Following the trail of hounds (Han Lukito, Tida, Melanie and others), I tried Lakuni, the izakaya in downtown San Mateo, on Thursday. Thanks, everyone, for the guidance -- this is a terrific joint.
Like Han's party, we were new to the place, and the chef asked us straightaway whether this was really what we had in mind. No sushi here, he advised us, just small dishes and drinks. Once we assured him that this was where we wanted to be, we were each served a chunk of daikon simmered in dashi and flavored with shoyu and mirin: a pleasing starter, warm, sweet and tender, giving way easily to chopsticks.
Next we ordered maguro butsugiri, roughly chopped tuna sashimi in a sweetened soy sauce with green onion. Flavors were fresh and clean; we didn't need or use much of the wasabi that came with it.
Shishamo shioyaki, salt-grilled smelt, followed. Like Tida's, ours were mostly full of flavorful roe. This hints at a lost generation of shishamo, but it was so delicious we tried not to dwell on that.
Yaki satsuma age was excellent: wedges of fried fish cake, briefly grilled and served with green onion and grated fresh ginger.
A trio of kushiyaki -- chicken with green onion; chicken gizzard; fresh shiitake -- was done to a turn. I agree with Han; skewer grilling is a strength of this chef.
Kaki nabe was perfect on this cool evening: oysters, tofu and shiitake simmered in dashi with mild shiromiso. As Tida reported, it was accented with yuzu rind; we couldn't get over the haunting flavor and aroma that even a small amount lent this dish. The chef told us he'd grown the fruit from seed sent by his wife's sister in Japan. (It seems the time it takes to grow a yuzu has lengthened from eight years, on Tida's visit, to 10 years. Global warming, I suppose.)
We finished with yaki nigiri, fat rice balls brushed with a shoyu sauce and browned on the grill -- a tasty and satisfying end to dinner.
The bill: $77 (before tip) for three of us, counting several tall bottles of Asahi.
This is an intimate, homey place that bears the personal stamp of its chef-owner and his wife, who bustles about quietly, mostly behind the scenes. The menu is shorter than at a larger izakaya like Tanto (in San Francisco and the South Bay), but everything seems to be done well here.
I imagine Lakuni is a very friendly hangout for regulars. (They were scarce on our visit, however; we arrived early, at 6:30 p.m., and were the only customers for a couple of hours.) Even with us newcomers, the chef warmed as our meal went on. Asked the meaning of his restaurant's name, he smiled and said with a shrug, ``Oh, nothing much.'' Then he went on to explain it. ``La'' is the French article (rendered in kana as ``ra,'' the way Japanese pronounce it); ``Kuni'' is short for his given name, which I should have asked but didn't. I'll ask next time.
325 E. Fourth Ave., San Mateo