Jin Sho/Nobu’s Yellowtail with Jalapeno
(This review appeared in South Bay Accent in November of 2008)
Nobuyuki Matsuhisa – known just as Nobu – is the most famous Japanese chef in the world, running a slew of restaurants on several continents that deliver his delicious style of modern Japanese food to appreciative, well-heeled audiences. For Peninsula foodies eager to sample Nobu cuisine, air travel has been required. Until now. Two chefs from New York’s Nobu exited the Big Apple, bringing their experience, skills and many Nobu recipes to South Palo Alto. Happily, owner-chefs Ichiro Takahashi and Noriomi Kaneko set up shop at their new Jin Sho restaurant armed not only with Nobu’s cooking sensibilities but with considerable knowledge of classic Japanese cuisine.
Unassuming Jin Sho – located on bustling California Avenue – has been a magnet for traditional sushi savants as well as those seeking out Nobu-style eating experiences. Finding this old/new combination under one roof is unusual, making Jin Sho a must-try destination for diners who appreciate the lip-smacking yet simple wonderment of Japanese food. This isn’t the first spinoff run by ex-Nobu cooks – there’s at least one more located in Seattle and perhaps others. But Nobu, the chef, has been around so long that it’s only natural that ambitious members of his cooking staff would do their own thing, sort of. The original Nobu has no relationship other than inspiration with these mini-me’s.
On the classic side, Jin Sho flies in live seafood such as anago (sea eel) and also features many seldom-seen Japanese fish varieties that have the cognoscenti buzzing. For example, at the 10-seat sushi bar that inhabits one side of the small restaurant, enraptured eaters can try the authentic preparation of kuruma ebi (blue prawn), skewered with the head on, and some might even get to nibble on a rare treat: the liver of freshly dispatched anago prepared in one of the traditional ways.
For those who tend to swoon in a more modern direction, there are many worthy options. The most adventurous is the omakase, in which diners let the chef choose what special dishes will be presented; this word means “entrust,” but servers increase the enjoyment odds by initially inquiring what food items should be skipped, if any. The ultimate omakase at Jin Sho is the $90 version featuring the most costly ingredients – say, lobster rather than shrimp.
However, a super meal can easily be ordered off the menu. There are so many enticing starters that a delicious dinner could be made of those alone. While the four-seaweeds salad might take a small leap of faith for conservative guests, my dining companions and I were engaging in a chopstick duel to see who could scoop up more of the divine tuna sashimi salad. Seared at the edges, sliced thin, encircling a pile of greens and rising from a pool of savory onion dressing, this tasty offering expertly played off meaty, spicy and slightly sweet flavors.
Tuna Sashimi Salad
My alternate choice would have been ceviche (raw fish chunks “cooked” in citrus) with Peruvian spicy sauce, a Nobu dish harkening back to the chef’s seminal years in Latin America. But I’ve gotta admit that the “warm vegetable salad” sounded sort of strange, featuring “lightly boiled vegetables with French onion dressing.” I love veggies, but……
Our meal got even better – and more chopstick-competitive – with the arrival of the next trio of starters. The gorgeous hamachi with jalapeno is a killer Nobu mainstay in which the rich raw fish is dressed in garlic and ponzu with a super-thin slice of pepper on each bite-sized piece. Two other Nobu dishes were equally fabulous: tiradito (based on a Peruvian ceviche preparation) in which thin slices of silky raw halibut were set off by citrus, oil, salt and little dots of red chile paste, and “new-style sashimi” in which the raw fish wears its citrus bath along with a drizzle of hot oil.
We could easily have powered through several more starters in this vein. Maybe the toro tartar with caviar in which the rich raw tuna is blended with soy, garlic and onion then crowned with the fish eggs. Or hamachi salmon tartar, which sounded like the same thing with different fish. Another intriguing choice was the jalapeno dressing with salmon (jalapeno dressing?? – eeeeoow!), in which the fish (probably raw but not sure) comes with mizuna greens and garlic chips. The oysters also beckoned, served on ice with three sauces.
Tiradito – raw halibut, yuzu, Latin American salt and dots of chile sauce
On the hot starter list, we were thrilled with the rock shrimp tempura – a delightful combo of crunchy, sweet, spicy and tart, with warm and cold elements. And corn tempura sounded quite interesting. Would that be individual kernels? I’ll try it another time. For those seeking an oil rush, the restaurant offers deep-fried eggplant – the ultimate fat sponge, alas — with sweet miso sauce.
Rock Shrimp Tempura
Main courses are just as yummy as the starters, with a popular offering being Nobu’s quintessential signature dish, miso-marinated black cod. (I’ve got two recipes on this blog for it; Nobu’s original and my simplified version.) Sweet, juicy and sensuous, it deserves its exalted status. Succulent salmon teriyaki was also excellent, featuring a generous hunk of chefs’ fave-of-the-moment Loch Duart farmed salmon with a nicely crisped exterior and a pool of tasty sauce.
Seen-everywhere Miso-Marinated Black Cod (it’s delicious)
Loch Duart Salmon Teriyaki
I was eagerly awaiting my first bite of the impressive-looking lamb chops with wasabi garlic sauce, which were beautifully presented as perfectly trimmed little Frenched chops. Unfortunately, they were a tad tough and overcooked. Other entrees (not including sushi and sashimi dinners that come with miso soup) are a couple of griddle-cooked items: Angus beef with garlic sauce and a seafood combo with sauce Americaine. As a final test of the kitchen’s Japanese skill set, we had plain old vegetable tempura. It was perfect.
Lamp Chops with Wasabi Garlic Sauce
As a food accompaniment, Jin Sho has a top-notch selection of sakes worth trying and a small list of regular wines. I always bring wine but I think next time I’ll go the sake route. Pinot noir is wonderful but the super Helen Turley bottle I brought fought a little with the Japanese flavors.
There are two desserts. We had our choice of either mochi or mango ice cream (pass) but instead tried the strawberry panna cotta. This addictive Italian gelatin dessert – imagine sweet cream with some backbone – has been a longtime personal favorite. My versions easily surpassed Jin Sho’s, but it was acceptable and looked lovely in its oversized martini glass.
Strawberry Panna Cotta
Our server – a young Korean woman who told me “all the recipes are from Nobu” (wrong) was polite and eager but not always as well informed as one would hope. She got some help from other staffers, ensuring we weren’t waiting very long for our dishes. The wait staff zipped around the teensy restaurant delivering a variety of lovely-looking dishes to mostly-Asian guests on this Saturday night . Dressed in the ubiquitous server’s uniform these days of dark pants and shirt, the staff sort of matches the spare décor, which the less-charitable might call plain but which aims for simple sophistication.
However, Jin Sho isn’t about interior design. I think this is a quite-worthwhile addition to the local dining scene that deserves patronage because of the solid job the chefs do offering a mini-tour of sublime Japanese cuisine, old and new. I’ll definitely be back.
Jin Sho, 454 S. California Ave., Palo Alto, (650) 321-3454 jinshorestaurant.com
HOURS: Lunch, Monday-Friday, 11:45-2. Dinner, Monday-Friday, 5:30-9:30; Saturday: 5:30-10. Reservations recommended.
PRICES: Lunch, $12-20. Dinner: appetizers, $7-24; entrees, $12-28; omikase (chef’s tasting menu) $60-90.