Much thanks to Andy Raskin for the Lakuni outing (325 E.4th Ave in San Mateo/ 650-347-3140). It was delicious and great to have a knowledgeable guide for all the various dishes.
Lakuni is an intimate Japanese restaurant with a counter that seats 10 or 11 people. Their food reflects a number of different types of dishes from sashimi to yakitori to nabemono to other sundries.
As we sat down, we were welcomed with a warm towel and a dish of two braised chicken drummettes that demonstrated a good balance of salty and sweet. Beer and sake that was reminiscent of rainwater was ordered.
Our first dish from the kitchen was thinly sliced squid marinated notably in its own intestinal juices(?), salt, and a touch of sake. The squid was served on a bed of thinly sliced onion, providing a crunchy foil to the squid's chewiness. The "secret" ingredient was small strips of yuzu that were interspersed with the squid. We were shown the yuzu which we smelled. It had a stronger, more citrusy aroma and taste than a Eureka lemon that was also a good counterpoint for the squid.
Our second dish was tuna cubes tossed with sliced scallions with a dab of wasabi on the side. We also had a lightly fried calamari dish. The breading was very light but was not the typical panko. The squid was not rubbery at all and had a nice snappy chew to it.
Andy had ordered well for us and the food certainly kept coming. We had a delightful dish of grilled eggplant. Delightful for the topping of bonito flakes that waved back and forth from the rising heat of the grilled eggplant. (Melanie was tickled by how the bonito flakes moved.) This dish was quite gingery but Andy recommended a little addition of soy sauce which did balance out the ginger.
Following was skewered meats with a salt and pepper seasoning. You could also get a teriyaki sauce seasoning. The meats were chicken, chicken with scallion dividers, heart, and shitake mushroom. We also decided to get grilled fish and opted for a few full smelts instead of one bigger fish. When our smelts arrived, a few of them bulged out in the middle as though these fish had swallowed a lifesaver candy. These smelts were actually pregnant, hence the bulges in the middle of their bodies. They had a nice grilled smoky flavor without that overpowering char character. The roe added good texture.
We wound it down with boiled gyoza (you can also get them fried) which came with a ponzu dipping sauce. Most notable to Melanie and me was their beautiful pleated shapes. We both make our own dumplings and discovered that neither of our homemade versions ever look that pretty. These gyoza also had a nice thin wrapper.
Finally, oyster nabemono came. This was my favorite dish. The nabemono came in what I believe was an earthenware bowl which retained its heat. The broth was a miso base that was not overpoweringly salty for this delicate soup. Also included in the dish were scallions, shitakes, large chunks of tofu, shelled whole oysters, napa cabbage, and again slices of the yuzu.
When asked about the yuzu, the chef told us that it takes 8 years for one yuzu fruit to develop. He brought the yuzu from his own trees that he grows, which yields about 200. Personally, I was very impressed by this and happy to partake of something that had required so much care.
Lakuni was a great recommendation and I will certainly go back. One of the things I appreciated is the fact that they do have an English menu with brief explanations of what the dish is and what's in it. However, it was fun and educational to have a fluent Japanese speaker who could engage the chef as we were told about what he marinated the squid in and where the yuzu came from. Expect to be amongst a primarily Japanese crowd and I suspect that the later you go, the more interesting it may be as people have some sakes and enjoy the experience.