Last month I had dinner with a new friend at Saizo. We thought it would be fun to try a place that neither of us had been to before. Also, she was curious about izakaya-style food, small plates of often salty, greasy and rich flavors to accompany an evening of drinking. We took a seat at the corner of the counter where it was easy for us to visit. The beverage list with saketinis, shochu cocktails, cold sakes, beer, and soft drinks makes up the first part of the menu, ahead of the food pages.
First up was Iwashi maru (whole grilled sardine), $4.75. Not a good start, as it was dried out and even leathery with burned charcoal-tasting parts. A squirt of lemon didn't help. The tempura-battered Renkon, $5.25, were no better, oil-soaked and pale with limp lotus root, as if fried in oil that was not hot enough. But after that, everything else was smooth sailing and completely delicious.
Kaki bacon, $3 per piece, were oysters wrapped in bacon then grilled. The balance of sweet, custardy-textured mollusks with the smoke of the grill and salty meatiness of the bacon was spot on. Aigamo hoba yaki (grilled duck with miso on a hoba leaf)), $8.50, was one of the daily specials and highly recommended. I had asked our waitress how this differed from the miso duck on the regular grill menu. She said that the miso was a sauce and gave it more miso flavor than the marinade of the regular duck dish. The aromatic hoba leaf imparted a sandalwood-like scent. Cooked rosy pink, the natural earthiness of the slices of juicy and tender duck breast was a fine match with the yellow miso sauce dotted on top. Buta asparagus, $2.80, were spears of asparagus wrapped with thin slices of pork belly then charred on the grill until sweet and bathed in rich pork fat. My favorite dish was the Sunagimo/ninnikunokuki, $6, a stir-fry of chicken gizzards with garlic sprouts. Seasoned with what tasted like a bean paste to me, the nubs of carmelized and chewy-tender gizzards were tossed with short lengths of green garlic stalks that had a rubbery snap not unlike Chinese long beans. I loved the subtle garlic greenness with the iron notes and intense flavor of the gizzards bound together with the savory and sweet seasoning. This was a little too out there for my friend, and I think she found her favorite in the superb duck.
To drink, we each ordered the three-sake sampler. This included two junmai's and one ginjo. While I preferred both of the fresher and fruitier junmai's with our food to the ginjo, none of them were remarkable enough for me to pay attention to the names of the producers. We both like the relaxed atmosphere without pressure to order more or turn over the seats.
On Tuesday I had a chance to return on my own to try the daily lunch special. Posted on the board outside with the regular lunch menu, it sounded good to me from a quick scan. From walking in the door, taking a seat at the counter (where I was facing the clock on the back wall), then ordering, it took only 7 minutes for my food to be served. If you're a fast eater, you can be in and out of here in half an hour, as I did, which earned Saizo extra points in my book as a place to get a speedy and delicious lunch. For $10.50, I got the lunch tray shown below and complimentary hot tea. It will take me longer to describe this than it did to eat it!
The whole grilled aji (horse mackerel) had crispy skin and while cooked till browned and done, the oily flesh didn't dry out. It had a firm texture with rich flavor accented with salt and highlighted by a squeeze of lemon. My waitress had asked again if bones on a whole fish would be a problem. This was actually easy to work with as one half of the fish had been cut as a filet and the other half had the fish spine on the cut surface where it was a snap to remove.
The cute little nameko mushrooms were accompanied by oroshi daikon topped with shredded toasted nori. The firm-textured mushrooms were nutty in flavor and covered with a gooey gelatinous coating that didn't add much taste in itself. I splashed this with some soy sauce, mixed it all together and ate it with the pearly white hot rice. I liked the peppery taste and watery texture of the grated daikon wrapped around the mushrooms.
I found the very light and subtle miso soup cleansing. It had lots of flavorful wakame and some tofu cubes for interest.
The hamachi tartare (chopped yellowtail sashimi) blended with a paste of grated raw ginger and chopped scallions was the highlight. A little chewy gristle, but the fish was very fresh and full-flavored. Accompanied by lacy shreds of daikon and a whole shiso leaf, I added some soy sauce and the wasabi provided. The best bite was the one with combined with the floral shiso.
I've read that Saizo's owner/chef used to work at Tanto. While the menu features fewer cooking styles than Tanto, I've had a higher hit rate at Saizo so far and like it equally well. I'm looking forward to hearing what others recommend to keep up that batting average.
(next to Albertson's)
592 E. El Camino Real