who don’t like the glitz of gastronomy. I think the ambiance adds to the charm. Nammo prepares each dish herself, while collaborator and husband Shinichi Aoki mostly stays in the kitchen during the service.

While Nammo has been serving ramen at this location since 2017, last year forced a change when Aoki, formerly employed as the kaiseki chef at San Francisco’s Michelin-starred Hashiri, found himself in need of work during the lockdown. So he made his home here, first making special takeout boxes of grilled eels and glittering chirashi sushi, then hosting those rare sit-down dinners when the going. Both continue their work in a spirit of experimentation: sometimes, Nammo will taste exploratory sake pairings, just to see if the flavors blend with the dishes; Aoki rarely serves the same dish twice.

Chef Shinichi Aoki and restaurant owner Yuko Nammo in Kaiseki Saryo Hachi's kitchen are getting ready for dinner service.

Chef Shinichi Aoki and restaurant owner Yuko Nammo in Kaiseki Saryo Hachi’s kitchen are getting ready for dinner service.

Carolyn Fong / The Chronicle Special

Definitely try the drink pairing, especially if you want to learn more about sake. Nammo has an unconventional sensibility and in-depth knowledge of the drink: she is notably a fan of the Kinoshita brewery, specializing in rich flavors achieved through hands-off brewing – the sake equivalent of natural wine.

While eating here isn’t the struggle it once was, coming here is still a truly special occasion. Although more located than a pop-up, it retains the salacious appeal of a. Imagine walking into a neighborhood café and finding Alain Ducasse cooking behind the counter. The thing about a semi-secret place, too, is that, for the most part, everyone who shows up is already gaga over the place: there is no passive eating here, no one. texting aimlessly throughout the meal because that’s just another pearl in a long, high-profile dinner series they go to just to get a feel for something. No, it’s a place where, to paraphrase CS Lewis, every stone, every flower, and every blade of grass seems to mean so much more. Drink it in every detail, like the wonder it is.

Soleil Ho is the food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @hooleil

1861 El Camino Real, Burlingame. 650-239-9391 or

Hours: 5:45 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday.

Accessibility: No steps; fancy neutral toilets at the end of a long hallway. Indoor seating only.

Noise level: Quiet, thanks to small seats.

Meal for two, without drinks: $ 400 for a 10-course meal.

Meatless options: Nothing

Drinks : Sake, tea and soft drinks

Transport: Parking available.

Best Practices: Reservations required. Access via

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