Maki mine sushi

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review -

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.

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