Obsession with Perfection

Somehow, a girl named Linda from Commack, New York, is responsible for all this. This, being the burgeoning empire of Japanese cuisine, décor, atmosphere and drink that are the very essence that is Ozumo.
The posh Japanese lounge and restaurant, originally founded in 2001 on Steuart Street in San Francisco, is the vision become reality of ex-baseballer, pilot, former resident of Japan and least of all, (according to him) restaurateur, Jeremy James.

“I am an international American,” says James nursing a 
cappuccino from Perry’s, nestled next to Ozumo in downtown San Francisco. “Everyone should go and live abroad for at least one year.”

For Jeremy, that year was 1979 and his expedition abroad started in a pizza parlor in upstate New York. Jeremy was attending Oneonta State, slanging slices at a pizza shack and majoring in the “three B’s: baseball, beer and babes.” One afternoon he brazenly snuck a sip from a customer’s coke. The conversation went something like this…

“Nani yatten-dayo?!” the customer snapped.
“What?” said James, ready to be chastised, but in English. “What is that? Spanish?”
“It’s Japanese,” this coming from a blond with blue eyes enjoying a Coke and a slice. “You play baseball here right? They love baseball in Japan.”
“Get outta here. Really?”
“Well then, that’s it. I’m going.”
“You’re tall, blonde and play baseball? You’d be famous over there.”
“Sounds good to me! Hey, by the way, I’m Jeremy.”
“Nice to meet you Jeremy, I’m Linda.”

A few months later, Jeremy was the first American to play college baseball in Japan. Between playing ball and being famous, Jeremy traded in the pizza for handcrafted ramen, fresh sushi, Kobe beef steaks and a plethora of Japanese delicacies and every day foods (the beer had to stay though, after all it was college).

“After a night out, instead of having burgers or something, my friends and I would go to the Yatai,” says James. “They are basically portable sidewalk food stalls that open at midnight and serve until four or five in the morning.”

Something about the history and tradition of Japanese cuisine culture resounded in Jeremy. Not every college kid who goes abroad to Spain for a year decides later in life to open a tapas eatery. The food was the finest Jeremy had experienced in his short life, and he would spend the many years following, before Ozumo, striving to treat his appetite to the unique spice and flavor he had accustomed himself to while abroad.

“I have a very developed palate,” says James. “I owe that to being exposed to such great food in Japan at such a young age.”

After his one year abroad turned into two, immersing himself in the Japanese language and culture, Jeremy came back stateside to play ball, earn his MBA in International Business and live the New York City dream. Though western in his residence, his passion for all things Japanese never subsided.
While living in New York and exploring the city’s eateries and watering holes, Jeremy noticed there was no common ground between restaurants and bars. There needed to be a blend. Maturing and enjoying the company of people frequenting restaurants as opposed to bars, he wanted the option of just relaxing and enjoying his surroundings instead of strictly sitting down and eating.

“I really liked the caliber of people who frequented restaurants and I made a lot of friends that way,” said James. “Friends who loved Japanese cuisine and knew of my love for Japan and my experiences in the country.”

It was those friends who suggested he combine his love and knowledge of Japanese culture and the social scenario found in renowned restaurants. The idea stirred and simmered for Jeremy.
Then, in the late ’90s, after successfully renovating a warehouse in TriBeCa into residential loft space, Jeremy came to San Francisco. It was still the dot-com era and the geeks were inheriting the earth. The companies were in need of large office space to store stock certificates and play ping-pong. Jeremy heard about the SOMA area being full of idle warehouses and saw dollar signs.

“I got to San Francisco in 1998 just as the dot-com bubble was bursting,” says James. “I was a day late and a dollar short but I put out feelers in LA looking for restaurant space to renovate.” With this opportunity, combined with the fact that it was El Niño that year and SF was a very, very wet little burg, Jeremy went south to LA.

It was a quick turnaround, because a year later he was back in San Francisco taking over an old Harry Denton property and formulating the first Ozumo. This was an opportunity to manifest the ideas so many friends had warmly suggested over sake.

Sushi bars were scattered throughout San Francisco and it wasn’t difficult to find an authentic Japanese steak house. But some of Jeremy’s friends, though enjoying Japanese cuisine, remarked that the restaurant “better not be serving bait,” while others insisted on Ruth Chris if they were going out for steak.

“I wanted a robata grill, a sushi bar, a lounge and a restaurant,  all in one space,” said James. “I was the first person to do all this in 2000 and really start the Japanese cuisine craze.”

The space was absolutely perfect for the prediction that became Ozumo: a view of the bay with the Bay Bridge standing guard, and an entrance on Steuart Street, already home to SF eatery institutions Boulevard and Shanghai 1930. Also, about a mile down the Embarcadero, a brand new ballpark was opening in 2000. The gods were smiling, and an idea became an actuality.

“There are so many restaurants that refer to themselves as ‘authentic fusion’ or ‘traditional contemporary,’” says James. “Why add ‘fusion’ to something that is perfect the way it is? Pacific Rim cuisine does not need to be changed.”

Jeremy tapped Japanese design firm Super Potato to breathe life into a concept made specifically for people like him: adventurous, gregarious, well traveled urbanites who sought their classic favorites and desired more of the best, whatever that happened to be.

Ozumo, now with a sister location in Oakland, is sleek, elegant and modern, yet inviting. To listen to Jeremy speak of Ozumo as a forethought, as something as though it has yet to occur, and then experience the space, it is as though he stitched the linen, assembled the tables and installed the lighting to his own personal specifications.

“I’m a big fan of sake,” continues James, which is evident by the multitude of sake wine bottles adorning the translucent shelf above the bar. His knowledge of the rice wine is profound and he is quick to reference his familiarity.

Now, balancing his time between his home, wife and two sons in Brentwood, Los Angeles and the Bay Area, the Ozumo dream is growing. “We’ve launched our own line of sake…we opened our Oakland location in 2007, which is a symbol of pride and growth for the neighborhood,” says James. “Also, we’ve opened a wine bar with small plates in Santa Monica, and plan to open the same in San Francisco on the top floor of the Westfield shopping center. It’s great to think that a girl named Linda spawned all of this.”

– Rich Wright