Restaurants & Bars

Bonsai (sushi) Redwood City/Atherton

Sushi Monster | Mar 9, 200606:18 PM     1

Just a quick update on an established mid-Peninsula sushi place that fellow hounds may already be familiar with. (I scrolled back about nine months and didn't see it in the subject lines, though. If I overlooked something, please feel free to append this note onto the existing review.)

Finding myself on El Camino Real at the north end of Redwood City this lunch hour, I tried to get a bar seat at the very highly regarded Higuma at around 12 straight up. The sushi gods were not smiling on that proposition today: The six tiny tables and the four-or-five seat bar were jammed, with four people shivering outside the front door waiting for a chair to open up.

Since I was headed south anyway, in a few minutes I was at Bonsai, on El Camino at the Atherton/Redwood City border. (Technically, it's in neither town, but rather unincorporated San Mateo County, just south of Fifth Ave.) Bonsai survived for years, primarily on word-of-mouth business, in a somewhat problematic location on Jefferson Avenue in downtown Redwood City. When the city eminent-domained the block to build a hulking multiplex a couple years ago, Bonsai moved south to a location (3401 El Camino) that seems to me to be equally problematic: It's on an inhospitable stretch of El Camino that's essentially a highway with zero foot traffic and cars zooming by the front door at 45 mph. The only pedestrians in the area are the day laborers at the corner of Fifth and El Camino. And yet somehow they survive.

What I found at 12:30 on a Thursday was a large, empty dining room (three deuces occupied), empty tatami rooms to the right of the front door and a long sushi bar that was entirely deserted.

When it was in downtown RWC, Bonsai had gotten mixed reviews from a trusted friend of mine who owned a business a block away and ate there often. He had pronounced it to be just so-so, inconsistent and not worthy of a special trip. I hadn't heard from anyone who'd been to the current location, though.

I believe Bonsai has a full range of cooked offerings, but I can't say for sure since I never asked for a menu and was never offered one. And as for the fish: The bar meets my three basic criteria for a proper sushi parlor: You can see all the fish under glass. You can see the chef making his cuts. And you can order directly from the chef and talk about the fish in detail.

Favorite nigiri: The Japanese scallop was very large and drizzled with a Louisiana-style hot sauce that was not so hot that it overpowered the silky, delicate scallop. (As a matter of fact, I needed to apply very little soy sauce and no wasabe to anything here, a sign that the chef had everything seasoned correctly when he served it and any further seasoning on my part would do nothing but muck it up. That's always good news.)

The salmon (fresh Atlantic wild, probably Norwegian, brined overnight) was about the best I've had in recent memory. The New Zealand green-lipped mussel was the only previously frozen item I tried and it was very good. I usually don't care much for tuna, but the chef/owner – very friendly and willing to talk at length about his sourcing – finished me off with a toro that just blew me away.

I didn't try any of the rolls, priced at a rather steep $7-$14. The toll for my six plates of generously sized nigiri was $33. At $5.50 a plate, you really know you're not at some funky boat place ... That's about as high a lunch tab as I've encountered on the Peninsula. (I don't think I've broken $40 w/tip so far, since this great hunger seized my brain...)

I might have gone for even more of the toro and salmon, but in this case I was not exactly tempted to linger: Once he'd ascertained I'd had my fill, the chef/owner excused himself from behind the bar and ran out to get the second fish order of the day. Oh well. Being the only customer at the bar at nearly 1:30, I couldn't complain about that.

Although I'm still a very long way away from finishing my complete rankings for the Peninsula, I'd put Bonsai in the upper tier, just above Koma, which is just down El Camino in Menlo Park. (Note, however, that Bonsai ran me a full $10 more than Koma for an almost identical array of quality nigiri.)

Bottom line: Top quality fish, top price, and – on a deadly slow day, a welcoming seat at the bar for inquisitive sushi geeks.

Sushi Monster

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