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Restaurants & Bars 6

Saké O: Matsuhisa Alumnus in Healdsburg

Melanie Wong | Nov 24, 200302:36 AM

Saké O is the latest venture from Gary Chu, proprietor of Gary Chu’s Gourmet Chinese Cuisine and Osake (a Japanese restaurant) in Santa Rosa. Open two months, it has transformed the small space formerly occupied by Tastings Restaurant. The sushi bar seats seven and there are a small number of tables.

The chef, Kauru Ishii, was recruited from Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills. On a humming Saturday night, I found him very personable, humble and amazingly unruffled in the midst of it all. He manned the sushi bar, while directing the staff who were handling the grill, garnish, and fry stations. The set-up is less than ideal, as these two staff work behind him in a tight space, and orders coming out of the kitchen are passed through this space to the server counter. There’s lots of energy spent in trying to get out of the way. In addition, he fielded questions from the two servers who seemed to not yet be well-versed in the menu or Japanese cuisine (e.g., what is shiro maguro?), as well as coordinating with the hostess. Yet, he smiled and laughed the whole time, and was obviously enjoying the challenges of starting up a new restaurant.

The menu has many Nobu Matsuhisa-inspired fusion dishes such as ceviche, warm halibut carpaccio with olive oil, miso baked black cod, lobster salad, kobe beef tataki, flamed amaebi, various fish tartars served with osetra caviar, foie gras, rock shrimp tempura with spicy aioli, and more. It is quite different from Osake, which offers many sushi maki rolls and a soup to nuts survey of Japanese standards. There’s also a start of a wine list with local producers and premium sakes.

For my solo visit, I didn’t venture too far into the fusion preps, instead wanting to get a sense of the chef’s sushi basics and the quality of the fish he’s procuring.

The first taste was Spanish mackerel nigiri - smallish one and half bite size, right proportion of loosely compacted rice pad that was barely warm, carefully cut thick and tender filets scored through the silvery skin and splayed slightly for contrast of color and to provide a base for the garnishes of ginger and scallions, and dressed to a T with ponzu. The quality of the fish was outstanding. He passed this test with flying colors, and now I could relax and rely on his recommendations.

Other things I tried were:

Uni tempura – Kauru said that he’d ordered a special batch of Santa Barbara uni (the only kind I like). This was wrapped with a band of nori, battered and fried. With a squeeze of lemon and then dipped in pepper with coarse salt, the flavor was good but the coating was too soft and not frilly or quite cooked through. The tiny Latino lady manning the fry station needs a little more practice.

Engawa nigiri – Something I asked for, as it’s not on the sushi menu. The aromatic shiso leaf placed under the strip of halibut fluke was especially tender and fragrant. Kauru said that it was locally grown and that Sonoma County produces the lightest colored and most delicate shiso leaves he’s found – who knew! This was dressed with a bit of grated ginger and scallions with a drizzle of ponzu.

Warm hirame carpaccio with yuzu and warm olive oil (shown below) – The hirame was warmed and partially cooked by drizzling boiling hot olive oil over the slices. The dark garnishes are edible pansy petals. The balance of oil and yuzu tartness with the halibut was perfect.

Shimaaji nigiri – The yellow jack was very good quality, but a bit of tough gristle was left on one edge.

Mirugai nigiri – The giant clam was very fresh and sweet. The flesh was not quite scored enough to tenderize the crisp texture.

Ankimo – Kauru preps and steams the monk fish liver himself. A thick cylinder was quartered, then reassembled in a deep bowl and napped with ponzu sauce. It was topped with finely grated daikon stained orange from chili spice and some chopped scallions. This was my favorite bite.

I had a masu of Tamon Kinpaku Junmai Ginjo with gold flakes. This was placed on a saucer and poured generously. The overflow when returned to the cup was nearly a masu-ful. This cold sake was quite fresh and fruity with distinctive banana esters, off-dry sweetness, soft texture, and clean finish.

At two months, there were still many kinks to be worked out. Pacing was too slow, even though neither the restaurant nor the sushi bar was full. It took almost 1 1/2 hours for my meal because of the chef’s many interruptions and distractions. My green tea was not refilled. I was also disappointed in the dinnerware – clunky plain white porcelain – and the bare presentation of the plates. My bill was $70, including tax and service, and more consistency in preparation and artfulness should be presented at that price point.

At the same time, the potential that can be tapped here is very exciting. The staff is enthusiastic about bringing a new style of food to the area, and the chef is thrilled to be out of Los Angeles. This was a good start and I’ll be returning to try more of the repetoire.

Sake O
505 Healdsburg Ave.
Tuesday-Sunday, 11:30am - 2:30pm
Tues-Thurs & Sun, 5pm - 9:30pm
Fri & Sat, 5pm – 10pm


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