Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Turning Japanese - Sumika Kushiyaki Grill & Sake, Los Altos CA

To most Americans the term “Japanese Food” conjures up an image of a Teppanyaki type of joint like Benihana wherein a caricature of Japanese cookery is put on display for millions of open gobbed rubes annually. There are Teppanyaki joints that are quite authentic to tradition….but Benihana isn’t one of them. My disdain of places like this is the same as the disdain I hold for the lion’s share of chain restaurants. Benihana is to Japanese food as Chili’s is to Mexican and Olive Garden is to Italian. There is no amount of kitschy décor that can make lousy food created to appease the masses seem even remotely authentic.

To a much smaller subset of Americans however “Japanese Food” equals Sushi with a smattering of Bento style cooked presentations and for the very bold, perhaps an Udon or a Don bowl. Sadly this is all most of us have access to. But there is more….and dear friends if you, like me, enjoy the flavor profiles of Japanese cooking but crave a more carnivorously centric palate from which to make your selections there is an answer….and a very authentically Japanese one at that.

Tucked away in a tiny backstreet in Los Altos, CA is Sumika Kushiyaki Grill & Sake. Recently awarded an Honorable Mention by the prestigious Michelin Guide, they specialize in traditional Kushiyaki (grilled on a skewer) and Yakitori and feature all of the traditional preparations combined with a number of other creative twists on the theme.

Yakitori in its purest sense is the preparation of bits of chicken meat or chicken offal skewered on bamboo and cooked via grilling over a small, but blazing hot charcoal fire. In order to be absolutely authentic Sumika imports binchotan Kashiwa charcoal derived from a Japanese strain of evergreen oak. According to GM/Executive chef Yoshiyuki Maruyama the charcoals intense heat combines with a uniquely flavored smoke to impart the appropriate flavors into the simple, but very high quality ingredients. The servings are generally pretty small, so order up a variety of interesting Sake or a few large Sapporo and think of it as a tapas sort of meal where you and your dinner mates order a bunch of small plates to share and compare.

Our selections for the evening:

We started with a house made Miso Mozzarella Cheese appetizer. The texture was certainly firmer than any traditional Italian Mozzarella, but it had a very creamy mouth feel and the Miso gave it a particularly earthy and rich flavor.

Next up was a simply brilliant Red Miso Soup with asari clam. I’d never had this type of Miso soup. Richer and more flavorful than the more common Miso, this would be perfect on a cold day. The asari clams were an interesting surprise, sweet and tender and perfectly cooked in the Miso broth.

The next dish was an Agedashi Tofu. Tofu, lightly fried in a rice oil topped with a seasoned chicken sausage crumble and served in a bowl of sakura shrimp stock. The tofu was silky and the addition of the chicken sausage gave the dish a very hearty “winter comfort food” character. Beautifully presented as well, though my photo does it no justice.

Keeping with the seasonal theme our server next presented us with what he described as a “Winter Tempura” consisting of a number of different root vegetables and mushrooms. Rich, earthy and again, beautifully served.

Moving back in a more carnivorous direction our server brought us a plate of Nankotsu. Tiny popcorn sized nuggets of braised, then fried chicken cartilage. There is a bit of meat on each, but the real flavor comes from the collagen broken down from the cartilage by the braising process. Very intense chicken flavor with just the right amount of spicy heat.

The final precursor to the Yakitori is Sumika’s signature Karaaage appetizer. These amazing little morsels of fried organic chicken are not to be missed. Not at all like a chicken katsu which has a heavy coating of egg and panko, Sumika’s Karaage is lightly dusted in seasoned rice flour and fried in canola. The rustic chunks of thigh meat are not the least bit greasy but are light, crisp extremely juicy and absolutely delicious particularly with a small squirt of the accompanying lemon. Sumika also serves a larger portion with miso soup, salad and Japanese pickles on their lunch menu.

Now, onto the Yakitori. First up was the hatsu (chicken heart). Six of these little joyous nuggets of chicken offal are offered on each skewer perfectly grilled so as to be cooked through, but not the least bit tough. Each is brushed with a delicious tare sauce. 

Next was a selection of mune (chicken breast meat) skewers each with a unique seasoning. One skewer each with wasabi, sour plum sauce, cheddar cheese and peanut coconut sauce. I found the cheddar rather oily and the wasabi somewhat overpowered the taste of the chicken, but peanut coconut sauce and sour plum were both fantastic. The plum sauce was by far the star out of the four.

The next dish was a skewer of asuparabekon (asparagus wrapped in pork belly).  Pretty tough to go wrong when you wrap something in bacon and cook it over fire and this is no exception. Really delicious.

The penultimate dish was a Kobe beef skewer. Cooked just past medium rare and glazed with a thick miso paste this was among the better beef preparations I’ve ever tasted. Juicy and gob-smacking intense beef flavor. Just perfect.

I asked the server to save this one for last – Tontoro (pork cheek). This skewer is presented without any sauce. Just firm, delicious, perfectly seasoned bits of pork meat and fat grilled quickly and at an absurd temperature. The bits are small enough that they are easy to chew, a piece of cheek any larger than this cooked this way would be very tough. Amazingly intense pork flavor with just the right amount of char on the edges and enough salt to really get your salivary glands working overtime but not enough to overpower the flavor of the pork. Astonishingly good. 

I could have eaten 3 of these but by this point we were getting full and our server had told us to save room for their deserts.

The first desert offering was a roasted green tea crème brulee. Sorry about the photo, I dug right in and had a big spoonful of it before I remembered to take a picture. Creamy, and very brightly flavored, the roasted tea gives it a slightly astringent quality that works nicely against the creamy texture. 

The final desert was Sumkia’s signature desert offering, frozen custard pudding. The pudding is brulee’d then frozen before being cut into amazingly perfect 1cm cubes and served in a beautiful stemless martini glass with a bit of whipped crème fraiche and seasonal berries. 

I’m usually not one to get desert after a mostly meat meal, but both of these offerings are very special and light enough that I wasn’t left feeling weighed down after the meal.

The prices at Sumika are absurdly friendly, particularly given their location. $6-$10 for the appetizer dishes which are pretty generous portions alone, $4-$10 for the various salads and $2.50-$4.50 for each of the yakitori skewers. Their selection of sake is a bit pricey but the quality of the offerings is among the best I’ve had.

In summation; Sumika offers a very authentic Japanese dinning experience. Their wait staff is entirely Japanese and is skilled and very knowledgeable about the menu. The quality of the ingredients is unmatched by any other Japanese eatery in this area and the prices are amazingly reasonable. 

Sumika Kushiyaki Grill & Sake
236 Central Plaza
Los Altos, CA 94022
Phone: 650-917-1822
(Reservations HIGHLY Recommended) 

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