Japanese food is simple in conception, and bland is easy to come by. The genius of the cuisine reveals itself in its subtleties. Each time I eat Japanese food I’m reminded of a scene in Juzo Itami’s Tampopo where a young buck sits down next to an old man at a ramen counter and orders a bowl of noodles with barbecued pork. He’s about to shovel his food in when the old man stops him and gives him a long, animated lecture on how to appreciate the aesthetics of a good bowl of chashumen-ramen. “Don’t go to the food,” he admonishes his pupil, “Let the food come to you.” And then the two slurp down their soup, the younger man eyeing the older to make sure he’s sucking down his noodles correctly.
With the devil in the details, I’ve found that higher-end Japanese restaurants are worth the extra money (with the exception of a certain corporate chain specializing in juggling grill cooks). This past week my friends and I discussed the brilliance of Tampopo in two established Japanese restaurants, Uzen and Genki. Both specialize in sushi, but serve a full range of standard cooked dishes. Their prices are high for those who patronize Party Sushi, affordable for the tuna carpaccio set.
Both restaurants reconfirmed my conviction that more equals more. The freshness of their sushi–of all the fish we tasted–was impeccable. When ordering sushi, what you pay for beyond freshness are thicker slices of fish, a larger proportion of fish to sushi rice, and more elegantly prepared platters. Each of the two restaurants made certain standards–dishes I rarely order because I think I know them so well–appealing once again.
Kazuo Shimizu, who trained in Japan and San Francisco, opened Uzen on College Avenue in late 1991. Ten years later, business hasn’t let up. If you’re hot for the funky fresh American-style rolls with cute puns for names, head elsewhere. Come to Uzen for the classics. Flavors are bold but not bright, simple but not austere. Shimizu pays attention to the small details–the rustic pottery on which each dish is served, the house-made dashi broth that breathes life into so many of the subtle sauces and broths in Japanese cuisine.
Spare Japanese aesthetics and ’80s design converge in Uzen’s narrow, high room, with its tones of pale gray, white, and black. Its storefront is entirely encased in thick clear glass; patrons at the front are all but sitting on the street. A tiny sushi bar slices along the diagonal at the back, blocking the kitchen from view. Up the supply-lined staircase is a tiny private room (it seats ten maximum) with sunken seats and low black tables. Diners must take their shoes off before stepping on the mats.
Uzen is open for lunch and dinner. Lunchtime rice plates and sushi combinations range from $7 to $10, and dinner will set moderate eaters and drinkers back $20 to $30 per person. Apart from sushi, the dinner menu lists a moderate number of appetizers and entrées, but it consists of distinct items–you won’t find fourteen kinds of udon in soup, each marginally different from its neighbors.
Oshitashi, a small mound of steamed, pressed spinach adrift in a light soy sauce, takes on a subtle sea flavor from the pink bonito flakes scattered across the greens. “Rocky” chicken kara-age, deep-fried slices of chicken thigh, makes the Colonel’s extra-crispy look limp. The overcooked though oilless coating was so dry that it sucked the moisture right off my lips. Most successful is chawan-mushi, a savory custard much beloved in Japan but less common on American menus because it must be steamed to order. Shimizu’s chawan-mushi is served in a small covered stoneware teacup. Inside, a treasure trove of fillings studded the creamy, light custard: shiitake mushrooms, slices of chicken and eel, spinach and green onion, all redolent with the rich sea flavor of dashi.
The chawan-mushi was on the salty side of acceptable. Salty to the point of discomfort was a thin slab of roasted miso-marinated sea bass, otherwise cooked so that its edges were crisp and the interior moist. I preferred a similar, less salty starter: salmon collar (sake kama), which we ordered since the more common halibut collar (hamachi kama) was out. For those of you who have shied away from fish collar or “cheeks,” the chunk of flesh right behind the gills, you’re missing an amazing cut. It’s dense but can be picked apart by chopsticks, and has a meaty, less fishy flavor that only needs a sprinkling of salt and pepper before being broiled.
The freshness of the sushi at Uzen has a single, significant drawback: if you want a wide selection of fish, go between 5 and 7 p.m. Seated at 8:30 p.m. on a weekday night so busy that it caught the kitchen off-guard, we were informed by our on-the-ball waitress that half the types of sushi we tried to order were out. No Spanish mackerel (aji), smaller and milder than your garden-variety saba. No ama-ebi, raw shrimp served with its head deep-fried. Sticking with nigiri, we cobbled together an acceptable assortment, which arrived in two batches. Some highlights: Large, thin slices of candy-sweet scallop (hotate), the satin flesh of the sushi world; a snow-white mound of mild cooked crab (kani) capping a seaweed-wrapped finger of rice; orange flying fish roe (tobiko) topped with a golden quail-egg yolk–a texture bomb in the mouth; respectable, though not mind-blowing, ahi tuna (maguro) and yellowtail (hamachi) nigiri.
Members of the raw crowd who are dining with cooked-food people can also order a sushi or sashimi plate for one. Meat entrées such as salmon teriaki, breaded pork cutlet (tonkatsu), and noodles are available for their companions. I wasn’t thrilled with the ten zaken soba, a cold soba dish served with tempura vegetables and a light dipping sauce perked up with wasabi, shiitake, and scallions. Our buckwheat noodles were slightly overcooked, and the tempura, though not oily, wasn’t supernaturally light and crisp.
I’m also not a big fan of the basic soy broth that most Japanese noodle soups use as their base. I find it pallid, a little salty, and an inadequate foil for soft, bland noodles. Uzen’s rich broth, however, set me straight–the same rich dashi used in the custard, combined with soy sauce and a hint of sugar that might have come from sweet rice wine, actually flavored the fat wheat noodles. Our Uzen udon also contained tempura broccoli and shrimp, fish cake, shiitake mushroom, spinach, egg, and scallion.
Uzen stocks a selection of twenty unfiltered and filtered cold sakes, along with one warm variety, and a few Japanese beers. The servers, who were a little overwhelmed by the rush the night we visited, otherwise helped us navigate the menu and suggested a couple of good bottles of sake.
The word genki means “healthy” in Japanese, but is most often used in the informal greeting, genki desu ka. “It’s like calling a restaurant ‘Hiya!!'” commented one of my Japanese-speaking friends when I asked him to join me for dinner. Genki is located at the corner of San Pablo Avenue and Cedar Street, in a a brown stucco box set in front of a motel. The restaurant may not look like much, but its charm reveals itself inside. The clean, open room is dolled up in semi-corporate lavender and gray hues. To the right is a curved sushi bar below a pink neon GENKI sign.
The most attractive part of the décor? The food on the tables–rainbow-hued sushi rolls arrayed on black lacquered trays, large geometrical constructions made of battered vegetables, black bento boxes brimming with jeweled delights. Diners receive thick black plastic chopsticks and sip sake from squared frosted glasses. Just as the presentation at Uzen aligns itself with the Edo period, Genki’s plates point the way to the NTT DoCoMo age.
But, like Uzen, the food at Genki sticks to the classics: sushi, noodles, tempura, and familiar entrées such as teriaki and chicken katsu. The enormous menu ranges farther afield than Uzen’s does, and specials take up an entire whiteboard. Prices are comparable to Uzen for sushi ($3.50 to $5 for most nigiri and maki) and slightly higher for the meatier entrées ($10-15). Hearty eaters can order one of fifteen combination plates.
Most entrées come with a pale, delicate miso soup and a salad with green lettuce, red cabbage, carrot threads, and tomatoes dressed in a soy and ground-sesame dressing. We also started out the meal with a small plate of tsukemono, pickled cucumber slices, green slivers of ginger, orange burdock root, and yellow radish half-moons. Soon after the largest order of goma-ae I have ever seen arrived, a mound of chilled steamed spinach tossed with ground sesame paste. The spinach was steamed so perfectly that it tasted like the fiber had melted right out of it, yet the stems crunched in the mouth. While the coating had a pleasing graininess, though, it lacked salt.
Our platter of sushi, half vegetarian and half fish, hit many of the high notes that Uzen’s sushi did. Both evinced freshness and variety. Uzen’s nigiri were more tightly constructed; Genki’s showed more flair. Its sushi chefs cut generous slices of fish and prepare a few elaborate constructions layering vegetables, fish, and fish roe. It might be worth the wait to sit at the sushi bar to ogle all the trays that only two people can put out in mere seconds.
Meatless sushi we ordered included my favorite, gourd (kanpyo), which has a toffee-like sweetness; inari, sushi rice folded into an envelope of sweetened tofu skin; and fermented soybean (natto) maki, creamy and rich. Like many Westerners, I’m not a big fan of the slimy texture of natto, but I love to play with it: touch a chopstick tip to the beans and pull it away quickly, and your chopstick will spin out a gossamer-thin filament of some unknown substance. It’s more fun, and more ephemeral, than spun sugar. Fish nigiri included meaty bonito tuna, an uncommon sight in the States, seared around the edges and dipped in a tart ponzu sauce; the most buttery slab of fatty tuna (toro) I have ever tasted; and a slightly less fresh Spanish mackerel (aji) topped with scallions.
Noodle soups come in a clear, mild chicken stock that doesn’t have the same pungency and vigor as Uzen’s soy-dashi broth. The nabeyaki udon we ordered contained thin noodles that looked suspiciously like linguine, along with mushroom, shrimp tempura, spinach, bamboo shoot, and a quail egg that had been dropped raw into the steaming broth. We were enjoying it but dropped everything the moment the spectacular vegetable tempura arrived. Large chunks of pepper, winter squash, silken tofu, and broccoli coated in a crisp, fragile batter held aloft a large fan of deep-fried, battered egg noodles.
Chef-owner Haruyoshi Kumaki opened Genki six years ago after selling his first restaurant, Zakuro in Pleasant Hill. He trained in Tokyo and moved to the States almost twenty years ago. Kumaki heads up the sushi bar, chatting with customers and slicing fish.
“Don’t even bother going to Genki after 7:00 p.m.,” warned one regular. “If you want decent service, show up between 5:00 and 6:00 and sit at the sushi bar.” One of my dining companions got lost on the way to meet us, and like Cinderella we rushed to get a seat before the hour of doom. Alas, we were too late. We never figured out which of the three good-intentioned women who came to our table was our server. One of our appetizers arrived long after our entrées, and we ended up having to share a single soup spoon. Since we never knew who to hail, we bemusedly let the food come to us, in whatever way it wanted to.