Aes­thetic prop­er­ties

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Lau­rel Glad­den For The New Mex­i­can

De­spite be­ing based on the iza­kaya, Ja­pan’s equiv­a­lent of a ca­sual bar, Izanami, the gor­geous restau­rant at the Ten Thou­sand Waves spa, feels more like a Church of Food. Wood beams with gen­tle, wonky nat­u­ral curves span the soar­ing cathe­dral ceil­ing of the din­ing room, where win­dows ad­mit soft nat­u­ral light. The set­ting is im­pres­sive, no ques­tion, but once the art­fully plated, mostly de­li­cious food ar­rives at your ta­ble, it — not the dé­cor — will be what you want to med­i­tate on.

You might sit at the long cen­tral com­mu­nity ta­ble next to some­one who has just padded over from the spa in a robe and slip­pers, in a roomy booth, at a win­dow-side ta­ble with a stun­ning moun­tain view, or in the serene tatami room. When the weather is warm, the bal­cony beck­ons with a San­gre de Cristo vista that’s both awe-in­spir­ing and calm­ing.

Ear­lier this year, found­ing chef Kim Müller took her leave, after an im­pres­sive start that gar­nered Izanami a James Beard Foun­da­tion nom­i­na­tion for best new restau­rant. David Pad­berg of Port­land, Ore­gon, took the reins. The menu is chang­ing, and, while it still fo­cuses on small share­able plates, some orig­i­nal selections re­main, and dishes are still grouped by type: hot, cold, fried, grilled, and sweet.

The pork-loin cut­let (tonkatsu), for ex­am­ple, is a main­stay, but th­ese days it’s juicier, more ten­der, and more del­i­cately bat­tered than be­fore. The slather­ing of thick, bit­ter­sweet miso- katsu sauce risks over­pow­er­ing the meat, even if it does have fan­tas­tic in­ter­play with the hot mus­tard side. The crunchy, earthy bur­dock­car­rot-sesame salad is still here, which is fine with me, since I’d like to eat it ev­ery day for the rest of my life.

The day’s pick­les might in­clude near-per­fect beets cured in cider vine­gar and spices; a sat­is­fac­tory kim­chi with a mildly spicy brine; or crunchy, salty turnips. On one visit, the more-tra­di­tional cu­cum­bers were small and limp, with a thick, milky sake-based coat­ing that lacked salin­ity or acid­ity.

Per­fectly fried and pip­ing hot squash and av­o­cado tem­pura is a won­der­ful bar-food-like snack, as are shichimi fries dusted with tog­a­rashi and served with a glis­ten­ing, re­mark­ably creamy yuzu aioli. Spring-green and emer­ald Brussels-sprout leaves tossed with sweet pear and a sprightly vinai­grette make a lovely start to a meal or a re­fresh­ing sub­sti­tute for dessert. The cu­cum­ber-wakame salad, on the other hand, was life­less and bland — and over­priced at $9. Also on the spendy side is the spinach salad, a hand­ful of fresh greens, shimeji mush­rooms, ba­con, cashews, and a spar­ingly ap­plied tofu dress­ing. The plate should be twice as big to jus­tify that $10 price tag.

The kitchen does bet­ter work with pro­teins. In the tofu den­gaku, smooth, almost milky-tast­ing cubes of soy are skew­ered and topped with a funky-fruity yuzu-miso glaze. Fatty-as-you-wan­tit-to-be ground chicken-thigh meat, also skew­ered, is rich and sa­vory, tex­tured and sea­soned almost like sausage. Our pork belly had a nearly ideal meat-to-fat ra­tio and was smoky and ten­der and bril­liantly off­set by the sharp­ness of an ap­ple kim­chi and pick­led cel­ery. The gy­oza are meat-cen­tric, stuffed with plenty of soft, mild pork rather than the typ­i­cal cab­bage filler. Th­ese purse­like dumplings were ten­der on one side, seared and golden-crisp on the other, cre­at­ing a wel­come tex­tu­ral con­trast.

The menu still thought­fully in­cludes a Wagyu beef burger served on a ten­der brioche bun. To amp up the deca­dence, you can top it with sweet caramelized onions, melted asadero cheese, and thick slices of Beeler’s ba­con from Iowa. Be aware, though, that this will re­sult in an $18.50 burger.

Also on the hearty side are the noo­dles. The curry-beef udon is less soupy than you might ex­pect — almost like the guts of an Asian pot­pie, with veg­gies, hunks of ten­der short rib, and rubbery noo­dles in a sticky gravy. The pork ra­men is a sat­is­fy­ing bowl of rich, mel­low brown broth, ropy noo­dles, slices of pork, seaweed rib­bons, and a halved boiled egg, its lus­cious, gor­geously golden yolk still soft and gelati­nous.

Izanami’s im­pres­sive sake list is also grouped into cat­e­gories: “fra­grant, bright”; “clean, re­fined”; “rich, mel­low”; and “earthy, bold.” You can sam­ple each in flights of three, served in lovely two-ounce glasses. Izanami also serves wine; Sap­poro on tap; Ja­panese mi­cro-brews; var­i­ous teas; and a michelada, the clas­sic beer-based bev­er­age given a punchy, sa­vory spin here with the ad­di­tion of sesame and soy.

Ser­vice seems to be Izanami’s main stum­bling block. On one re­cent visit, though the din­ing room was half full, we waited at least 10 min­utes for our server to greet us and of­fer wa­ter. When our sec­ond round of dishes was de­liv­ered, old, ob­vi­ously empty plates were nudged out of the way to make room for the new rather than sim­ply be­ing re­moved from the ta­ble. One dish we or­dered was over­looked — but, hey, th­ese things hap­pen. Din­ers don’t want a bar­rage of lame ex­cuses when this hap­pens, though. Trust me, we would rather spend that time con­tem­plat­ing — and de­vour­ing — our de­li­cious food.

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