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Restaurants & Bars

Japanese Recs in Napa

Melanie Wong | Nov 10, 2002 03:23 PM

The best bets for chopstick-able food in Napa may be Japanese – here are a couple decent choices for when the mood strikes.

SUSHI MAMBO:

Roped into joining a client lunch here, naturally I was leery of a name like that and became even more so when I heard this is the most popular sushi bar in Napa. Yet, I couldn’t help but love the energy of the newly re-occupied space, painted in bright Latino tropical colors and decorated with original modern artwork. Plus, the sushi chefs are Mexican.

Creative combinations of western-style makizushi rolls are the draw here, so I had to try one. The “mucho macho mambo roll” had a chopped-up jumble of various raw fishes, plus avocado. Each of the six pieces was crowned with a dab of Sriracha hot sauce to wake up the mouth with a dual wasabi and chili pepper burn. Three of us shared two servings. One of the rolls had fresher, cracklier nori and better balance than the other, causing me to wonder if they had been assembled by the same sushi chef.

I also had Albacore nigiri and Hamachi nigiri. The cuts were generous, although not nearly as humongous as Sawa Sushi. The fish were beautifully trimmed and even, but served too cold and at lunch hour on Monday were not at the peak of freshness. Still good with the right proportions for the rice pad and wasabi, but they were not top quality.

Others in our group enjoyed bento box lunches with teriyaki and tempura for $8 or other lunch specials of various combinations of sushi and rolls with miso soup for up to $9.50. Worth mentioning is that service was very slow - 30 minutes for the food for our party of six to be served. Otherwise, it was a decent value and nice change of pace for lunch.

YOSHI-SHIGE:

Visitors from Japan stuck in the Napa Valley tipped me that this was the best of the local Japanese restaurants they’d tried, especially the small plates. They’d eaten here three times in one week. Brandon Nelson has mentioned it on the board as well. I had visions of izakaya a la San Mateo’s Lakuni, but found a more broad-based offering instead.

On both my solo dinners, I took a seat at the sushi bar. My first time, I asked what was freshest today. The owner and sushi chef, “Hide” (Hideaki Osawa), said that he goes to the fish markets in San Mateo and beyond personally six days a week for his purchases and that everything was good. I respectfully repeated my question, asking him which fish were purchased today. He gave me a long sideways look and asked where I was from. I said “San Francisco” and asked if he had Spanish mackerel. No luck. Then I asked for albacore, but none again. He studied my face carefully and said the halibut and hamachi were very good today. I ordered both as nigiri, and also a deep-fried soft shell crab from the menu of small dishes.

The halibut was very fine with a section of fresh shiso leaf layered between the rice pad and fish and then topped with tobiko (flying fish roe). The hamachi was not of as high quality with some dark spots and blood lines untrimmed. The knife work was a bit rough on the sushi.

Encouraged by the freshness of the halibut, I asked if the fluke (hirame no hide, the adipose tissue over the fin) was available. Hide then demanded, “who are you, how do you know this?” and the dance between sushi chef and new customer began in earnest. Since this has been the universal reaction, I wondered whether I had stumbled on some secret password that signals a sushi master that you mean business. The flounder fluke was lightly scored and served as nigiri sushi topped with a bit of tobiko and green onion. Just the way I like it.

He offered me what he called “happiness juice” (Ozeiki sake) on the house and wanted to know which sushi bars I liked in San Francisco and why. In turn, I brought in the opened bottles of Robert Mondavi “Reserve” Pinot Noir and Chile’s “Seña” from the afternoon’s tasting to share with him and was soon pouring them round the bar for his appreciative customers. I learned that Hide is a partner in Newlan winery, loves wine especially dessert wines, and many of his customers in the industry bring him bottles as gifts.

Hide posed to me that for a first visit, I should judge his place not for its sushi but for the style and quality of the small dishes. He brought out agedashi tofu from the kitchen. My comments that it was much better than the softshell crab and showed a lot of care to small details - expertly fried with light texture and balanced and complex but not overt saucing - must have pleased him. He ordered a small tempura plate for me to try next, which I shared with my neighbors at the bar. He called it Kyoto style, and it had whitefish, prawns, a wedge of kabocha, zucchini, bell pepper and carrot. When I asked him what distinguished Kyoto style, he said that the frying was lighter and the sauce more subtle. This was indeed an airy and delicately seasoned version, and my favorite of the many things I’ve tasted here.

To close, I asked whether there was anything else that he was especially proud of. Hide said the sake selection is very good and that he puts on special dinners with rare sakes a few times a year. Then he said that I must try the gyoza, made with a special recipe. Even though I was more than full, the prospect of fresh and not frozen gyoza was too good to pass up. The very thin skins were nicely browned and crisped, and the filling had a fluffier and non-oily texture. Hide said that they use lots of miso in the filling and that it has a unique taste because it’s 60% pork/40% beef. I passed the rest to the other customers at the bar to try. If I lived nearby, these gyoza could easily become my favorite late night snack.

When the waiter presented my bill, it only had my sushi charges on it. I passed it to Hide to correct, and he tore it up! I protested, but he said I got the first time customer discount and besides I gave most of my food away to the other patrons. All the cash I had on me was a twenty that I left as a tip.

On my return visit, I ordered the special of the day, deep-fried butterfish (ebodai). A whole small fish, this was dusted with cornstarch and fried to a delicate crisp, still pale and not browned. Hide said that in Japan potato starch would be used but cornstarch is easier to find here. The dipping sauce was more assertive than the tempura version and was a good match for the moist and neutral tasting fish.

Hide leaned closer and whispered to me that he had bought some beautiful Spanish mackerel (aji) that morning and had one left. He showed me the whole fish – glossy and supremely fresh – then filleted half of it before my eyes into sashimi. Served with long lacy shreds of daikon and grated fresh ginger, the sashimi was cut slightly too thick making it less tender to bite into than it should be. I asked if the accompanying citrusy dipping sauce was ponzu, and Hide said, "Americans all talk about ponzu, ponzu, ponzu . . . no, this is chirizu sauce." He chuckled as he poured me some “happiness juice” on the house.

Next up was a grilled salmon skin hand roll. The crackly skin offered a different sort of crunch than the vegetable crispness of the burdock root or the light snap and pop of the tobiko. I liked the contrast of hot and cold temperatures and the fresh accents of the shiso leaf and radish sprouts. My one complaint about this delicious concoction was that the salmon skin was overly greasy and not blotted. Messy rivulets of fish oil drained down my hand as I attempted to bite into this roll.

Hide remembered that I like flounder fluke and offered a pair of nigiri sushi. The customer seated next to me noticed my delight and tried to order the same thing, but Hide said it was special and only for me.

Last up was tuna tartare, offered on the house. The diced red tuna was mixed with capers and bits of sweet red onion, and served undressed. I doctored it with some light soy and asked for more of the chirizu sauce, which brought it to life.

My bill for this second dinner was $25, and since that seemed less than it should be, I added a $10 tip.

The strength here is the cooked dishes, with the exception of the softshell crab, and the tempura and gyoza are well worth seeking out. The fish used in the sushi is of good but not uniformly excellent quality, and some of the proportions are not quite in balance. Yet, it’s very entertaining to sit at the bar to enjoy Hide’s big personality. He took very good care of me as a new customer and was eager to share his best.

Yoshi-Shige
3381 California Blvd.
Napa
707-257-3583

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