There’s a lot going on in Tanaka’s Love Me Tender Roll, according to the menu: It’s a California roll with topped with tuna, salmon, sweet shrimp, yellow tail, and three colors of caviar. Unfortunately, that’s not the roll we get. What we receive is a long California roll — made with real crab, not those fake surimi “crab legs” brushed with red dye — with little chunks of warm unagi strapped to the top with strips of nori. It’s lovely to look at, but the mix-up leaves me befuddled. After a few minutes of poring over the menu I still can’t find a roll that resembles what I’m eating.
There’s a lot of menu to look over. Tanaka, downtown Berkeley’s newest Japanese restaurant and sushi bar, has six two-foot-tall pages of items to choose from. Besides the sushi (two and a half pages of Japanese and American-style maki, sashimi, and nigiri), there’s a page of cooked standards like udon and teriyaki, and two sets of combination plates.
It takes a good thirty minutes to settle on our choices. Part of the delay is caused by us taking in the room, which has undergone extensive remodeling. The new decor is one part Laura Ashley, one part Miami Vice, and one part Epcot Center Japan. The eye hardly knows where to settle: On the stands of bamboo and the rocky fountains? The plastic marlin leaping off the walls? The forest of skinny chrome chairs and tables? The sushi bar even has a moat with a ghost armada of empty, high-prowed wooden boats. (“Do not take any sushi from the boats,” the menu says.)
And did I mention the Elvis thing? The sushi chef, who sports a high, well-brushed pompadour, spends his evenings slicing fish while catching glimpses of a continuous loop of Elvis videos on a big plasma-screen television across the room — Elvis on Ed Sullivan; Elvis throttling the microphone for a choir of screaming teenage girls; puffy Elvis sweating into a wide-collared pantsuit. Half of the American-style rolls have names like “Blue Hawaii” and “Love Me True.” And no, Love Me True doesn’t have unagi in it.
The mix of the familiar and strange applies to the classic Japanese end of the spectrum as well as to the fusion end. Our goma-ae, cooked spinach salad tossed in a sweetened sesame-paste dressing, is one of the best renditions I’ve had in a while. And though it came in a boat the hiyayakko, slices of custardy fresh tofu splayed atop a bed of ice cubes with dried tuna flakes and scallion, was so subtly conceived that it could only be Japanese. But a seaweed salad, usually a tangle of multicolor strands tossed with toasted sesame oil, was dyed radioactive green — with a nostril-clearing dose of artificially colored wasabi. And after one bite of spicy baked mussels, tougher than a long-chewed piece of Doublemint and coated in a bright-orange barbecue sauce, I had to knock back a couple of glasses of sake to clear my palate.
The two cooked-fish dinners I tried tasted dead-on Japanese, except for being overcooked. It took more work than it should have to pull apart the saba shioyaki, grilled salt-and-pepper mackerel, with my chopsticks. Salmon kama — the collar of the fish, right behind the gills — is never an attractive cut of meat, with bits of bone and fin attached. But the meat inside, the filet mignon of the fish, is normally tender and richly marbled with fat. The cooks at Tanaka cooked it just long enough to turn it into a regular chunk of salmon, quite tasty when dipped in the citrusy ponzu sauce but otherwise indistinct.
What lured me to Tanaka was a reader’s tip mentioning the live ama-ebi, “sweet” (raw) shrimp. I’ve read many times about a Japanese delicacy translated as “dancing prawns,” where the chef is supposed to dissect live prawns and mount them on balls of rice so fast that the tail is still flipping away when you put it in your mouth. I wanted to try that. Sure enough, the sushi chef stands in front of a network of terraced aquariums filled with docile pink shrimp waving their feathery tentacles.
I didn’t spy the chef dipping a net into the tank, but the two shiny, translucent prawns I received were unmistakably fresh, their heads deep-fried and placed at their sides. I can only blame myself for not liking them. I found the ama-ebi unpleasantly gummy, and despite my normal willingness to tuck into everything from beef tendon to corn smut, their recently doffed heads — okay, those beady little eyes — were just too big for me to pop into my mouth.
The rest of the classic nigiri showcased the high quality of the fish. Though prices are in the mid to upper range, Tanaka slices off value-worthy slabs. The hamachi was plump and succulent, the fresh salmon cut from the fattier edge of the fillet so it melted away. In the ika sansai nigiri, slivers of velvety cooked squid and “Japanese mountain vegetable,” earthy and subtly herbaceous, spilled over the high sides of nori-wrapped rice. And the ou toro, the fatty tuna, had the texture of foie gras or barely softened butter. It had been cut into huge, floppy slices that sprawled over the capsules of rice.
Like the ou toro, the traditional maki also were made of great ingredients that had been sloppily constructed, the sheets of nori peeling away like flaking paint. And the American rolls ranged from cute to crazy. They look spectacular, but when you fit salmon, tuna, unagi, avocado, and shrimp into a roll so big that you need a mouth the size of Carol Channing’s to eat it, the individual flavors get lost.
Despite its size, I liked the deluxe spicy tuna roll, which cooled off a chile-spiked tuna tartare with avocado, cucumber, and tobiko. And I loved the now-classic spider roll, with the little deep-fried arms of the soft-shell crab poking out either end and its mix of warm and cold, crunchy and creamy. But I couldn’t taste the hamachi from the tuna or salmon packed into the angel roll, what with the hefty dose of hot sauce coating everything. Even more offensive, the three-inch-thick round was puffed out with lettuce. I just can’t get behind the idea of lettuce in sushi. It’s watery, it’s cold, and it makes the roll fall apart at the slightest touch.
On my second visit, we ordered yet another piece of mystery sushi. The menu described the Godzilla roll as albacore and avocado, wrapped with masago (minuscule smelt eggs), tempuraed, and then topped with a spicy wasabi sauce. Instead, the crispy roll contained only albacore, and was slathered in a red chile mayonnaise. It was a guilty pleasure, sure, but it took a couple of trips from the server to convince us that we were reading the menu right, even if the chef wasn’t.
I wanted to like Tanaka, with its over-the-top interior and its flock of cheery servers, who darted from table to table like hummingbirds. But if the chefs can’t assert enough control over their high-quality ingredients to prepare them correctly — or even remember what they’re supposed to be making — they’re just going to end up with a massive, sparkly, over-the-top mess.