This is the Japanese restaurant that replaced Oiri, the downtown noodle house much missed by ramen lovers. The bad news is that there's no longer any ramen to be had. The good news is that there are plenty of other tasty things on the menu, many of them not so familiar in these parts.
Open since spring, it's one of three Tantos; the first opened a few years ago in San Jose, the third this year in Santa Clara. It's tidy, informal and small -- seven tables, four booths, some bench seating -- and it adjoins a lively karaoke bar to the north.
(So lively, at times, that you might want to sit at the south end of the restaurant. The entertainment during my last visit included a mismatched "Endless Love" -- small, whispery female voice vs. big, braying male voice. It was a duel to the death. "Your eyes, your eyes," he croaked at one point. Unspoken reply: "My ears, my ears!")
Tanto's owner, I'm told, is from Yamanashi-ken west of Tokyo; the food, however, is from no one region. It comes mostly in small plates, izakaya-style, and is to be shared. There are a few yoshoku dishes -- those adapted from Western cuisines, like at On the Bridge in J-town. Just about everything goes well with sake and beer, which flow freely here. There are about 15 kinds of sake, three or four brands of Japanese beer and several flavored shochu drinks.
At lunchtime there's a stripped-down menu of noodles, donburi and other items, but dinner is the main event. The dinner menu breaks down like this:
-- Appetizers range from the very simple -- edamame, sliced tomato, hiyayakko (cold seasoned tofu) -- to combinations such as kinoko mushroom with shungiku (chrysanthemum greens), tako (octopus) with kimchi, and uni tamago toji (sea urchin and tofu cooked with egg). I enjoyed the morokyu ($4.50), cold, crunchy wedges of Japanese cucumber with a deep brown, almost chocolatey sauce of hatcho miso.
-- Salads: Tai to mizuna ($9.50) is a big bowl of greens with a light, refreshing sesame-soy dressing and a generous serving of sea bream sashimi, excellent on one visit, a little stringy the next. "On yasai salad" ($6.95) is actually a substantial hot plate of kabocha, sweet potato, carrot, broccoli, enoki and shimeji mushrooms, and renkon (lotus root), simmered just long enough and lightly seasoned with sesame and black pepper. Other salads are wakame seaweed, spinach, daikon and potato.
-- House specialties: Listed first among them is sashimi moriawase ($16.50), which when I had it featured delicate tai, very tender tako and thick, meaty pieces of salmon and shiro maguro, served with a bit of shiso, shredded daikon and several kinds of seaweed. Buta kaku-ni ($6.50), a Nagasaki specialty, is intense and delicious: three fat chunks of pork cooked slowly in dashi seasoned with soy, ginger and mirin, so flavorful you don't really need the dab of hot mustard that comes on the side.
-- Fried dishes include tempura with anago (sea eel) and kisu (whiting), as well as moriawase; shrimp and crab croquettes; and aigamo tatsuta age ($6.50), five nuggets of tender, rich duck. I've also tried iwashi ume shiso age ($6.95), sardines seasoned with umeboshi (pickled Japanese apricot), wrapped in shiso, battered and fried, and served with a ponzu dipping sauce and a couple of small green shishitogarashi chiles; the play of flavors was great, the batter a tad heavy.
-- Broiled and baked dishes: The longest section of the menu is deep in seafood, including hokke (Atka mackerel), shishamo (smelt), tarabagani (king crab), ika (squid), sanma (pike or saury) and iwashi (either shioyaki, i.e. salted and grilled, or mirinboshi, i.e. seasoned with mirin and soy, slightly dried and grilled). Hard to go wrong here. A good choice is gindara yuan yaki ($7.25), moist black cod marinated in soy, sake and mirin, then broiled. A couple other options are grilled shiitake mushroom, a simple and delicious dish, and gyutan ($5.50), thin slices of salt-broiled beef tongue, seasoned with black pepper and served with lemon, tasty but on the tough side. Also listed in this category are several gratin-like dishes. Potato mentaiko yaki ($7.50) is hearty and comforting, the fish roe contributing salt and sea flavors but only a slight spiciness. It's topped with cheddar cheese, of all things, but it works.
-- Rice and noodles: The only sushi on the menu is oshizushi, the Kansai-style pressed variety, made here with saba or salmon ($6.50). It comes with ikura (salmon eggs) and shiso, a minty counterpoint to the fish. Among the noodle dishes are soba and udon -- kake (in soy-seasoned dashi) or zaru (with dipping sauce) -- and nabeyaki udon (in soup with chicken, shrimp tempura and egg). Rice is offered as yaki meshi (fried rice) with tai, uni or scallop; chazuke (with tea and seasonings); or nigiri, grilled or not (with umeboshi, salmon, bonito flakes, konbu seaweed or mentaiko). Any of these last dishes makes a satisfying end to a meal.
-- Stir-fried dishes: Tanto makes a handful of these, too, none of which I've had -- shrimp with chile, asparagus with bacon, pork with kimchi and clams with butter. Also on the menu: "garlic stake." Didn't try it, but if that mysterious vampire condition comes on again I certainly will.
120 Cyril Magnin St. (between Ellis and O'Farrell), San Francisco
Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Also at 1306 Saratoga Ave., San Jose, (408) 249-6020, and 3074 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, (408) 244-7311