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Food & Drink

The renegade sushi chef of SF serves up the ‘seafood’ of the future

Erik Aplin of Chisai Sushi Club prepares for a fishless future with a remarkable, all-vegan alt-omakase.

A man in a white shirt stands behind a counter in front of shelves stocked with bottles and dishes, smiling and gesturing with his right hand raised.
Dinner prep: Chef Erik Aplin slices kombu-braised zucchini at the chef’s counter at Chīsai Sushi Club. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Using a well-honed 270mm Sakimaru Takobiki knife, chef Erik Aplin lightly scores a piece of gleaming ruby-red flesh. He drapes it like a doll-sized blanket over a thumb of Koshihikari short-grain rice seasoned with a wisp of Sharizu rice vinegar, sugar and salt. 

For the world, it looks like a piece of tuna nigiri—enough for me to put my tongue to it, expecting notes of the sea. However, the flesh is tangy and, when prodded, less forgiving. It’s missing that oceanic funk. I bite into it and only then does my brain compute: It is not fish at all, but a shoyu-and-kombu marinated slice of peeled tomato. The mind reels.

Since opening Chīsai Sushi Club at the base of Bernal Heights in 2021, chef Erik Alpin, a fourth-generation Japanese American, has been crafting an exquisite vegan omakase, the tomato his own tuna trompe l’oeil. “I naively thought it would be easy,” he says of the 13-course progression, showing me a box full of painstakingly prepped vegetables. “But it requires a lot of small details.”

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Despite his dedication to his extraordinarily labor-intensive vegetarian menu—one that only feeds about five percent of his clientele—Aplin has actually spent most of his career focused on fish, entrenching himself at some of SF’s most lauded sushi establishments, including Akiko’s, Robin and Ichi. At Chīsai, he leans into the American side of his background, slyly incorporating a bit of melting pot into his omakase menu, with subtle nods to everything from Indian to Italian. 

You wouldn’t call Aplin a seafood justice warrior. Part of his mission is practical. He knows vegetarian guests are often relegated to cucumber rolls and he feels for them. The idea to create a vegan omakase started to burble when Aplin was coming up as a sushi chef at legendary restaurants like Morimoto and Matsuhisa. He recalls diners would come in and say they were vegetarian and his fellow sushi chefs would stiffen.

“They would be like, why are these vegetarians even here? Then we’d have to think about what we could serve—inevitably an avocado roll. When I opened Chīsai, I saw there was an opportunity to be creative and win over a new customer.”

A piece of finely sliced red fish sushi, garnished with a small black element, is placed on a textured wooden block, illuminated warmly.
Tamago or tomato? Chīsai Sushi Club wants you to guess. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard
A chef in a white uniform is carefully slicing vegetables on a wooden cutting board in a well-organized kitchen with shelves of various items behind him.
Chef Erik Alpin slicing konbu braised zucchini squash ahed of dinner service on Tuesday. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Aplin is also trying to do the right thing. He is dealing with a limited resource, one increasingly impacted by industrial fishing and climate change. You only have to glance at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch for a sushi buzzkill: “Ninety percent of the world’s fish populations are currently fished at, or beyond, their sustainable limits,” it states sternly, clearly a reprimand for that last mind-blowing piece of otoro you blithely inhaled. 

It is freeing to know that there’s no thundering doomsday cloud hanging over nightshades like tomatoes—nor over the allium genus, like leeks. One of Aplin’s most arresting vegan preparations may sound hum-drum: a leek on rice. But the leek is confited till buttery in grapeseed oil, then topped with tonburi—aka “land caviar,” the dried seed of the Summer Cypress, a specialty of the Akita prefecture—all mixed with an umami-full truffle paté. The whole thing is blowtorched for a sweet, soft, smoky flavor bomb that tastes almost hedonistic.

A piece of sushi topped with layers of grilled fish and a generous serving of caviar sits on a decorative white plate with gold accents.
Flavor bomb: A nigiri of confit leek with yuzu miso and truffled vegan caviar is blowtorched to give it a smoky-sweetness. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

But even Aplin’s more delicate presentations are a revelation and remind me how much vegetables, treated thoughtfully, can mimic fish. For another piece of nigiri, avocado—brushed with shoyu then topped with the tiniest dab of ginger achar, a bracingly salty Indian pickled ginger—could (almost) be a sea urchin’s creamy gonads. Maybe it’s the sake flight clouding my vision, but by one of the last courses—a feathery, roasted maitake with a sweet mustard dressing—the mushroom almost appears to have tentacles.

The vegan omakase at Chīsai is $70, and the comparable fish omakase is $95—both reasonable by modern omakase standards, but also potentially unsustainable. “Since I started working at sushi restaurants in 2006, fish prices have gone up like 200 percent,” Aplin says. My goal is to incorporate my veggie dishes into the fish omakase and have people be excited and feel like they’re still getting a value.”

A chef in a white shirt talks to customers at a sushi bar. Bottles and dishes are displayed on shelves behind him. Another chef works nearby, preparing food.
Darren Samuelson, a chef at Chīsai, loves preparing the vegan nigiri but, personally, he's team fish. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

By the time dessert arrives, the narrow slice of a dining room is humming. People are tapping to the funk playing overhead. As I dip into a scoop of coconut-cardamon ice cream drizzled with black Okinawan sugar syrup, I feel a tiny bit smug. For this beautiful dinner, I have depleted nothing more from the earth than a bunch of vegetables. Diners around me are happily buzzed on beer and fish, oblivious to the fact that they’re robbing the oceans while I await a Nobel Peace Prize. 

I tell Darren Samuelson, the friendly attending chef, that I loved the vegan meal. But I am also conflicted, finding myself behaving like a ravenous dog, hungrily tracking the otoro he just served my sushi bar neighbors. “Personally, I can’t bring myself to do the vegan menu,” he says, laughing. “I like fish.”

💰 Thirteen-course vegan omakase menu, $70
📍 Chīsai Sushi Club, 3369 Mission St, Bernal Heights