It was maybe obvious for fans of Ju-Ni that the new, casual side project of chef Geoffrey Lee and partner Tan Truong in the Mission, Handroll Project, would be an instant winner. And they would be right.
The restaurant that recently took over the space abandoned at the start of the pandemic by AL's Deli, and that previously housed Japanese restaurant Yuzuki for a number of years, is a counter-service operation that can accommodate a few seatings per night, with just 16 total seats. For now it's a waitlist only situation, though that may change down the line — you check in, leave your number, and come back when seats open up, that is if you don't get there after they've already filled the waitlist for the night.
The airy space at 18th and Guerrero, across from Tartine Bakery, has been given a handsome makeover and a more black-and-white scheme, with a gray mural on one wall and a tile accent wall at the back. And Chef Lee and his team wait on just a couple of diners at a time, delivering an experience that can only be called "omakase light" — though it has many of the delights and rhythms of a traditional omakase experience, for a fraction of the price, with a la carte options.
The full experience is 10 different handrolls, served in succession — and for those familiar with cone-shaped temaki, these are a bit different, served in an open-topped boat shape, open at two ends, and each providing two or three bites of fish, seasoned rice, and nori.
And wow, this nori is good. Lee says that they source it specifically because of its delicacy, and he instructs diners to each roll as soon as its put in front of them, lest the seaweed become at all chewy. In its freshest state, this stuff barely crackles as it hits the teeth and proceeds to melt on the tongue, ever so subtly adding seaweed umami to each roll without ever standing in the way.
A full experience at Handroll Project should include a couple of cold appetizers — the cucumber salad and albacore tuna tataki are the only current options — followed by the full list of rolls (10 for $95), and finished with Ju-Ni's sweet miso soup, as they do at the more formal restaurant.
Highlights — and really every roll was a highlight — include their excellent version of spicy tuna accented with shiso and cucumber; the smoked hamachi roll, with scallion and shiso; the toro takuan, with the fatty tuna complimented by pickled radish; and the Ikura & Ankimo roll, which is a nod to a signature at Ju-Ni, featuring salmon roe that's topped with deep-frozen monkfish liver shaved over the top, for a subtle richness and unique texture.
I'd also highly recommend adding the $4 supplement of kizami wasabi, a condiment of pickled wasabi root that offers a layered, lightly acidic punch to many of the rolls.
The dine-in only special rolls, of which there are three, will not be available as takeout options once the restaurant launches their takeout operation in the coming weeks. (And while I'm not sure that delicate nori, in particular, will survive a takeout box, hopefully they're working this out.)
For lighter appetites or an evening snack, they offer five- and seven-roll options ($35 and $54 respectively), and the rolls are priced between $7 and $18 for a la carte, the most expensive being one of the current specials, featuring smoked Hokkaido uni with salmon roe.
Handroll Project - 598 Guerrero at 18th - open Wednesday to Sunday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., no reservations, menu not online yet
Top photo via Handroll Project/Instagram