Maki mine sushi
Long ago in Kyoto, in a small sake house, two tipsy Japanese businessmen treated me to a sashimi feast: an assortment of raw chunks of sea creatures, which I couldn’t identify, arranged artfully on a block of ice. Except for the absence of the inebriated businessmen, the atmosphere at Kohnami Japanese Restaurant evoked that experience— a long wooden sushi bar manned by two burly Japanese chefs, warm wood throughout, and screen-printed hangings with Japanese motifs.
Opting for the sushi bar, we put ourselves in the flying hands of the authoritative figure who loomed over us from behind the glass display of fresh fish, which separated us from the chef’s flashing knife. Ignoring the extensive menu, we opted for the “chef’s choice,” and soon a blizzard of nigiri sushi began falling onto the platter before us. Nigiri are pieces of raw fish arranged atop seasoned rice balls into which a lump of wasabi — often referred to as Japanese horseradish because of the heat— is tucked. Most selections were that night’s specials: Norwegian salmon, sea bass — deliciously garnished with julienned curls of jalapeño pepper— sea urchin ( uni) tasting of iodine, torch-seared fatty tuna (toro), and a superb morsel the chef called Japanese snapper ( tai) that was sprinkled with rock salt and lemon and which he, while brandishing his knife, forbade us to dip in soy sauce.
Also came shrimp ( ebi), albacore tuna, and yellowtail ( hamachi), but our favorite was the mackerel ( saba) — briny and practically leaping into our mouths. We asked for a crunchy and sweet mixed-vegetable tempura sushi roll ( maki) after we saw the chef prepare one. We each received three slices of the generous roll bursting with the flavor of sweet potatoes, squash, and crunchy light batter.
He warned us to signal stop just in time; we were nearbursting at the gills. He treated us to a deconstructed orange— skinned citrus chunks served in an orangepeel vase— surrounded by sections of frozen red-bean and sticky rice ice cream that tasted like sweet melon. It was the perfect finish to this sea-creature debauch.
The flight of five sakes is a good value. It includes a sweet plum sake-like cordial for dessert, good for the digestion. The Horin (the highest grade or junmai daiginjo grade, made with the most highly polished rice) tasted, as our attentive host described it, “like water from heaven,” reminiscent of the aquavit often served with herring in Sweden. Others in the flight tasted variously starchy, fruity, or nutty, having been made with less-polished rice.
A tempura appetizer shared by four included vegetables and shrimp to which we added an order of soft-shell crab. They boasted a light, crispy batter my friend deemed the traditional cornstarch kind, not a heavier flour-based batter. A touch of oiliness kept the tempura from rating top honors, but not a morsel remained. Agedashi tofu (fried, coated in starch powder) tasted light and creamy in a delicious dipping sauce. Our four different noodle dishes arrived in four distinct broths — a good sign of attention to detail in the kitchen. Sukiyaki was my friend’s special birthday meal as a child. Slurping up the dish’s mung-bean glass noodles in a complex broth with undertones of fish stock and a variety of tender-crisp vegetables and mushrooms, I could see why. The cold soba (buckwheat) noodle bowl and the hot tempura/ udon noodle bowl came in close seconds, although the soba was a little too salty.
A Japanese kare (curry) udon bowl tasted too much like it was flavored with commercial curry powder with the usual overdose of turmeric for my taste. I had heard that Kohnami also serves Korean dishes, but when I asked the Korean-born host, he laughed, stating flatly that there is no real Korean food served at the restaurant. However, sizzling dolsot bibimbop (rice and other ingredients cooked in a stone pot), a Korean specialty, remains on the menu. As with the kare, it may be best to avoid anything that isn’t traditional Japanese. We left in happy agreement that Kohnami offers a beautifully presented and authentic taste of Japan on Guadalupe Street.