I had another good meal at Mai, in downtown San Mateo. Mai does not always rate well -- as you can see in the posting from Hound Extraordinaire Melanie (see link). So I wonder if it's my luck or something about how I order.
Izakaya Mai has a comprehensive menu that is typical for some food-centered izakaya in Japan but pretty uncommon here in the Bay Area. A page of grill, a page of fry, a page of sushi, and then a scattering of boards and cards with specials. To me, Mai's atmosphere is that of a local on a side street in, say, Shimonoseki. NHK plays, with sound, on a TV over in the corner. But you can sit far from the TV if you like. There's a sake-and-beer-and-Calpico list with pictures of the bottles.
Tonight I had iwashi mentai, which of course in English is popular as 'sardine grilled with some spicy roe in its belly'. Iwashi is a great fish for grilling, with a high fat content, firm flesh, and a skin that takes well to charring.
Sardines should be more familiar as restaurant food: some of the best fish I've had at Zuni or Ecco (at South Park) were sardines. In Japan, iwashi (pilchard and sardines) are most widely caught and eaten during the summer, but evidently you can get them here in December. Imagine if you could walk into any diner on a Thursday morning and say "I want an bowl of grits, two eggs over medium, and a grilled sardine. Hold the gravy on the sardine."
Mai grilled the fish exactly to the point where it's cooked but no parts are dry. I think they pre-salt, which is usual for silver-colored fish, and which helps ensure a fairly crispy skin, since it draws out moisture before cooking starts. As usual for grilled fish, it was served with grated daikon and a piece of lemon. Although I would never touch the lemon when it appears on the platter with raw oysters, I aver that the combination of strong lemon juice and grilled sardine-like fish is heavenly.
I also enjoyed an order of toro sashimi. This is a challenging dish. Toro (ventresca in Italian; it's fatty tuna belly from one of the big tunas, like bluefin) is expensive and can be tough, probably partly because of the fat but mostly because belly muscles are full of connective tissue. You might consider it seafood's answer to beef brisket: flavorful and toothsome when prepared right.
The plate held six thick-cut, folded rectangular pieces, just on the edge of frozen. They leaned against a shiso leaf and some daikon strips. I was reminded of beef carpaccio, as the toro was thoroughly marbled and very cold. Toro sashimi is a little extreme -- I will probably go back to negitoro, grated with scallions, henceforth -- but this extreme fish dish at Mai was pretty, chewable, and pleasing.
In the past few months, I have tried other dishes at Mai and thought well of them. Ankimo, monkfish liver, was prepared simply and well. For someone who doesn't eat foie gras every week, ankimo is a rich affair. It's more interesting and considerably bigger than most fish livers; and it won't kill you in six hours, as fugu liver might.
I also think Mai's oden worth the money. Oden --boiled hotpot items -- is salty, warming eating for a rainy night.
The iwashi mentai is on the menu; the toro was on the specials board. Toro sashimi was $19, or quite expensive. Many of the small dishes run about $5.
In summary, Izakaya Mai is just down the block from Himawari, where I would prefer to go if I wanted ramen and couldn't get in at Santa. Sushi is probably better at a couple of San Mateo spots. But Mai's small cooked dishes seem by and large good (not in the class of Seattle's Maneki or Seattle's astounding Shiki). Prices are lofty, but the atmosphere is homey. I think concentrating on the specials might help make Mai memorable.
Izakaya Mai, 212 2nd Av, San Mateo, 650 347 2511.