(Published by South Bay Accent magazine in February 2018.)
Quick — what city in the world has received the most Michelin stars for its restaurants? Paris, you say? Not even close. Tokyo has led this august group of awardees for awhile now, boasting almost triple the stars compared to the French capital: 302 versus just 105, including a dozen achieving the lofty three-star ranking. This interesting development underscores a trend that is well underway in the South Bay, where Japanese cuisine is hot, hot, hot.
But don’t just think raw fish — although sushi and sashimi are now so ubiquitous that they’re even found in many supermarkets. While sushi spots are numerous, from humble locations in strip malls to more upscale outposts, there are now many more kinds of Japanese dining choices in our region. At the high end are restaurants serving multi-course kaiseki meals featuring carefully prepared, exquisite creations. Izakayas — boisterous Japanese pubs — are another popular kind of dining spot, along with ramen joints, cook-your-own-meat-and-veggie yakiniku places, yakitori bars for grilled chicken items, places dedicated to Japanese rolls, bento boxes and more.
Flavored rice is the basis for mochi, which has become a popular coating for ice cream.
While Japan has given the world popular, non-edible inventions like the Walkman, bullet train, digital camera and karaoke, its culinary creations have also made a big splash. There are now 4,000 sushi restaurants in America (Japan has well over 10 times more even though America has 155% more people) and the consumption of this seeming staple has put Japanese cuisine, mainly sushi, among the four most-liked ethnic cuisines in the United States according to the National Restaurant Association. Then there’s mochi, the pounded rice substance that has become the rage as a colorful coating for ice cream. At the top of the budget greatest-hits list is the instant-soup version of ramen, beloved by college students and more recently being featured in scads of fresh-noodle spots across the country.
There might be many kinds of Japanese food represented in regional restaurants these days but it barely scratches the surface of what’s available, since there are more than 30 kinds of restaurants in Japan, all specializing in a different type of Japanese cuisine. Seldom, if ever, seen here are tonkatsu joints, serving breaded, deep-fried pork with shredded cabbage; takoyaki spots, which feature ball-shaped pancakes with octopus inside; raw seafood on a bowl of rice at kaisendon eateries; motsunabe, restaurants devoted to a hot pot of pork or organ meats; and a Japanese obsession, kare raisu, which is Japanese-style curry with rice.
Fortunately, some local Japanese dining places occasionally serve a dish or two from these categories, while at the high end, Japanese cooking methods with their devotion to scrupulous ingredients, simplicity and subtlety are frequently a major inspiration to American chefs who fuse this sensibility into enlightened creations. Perhaps the most famous Japanese fusion food — and in the running as one of the world’s most pricey Japanese restaurants — is the mouth-pleasing Japanese-Peruvian-whatever cuisine from “the sushi chef to the stars” Nobu Matsuhisa, as Forbes has dubbed him.
With a current worldwide empire of around 50 Nobu and Matsuhisa restaurants, he added his first location in Northern California recently with the Nobu in downtown Palo Alto on the bottom floor of Larry Ellison’s posh Epiphany hotel, where the chefs wear Apple Watches, naturally. Foodies have made Nobu signature dishes like miso-marinated black cod and yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño into must-order staples.
For those with a hankering for Japanese cuisine, it’s not hard to find in the South Bay. Here is a potpourri of local Japanese restaurants, from the sublime to the simple.
For tips on ordering sake to go with this cuisine, see this post.
A draw for Silicon Valley power players, this newly opened, swanky location of the renowned Japanese fusion chain has gasp-inducing prices but an alluring menu featuring Nobu classics as well as irresistible offerings like creative, tiny tacos (the Wagyu beef version is around $10 per bite) and alluring, sort-of Western style desserts such as yuzu strawberry tart ($16).
Smaller than most Nobu locations, the Palo Alto outpost is nonetheless seriously gorgeous and the street-side open section from the previous restaurant remains. The dishes are consistently creative, like spinach salad topped with dehydrated tofu skins and Japanese olive oil (who knew such a thing existed?) for $24, and tai (red snapper) paired with sweet shiso sauce and yummy, crispy shitake mushrooms ($34).
The sushi and sashimi offering is built from ultra-pristine fish, with a small California roll clocking in at $11. Besides the Nobu classics on the menu are more recent hits from other Nobu locations. There are fancy cocktails, of course, along with quite a few wines from around the world, some marked up many times the current retail price.
180 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto, (650) 666-3322; http://www.noburestaurants.com/palo-alto
If you want to taste some Nobu classic dishes but blanch at the prices, this modest-looking, popular spot in South Palo Alto was launched by two former Nobu chefs who happily ripped off the recipes and serve items including yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño and miso-marinated black cod for less than the fancy original two miles north. However, this is by no means a low-cost restaurant. The menu here is surprisingly large and includes some other fusion-y creations like fish broth with shimeji mushroom, scallions, roasted duck and buckwheat noodles, or lamb chops in black sesame sauce with mashed potatoes and basil oil.
Jim Sho has a sizeable offering of sushi and sashimi choices and some much-ordered rolls like uber-popular volcano roll with salmon in spicy mayo wrapped around spicy, crunchy tuna. The volume and freshness of the seafood is impressive, with some rarities flown in from Japan. Appealing to thrifty patrons is the prix fixe for under $30, while the restaurant also provides a lavish, multi-course omakase (chef’s choice) meal for around $90.
Fans particularly like sitting at the sushi bar, which helps overcome an ongoing issue of lackadaisical, sometimes rude service. But it’s the terrific food that brings in the crowds.
454 California Ave., Palo Alto, (650) 321-3454; http://www.jinshorestaurant.com
Those wishing to experience the stellar heights of Japanese cooking should seek out one of the region’s kaiseki establishments, particularly this serene, accommodating restaurant in a shopping center on VC row in Menlo Park. Mitsunobu (named for the owner/chef) takes a modern, California approach to an exquisite, multi-course kaiseki meal but also has a multi-course omakase (chef’s choice) offering (both cost $125 and the latter includes many sushi items), a sushi bar and a regular menu, but the wise stick with the fixed-price selections.
And dreamy they are, with courses like Muscovy duck breast cooked at low temperature in white sesame oil, crisp-fried Japanese mackerel with plum salt and surrounded by a light foam, and a white corn tofu dish pumped up with tomato, sea urchin and caviar. Each dish is beautifully presented and utterly delicious, demonstrating the high art of Japanese cuisine. Advance reservations are essential for both the kaiseki and omakase choices, which should be treated like a special experience, slowly savored.
325 Sharon Park Dr., Menlo Park, (650) 234-1084; http://www.rmitsunobu.com
For raw fish freaks (you know who you are), this postage-stamp of a restaurant in a strip mall is where you die and go to heaven. Owner/fish maestro Steve Sawa is the soup nazi (remember those Seinfeld episodes?) of sashimi but patrons don’t care when presented with some of the most unctuous, perfect fish this side of Tokyo. There’s no menu, just an array of faultless courses invented and prepared by Sawa, with prices beginning at $120 a head.
Creamy Hokkaido sea scallops, delicious toro ribbons — the ingredients are majestic, particularly with Sawa’s saucing expertise, seen in creations like yuzu kosho topping rich kanpachi or a sweet-spicy tamarind glaze on ocean trout. It’s all about freshness, balance and harmony. Those foolish enough to ask for a California roll or miso soup or inform the chef of their diet restrictions might soon be out on the street. Those in the know come to enjoy the dry, edgy banter from Sawa, who runs what seems like a one-man show. Reservations are mandatory, of course. Rumor has it that Sawa Sushi is the unofficial hangout of Silicon Valley elites, where CEOs plan the future while consuming rich, moist shreds of hamachi kama.
1042 E. El Camino Real, Sunnyvale, (408) 241-7292; http://www.sawasushi.net
Gochi Japanese Fusion Tapas
Even 12 years on, this unique, small establishment has oodles of fans for its inventive, voluminous menu of Japanese-inspired dishes in small portions, which encourages trying lots of them. Booking ahead is essential and patrons love the casual atmosphere and friendly service. But it’s the food that seals the deal, including many starters, sushi and raw items, salads, sautéed and grilled, stir-fried, braised, steamed, deep-fried and roasted choices, as well as gratins, thin-crust Japanese pizzas, clay pot rice items, noodles, soups and desserts. It’s nicely overwhelming.
Among many must-order possibilities are mushroom risotto croquettes; soy-braised eel in clay pot; grilled squid; buckwheat noodles in dashi broth; hamachi carpaccio; braised black cod; pizza with spicy cod roe, snow crab, wild mushrooms, bacon and cheese (it actually works); pan-seared duck with a chile-miso balsamic sauce; sake-steamed clams in dashi broth; and shimeji mushroom tempura. Remarkably given the size of the menu, there are daily specials like seared foie gras on shredded daikon in a lovely sauce. There’s even a “hamburger” made from ground pork with thin-sliced radish. Trenchermen should save room for the delicious matcha crème brûlée.
19980 Homestead Rd., Cupertino, (408) 725-0542; http://www.gochifusiontapas.com
Gaku Japanese Charcoal Grill
Anyone who’s wandered through the densely packed streets of Tokyo will have seen the plentiful, skinny little grill-eries there, where meats and other things cooked on skewers are snarfed down with beer or sake. The yakiniku spots are Japan’s answer to Korean barbeque restaurants where you grill your own at your table; there are a couple of these in our region. The other option is a yakitori, in which the cook does the grilling. The best local version is Gaku, which uses the wonderful binchotan charcoal from Japan, which cooks food like a dream.
Gaku offers more than 30 kinds of skewers, with chicken parts (virtually everything that’s edible) being a highlight. There are also various beef parts, pork belly, vegetables, seafood, sausages and more, most paired with a complementary sauce. But the choices don’t stop there because this narrow spot also serves appetizers, salads, hot pots, deep-fried items, rice and noodle dishes and more. Some of the home runs from among the skewers are chicken thigh, Kobe beef, beef tongue and scallops. Patrons also visit sister restaurant Sumiya in Santa Clara, which has a similar menu.
5152 Moorpark Ave., Suite 40, San Jose, (408) 973-9144; http://www.gaku.sumiyakitori.com
A sizeable chain in Japan, Taiwan and Korea, the local branch of Fugetsu in Santa Clara is the first in the West and its specialty — very popular with Asians — is okonomiyaki, an intriguing dish that evolved from the practice of cooking leftovers in Japan by throwing them into pancake batter and adding cabbage and a mayo-based sauce with dried bonito flakes. The result is sort of an Asian crepe. In Japan, many okonomiyaki are cook-it-yourself places but Fugetsu prefers to deliver a higher order of pancake prepared in the kitchen, so the griddles on each table are to keep the dish warm after delivery. Be advised that cooking time is around 20 minutes.
There are several choices of okonomiyaki, some mixing different seafood and others featuring pork. A few even have cheese on top. But this is just the beginning of the offerings, which include starters, salads, seafood and main-course dishes and rice concoctions. A specialty is yakisoba, which are thick stir-fried noodles tossed with various other ingredients. They’re addictive. Also quite outstanding is the tonpei yaki, an omelet filled with shredded cabbage and sliced pork, served with a sweet and savory tonkatsu sauce.
2788 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, (408) 244-8500; http://www.fugetsu-usa.com/en/
Probably the most popular izakaya in the area (that’s a multi-item Japanese pub), Dan Izakaya wasn’t named for some guy named Daniel but rather is one of the rankings in judo. For a small restaurant, the menu is humongous, featuring an endless list of starters, raw fish, sushi rolls, salads, stir fries, grilled items, deep-fried dishes, seafood and meat preparations, hot pots, noodles, rice dishes and desserts. Being open later on weekends is appealing to the bar crowd, as is an extensive drinks list.
With so much available, this izakaya has many favored items. Just a few include an excellent pork okonomiyaki; soft, juicy beef tongue; fried rice balls stuffed with salmon; grilled, salted duck; ramen with clams; soft, unctuous eggplant with miso and kimchee; pork and tofu hot pot; grilled shitake mushrooms and more. A recent specialty that separates the men from the boys when it comes to Japanese food is horumonyaki, which is animal innards like honeycomb beef tripe. Another oddity for Westerners is a “sundae” of green tea ice cream, whipped cream and corn flakes.
1306 Saratoga Ave., San Jose, (408) 249-6020; www. danizakayarestaurant.com
This is the original location of a long-time, successful local chain offering friendly, no-frills, attractively priced dining and serves a range of popular Japanese dishes. The down-home cooking has earned many fans for filling meals that include soup, salad and rice. It’s worth visiting this Gombei location because it’s in San Jose’s Japantown, one of just a few left in the country. Highlights are the teriyaki dishes, donburi (simmered fish, meat or vegetables served over rice), udon noodles and sashimi. Particularly tasty is the tonkatsu, which is panko-crusted, fried pork with moist meat and delightfully crunchy exterior.
The combo meals are one of the best bargains around, such as chicken teriyaki, deep-fried pork with soup, salad and rice for just $13.25. Gombei is popular but the lines move fast so this isn’t the place for a leisurely outing. Do try the hamachi kama, hamachi collar that’s simply roasted with salt but it’s wonderful; sweet, tender, juicy meat full of flavor and it’s less expensive here than usual. Be advised that San Jose’s Gombei takes cash only and there are rumors it might be for sale soon. Other locations are in Santa Clara, Sunnyvale and Menlo Park.
193 E. Jackson St., San Jose, (408) 279-4311; http://www.gombei.com/gombei_res_-_san_jose
Another Japanese chain that’s come to American is this specialist in teishoku, which is kind of a Japanese fast-casual place with a set meal, sometimes served in a bento box. Teishoku dining is based on the ichiju-issai (or “one soup, one side”) traditional meals offered at Zen temples, which include a main, soup, rice and pickles. It’s healthy and affordable. One of the twists at Yayoi is the use of tablet computers to order and track your meal, which is brought to the table but the price includes tip.
The restaurant is developing a fan club for dishes like tan katsu, a panko-encrusted, fork-tender pork cutlet simmered in a miso-based sauce, barbecued eel called hitsumabushi served over noodles or rice with condiments and dashi sauce on the side, and Japan’s answer to Southern-fried chicken, chicken katsu and chicken karaage, with a pleasing, non-greasy, super-crispy crust. There’s even serviceable raw fish, like salmon sashimi over rice and salmon carpaccio with a drizzle of citrus-shoyu dressing. The most expensive meal is the $24 Yayoi Gozen, which is an abundant platter with salmon salad, pork cutlet, salmon teriyaki and beef sukiyaki.
20682 Homestead Rd., Cupertino, (408) 564-8852. 403 University Ave., Palo Alto, (650) 494-4437; http://www.yayoi-us.com