Palo Alto Weekly

Eating Out - July 23, 2010

More than just sushi rolls

Bushido Izakaya gives you ample time to sample small plates and unusual flavors

by Andrew MacLeod Doerschuk

If you want to quickly fill your belly, go elsewhere. But if you want to sample delicacies that challenge preconceptions in an elegant and relaxing setting, visit Bushido Izakaya.

"In America, when people think of Japanese restaurants, they think of California rolls," says Steven Yen, the young, casually untucked visionary who opened the restaurant last March. "But there is so much more to Japanese food than sushi."

In Japan, according to Yen, you're much more likely to stumble upon an Izakaya house than a sushi bar. "It's essentially a drinking house," he says. "People drop by after work, spend several hours drinking beer and sake and ordering appetizers and small plates."

So a night of Izakaya really isn't about dinner after all. It's a lifestyle, which Bushido wholeheartedly embodies. With its dark wood paneling, playful Japanese noren drapes, a sweeping full-service bar and delightfully personable servers, it's a place to unwind, meet friends and forget about the grind for a while: a rare commodity in high-velocity Silicon Valley.

And yet food remains Bushido's central focus. Appetizers are tiny works of art, meticulously prepared to gratify the eye as well as the palette. Each manner of serving platter — square, round, oval, of various hues — is carefully selected to frame a deftly sculpted tidbit.

During a recent visit, the arrival of every plate elicited happy gasps from my captivated dinner guests. That's a reaction relished by Yen, who encourages executive chef Steve Futagaki to experiment freely with traditional Japanese cuisine. Don't be surprised if the menu slightly changes on subsequent visits.

And don't drop by Bushido on the way to the airport. You couldn't eat quickly if you wanted to. Each plate is served individually, so as not to overwhelm the table. The slow pace invites interaction. Hot things stay hot and cool things cool. Yet our service was expeditious and choreographed, and never left us waiting for another course to arrive.

On our first plate, three small, warm crab croquettes ($6.95) offset a flaky panko crust against a creamy mashed potato and Havarti cheese filling. With a dab of the accompanying Worcestershire-flavored tonkatsu sauce — Bushido makes every sauce by hand, except mustard — the dish only hinted at the flavor of crab. We soon would learn that everything at Bushido was delicate and subtle.

Even Bushido's vegetable tempura ($6.95), which was altogether conventional, save for a refreshing deep-fried sprig of parsley, was perfectly light and crispy.

Yen shrugs. "You have to have tempura."

See, he's realistic — he even borrowed the family recipe for kim chee gyoza ($5.45) from the mother of a childhood friend. These plump dumplings tasted vaguely smoky, stuffed with kim chee, cabbage, chives and ground pork.

The cold salad ohitashi ($5.95) arrived as boiled spinach mounds topped with sesame seeds and bonito flakes, which informed its sweet katsu sauce with a vaguely fishy under-taste.

Breaded and lightly fried, our fillet katsu ($7.45) featured two succulent pork cutlets, left to rest after deep frying to seal-in juices. The meat was cut into small slices, and accompanied by sliced cabbage, tonkatsu sauce and mustard.

Cut into thin slices of tenderloin, Bushido's tender beef tataki ($10.45) rocked the table. It was quickly seared and served cold with chopped green onion, and red and yellow onion slices in a sweet and piquant ponzu sauce.

Yen laughed when asked about his okra and potato yama imo salad ($5.95). Sliced, served cold in a ponzu sauce and topped with bonito flakes, it had a texture that was decidedly ...

"Slimy?" Yen finishes the sentence. It's an acquired taste, to be sure. One of my guests adored it. I needed only a bite. "We were hesitant to put it on the menu," he admits.

Ever more daring, we also ordered chicken hearts ($4.45). Grilled with salt and pepper and served with a lemon wedge, they arrived on two double-pronged skewers, each holding four tiny hearts. With some trepidation, I removed one from the skewer and popped it into my mouth. Dense and leathery. I gnawed through muscle, chambers and ventricles. It tasted oddly bland. Not at all like chicken.

We closed the evening with an order of rather average vanilla panna cotta ($6.95) — an eggy flan topped by a strawberry slice — and a shot of Tengumail Yamahai ($13), one of many options on Busido's remarkable sake menu.

Yen personally over-poured our selection into a glass, allowing the clear rice alcohol to spill into its serving box. "It signifies abundance," he explained. We nodded, gladly sipping the remaining nutty-tasting sake out of the small black box, while promising ourselves to be back very soon.

Bushido Izakaya

156 Castro St.

Mountain View, CA 94041

650-386-6821

bushidoizakaya.com

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