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Food & Drink

Friends Only in Nob Hill is the ‘dark knight’ of San Francisco’s sushi scene

In the sixth episode of our food series PFG, Omar Mamoon grabs one of the 10 seats at the small, high-end omakase sushi restaurant Friends Only in San Francisco's Nob Hill neighborhood.

The Bay Area has a whole spectrum of high-end sushi omakase—long, multi-course meals where the chef picks the dishes (omakase means “I’ll leave it up to you”). On one end is a predictable progression of traditional Edomae sushi from light to heavy in both dishes and fishes. (The nearly-impossible-to-book Sushi Yoshizumi in San Mateo is the Bay Area’s finest example of this style.) On the other end is Friends Only, a 10-seat sushi counter in Nob Hill that takes a more modern approach. Chef-owner Ray Lee calls Friends Only “the dark knight” of the sushi world. “We don’t play by the rules,” he says.

You’ll find an array of first-rate nigiri with pristine fish and other sea creatures along with items you wouldn’t ordinarily find at an Edomae sushi restaurant, including luxe ingredients like truffles and caviar, Alaskan king crab and even gold flakes. The approach is unconventional, but I’m very here for it.

The Pretty F*cking Good logo is a a hand serving up the title on a plate.

Friends Only opened in September 2022 on the corner of California and Larkin streets. The original idea was for the space to function as a restaurant and a research and development kitchen for Friends Only’s larger SoMa sister restaurant, Akikos. But in the past year, Friends Only is standing on its own two feet, emerging as the more sought-after destination for diners.

Ray Lee, chef-owner at Friends Only in San Francisco on Wednesday, Sept. 13. Lee calls the restaurant “the dark knight” of sushi spots because they “don’t play by the rules.” | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

 “We built a new clientele that only want to go Friends Only because they want that intimate experience,” said Lee.

There are only two seatings per night, and if you’re lucky enough to nab a reservation, you’re in for a PFG time.

The contents and number of courses change depending on what’s available and in season; but no matter what, dinner will always start off with a banger: a “tostada” made with a crispy deep-fried nori (seaweed) chip in lieu of a toasted corn tortilla topped with a torched half of a Hokkaido scallop from northern Japan and a few generous tongues of high grade sweet and creamy uni (sea urchin), topped with a generous mound of shiny briny golden kaluga caviar topped with a few flakes of edible gold leaf. Yes, it’s a little over-the-top. It is also the epitome of PFG. The dish was inspired by Lee's travels through Mexico City.

The meal then moves on to a series of small dishes. First up are a few pieces of sashimi, followed by a small cube of crispy skinned amadai (tilefish); next up comes a sweet plump spot prawn from Santa Barbara gently grilled over binchotan charcoal and dusted in a green powder made from dehydrated green garlic and sea beans served over lobster head sauce. Then there’s a pause of a few minutes for some drinking and conversation before a clay vessel appears containing a rich chawanmushi (egg custard) fortified with duck liver and fragrant black truffle. Again, the dishes vary from day-to-day, but the general spirit of powerful flavor bombs and luxury is a constant.

Toro nigiri, left, and Alaskan king crab at Friends Only in San Francisco. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

The nigiri portion of the meal features about seven pieces with various sea creatures, such as soy-cured bluefin tuna, two types of uni and cured salmon roe still attached to its membrane (a sight I’ve never seen before), all paired with short-grain Sacramento rice seasoned with aged red vinegar, which is meant to shine through the fat of whatever’s on top. Rice is cooked twice per night—at the beginning of each service—so that it is served as fresh as possible.

What’s not served fresh is the fish. That’s because Friends Only specializes in dry-aging all their fish preparations, which helps with preservation and enhances its texture and flavor. Lee says he likes to ask himself: “How can I serve every piece at peak level?” 

Bluefin belly, for example, is aged four weeks, causing the fat to melt into the flesh and become one, yielding to a bite that tastes like butter. I couldn’t imagine a higher peak.

Towards the end of the meal, you’re presented with a hand roll that contains an entire row of uni — this is the fourth time you're encountering these luscious little orange tongues. You shake your head in disbelief. The excess! 

Chef Weman Li torches a Hokkaido scallop for the "Tostada," left, and a cabinet of dry-aged fish, right, at Friends Only in San Francisco. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

If you’re imbibing, get the drink pairing. Your server will ask if you’d prefer the wine or sake pairing, but ask them to mix it up, and you’ll get the best of both worlds. Any one of bar director Quade Marshall's high-quality cocktails couldn't hurt, either. 

I’ve left so many omakase spots only to go straight to a pizza place for a quick slice to fill the void in my stomach. Rest assured that won’t happen at the end of a meal at Friends Only.

Friends Only

🗓️ ️ Wednesdays-Saturdays  | 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m.
📍 1501 California St., San Francisco, CA 94109

Omar Mamoon is a San Francisco-based writer & cookie dough professional. Find him at @ommmar.