Inspired by the lively discussion of Japanese restaurants currently on the boards, I pulled out my notes from the sushi tour that began last fall. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, they didnt get posted, but perhaps what I can remember is of some value still and will invite additional discussion and more recent reports.
* * * * *
Wandering over to the address Id been given for Le Poisson Japonais in downtown Palo Alto to meet up with my friend, Vince, I was surprised to find an unmarked storefront. A couple photocopied pieces of paper taped on the windows with hours of operation and the water tinkling in the stone fountain at the entrance were the only clues of any business activity here. This was September 13, 2001, two days after Americas great tragedy. Vince and I had decided that life must go on --- eating well was a big part of that --- and we kept our reservation.
Stepping inside for the first time, I was surprised at how cramped the layout was with bare tables touching each other in tightly packed rows. It reminded me of a company cafeteria. Soon the maitre d spotted us and called out, Vinny-san, Vinny-san, welcome back! Kenji himself was an even bigger surprise --- attired in the most precious of bright green suits and bubbling over with infectious enthusiasm. He offered us a choice of places and we took the seats at the end of the sushi bar that he said would be the most quiet. I was happy to not be stuffed into one of the narrow rows of tables and chairs.
Vince explained that the innovation here is the unique combination and exquisite balance of garnishes and special sauces paired with each fish preparation. The executive chef has created a varied menu of tataki (seared filets), usuzukuri (paper-thin carpaccio-like slices), tartare (chopped), and grilled fish dishes, plus sushi and sashimi prepared by the crew of sushi chefs. The other unique feature is the extensive sake list with complete descriptions of each selection. Since we were on our way to a Pinot Noir tasting afterwards, we did not partake, but I made a mental note to return for a sake education soon.
Our server was nice enough but unable to answer our questions about the menu. Soon Kenji was back at our side to help us navigate the specials. He also offered us tastes of two wine-by-the-glass selections, 1999 Bruno Hunold Riesling (Alsace) and 1999 Cartlidge & Brown Merlot, both of which are well-suited for the cuisine.
The whitefish carpaccio special of the day featured tai (Japanese snapper), hirame (flounder) and shimaji (striped jack), each with a unique sauce preparation and garnishes of minced seasonings or micro-greens. Tiny dots and rivulets of exotically scented oils and dabs of sauce adorned the presentation. This was my favorite of the evening --- next time Ill want a plate for myself and not have to share. The other daily special wed ordered was the eel tempura. Described by Kenji as using a lighter batter to not weigh down the delicate flesh, this preparation also seemed to remove the richness and flavor. This was my least favorite of the evening.
Stewed kabocha pumpkin offered a welcome vegetable break. Vince felt the dashi braising liquid was not as intricate as his previous visit. Shiro maguro tataki (seared white tuna) was very nice with its ginger and ponzu sauce accompaniment, however, Vince said that Tomi Sushis is even better. The last item from the kitchen was Chilean sea bass marinated with miso and napped with a celadon-tinged shiso sauce. This was fabulous but a guilty pleasure. To assuage my feelings, I said,
M - Vince, I cant believe that you, Mr. Environmentalist, would order this.
V I didnt, you did. Someone else ordered it the last time. You should be boycotting Chilean sea bass.
M But you recommended it! Why are you eating it now?
V - Im only helping you get rid of the evidence, here, have another bite.
Then he turned to the sushi chef to ask in Japanese for his recommendations. The case was fairly bare due to the embargo on air shipments, and some of the items looked less than fresh. I had to have shiro maguro which was fast-becoming my favorite sushi fish. The nigiri pieces were of small size with only a little pad of rice almost as an accent. Good, but not as good as my memory of Hama-kos. Next was saba (marinated mackerel) nigiri which was excellent. The saba is pickled in-house and had a more subtle rather than biting flavor. I asked Vince to inquire about hirame fluke for me, provoking him to say,
V Who have you been eating sushi with?
M What do you mean? Are you accusing me of sushi promiscuity?
V No, no, its just that this is a homey thing. It wouldnt be offered to you if you were not with someone who is Japanese.
M Well, if you must know, I probably had it at Mikaku on Grant years ago. Thats where I first tried hamachi kama, cold soba, and other interesting things.
We watched our sushi chef shear the fatty fin tissue off the bone in a long pearly white strip. Then he cut it into serving size pieces, scored them, and molded the nigiri. We ended with this last small taste. Our bill for dinner was $100.
Le Poisson Japonais
642 Ramona St. (at Hamilton)