When Steve Yen opened Bushido on Mountain View's Castro Street a decade ago, he wanted to expand local appreciation for the then-relatively unfamiliar concept of izakaya. Sometimes described as Japan's version of a tapas restaurant, izakaya establishments offer a convivial gathering spot for shared plates, drinking and socializing, often after work.
Bushido takes its name from the samurai code of honor, emphasizing attributes like loyalty, compassion and courage. "Flexibility" might not be one of the eight virtues of bushido, but the quality seems to have served Yen well as a restaurateur.
"I originally conceived Bushido with the intention of showing people how much more there is to Japanese cuisine than sushi," he said. "We didn't plan to serve sushi. But customers just kept asking for California rolls."
So he put in a sushi bar. And then went full throttle on sushi and sashimi, with an expansive, creative menu and a commitment to using only sustainable seafood.
"You have to adapt to what the customer wants," said Yen, a San Francisco resident who grew up in Los Altos and graduated from the San Francisco Culinary Academy.
Ten years on, Bushido still feels energetic and fresh. The place is often jam-packed, especially at happy hour, when trendy cocktails run $6 and patrons share reasonably priced and generously portioned small plates. Live jazz during Saturday dinners adds a festive vibe.
Diners are handed a stack of menus upon sitting down in the simply appointed dining room: happy hour food and drinks, a sushi menu and a full dinner menu. In short, there are a lot of choices at Bushido, from ramen to yakitori (including tendons, cartilage and chicken hearts) to the house specialty, okonomiyaki, a savory, sizzling, saucy pancake. There are a number of vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options.
All meals begin with otoshi, a chef's choice nibble to whet the appetite. One visit started with a diminutive bowl of sautéed cabbage and pear, topped with ponzu. At another meal, we received smoky, bite-sized chunks of grilled eggplant.
Service during all three visits was warm and attentive, with one server going above the call of duty during a happy hour visit to ensure my gluten-free dining companion was well cared for. An elderflower sour cocktail made with Maker's Mark whiskey, St. Germain, yuzu and angostura bitters ($11; $6 at happy hour) indeed made me happy. This bold, creative libation would have been at home in the trendiest hotel bar at double the price.
Sushi and sashimi might have been something of an add-on at Bushido, but Yen and his executive chef Iwao Suzuki (formerly of Blowfish Sushi) elevate the experience and lessen the guilt through their focus on sustainable sourcing. Instead of the normally ubiquitous salmon, for example, they employ ocean trout: pink, delicate and sustainably farmed in Tasmania. Salmon is served occasionally, when it is in season. They procure bluefin tuna from Japanese purveyors that have pioneered methods for farm-raising the open-ocean fish.
The harakiri roll ($13; $9 at happy hour) is a crunchy, fusion extravaganza, stuffed with crab, spicy tuna and shrimp tempura, wrapped in a delicate soy paper and topped with toasted rice for a delightful crunch in each bite. But be warned: This roll hides a devious little secret. One of the six pieces contains ghost pepper. The fun is supposed to be in seeing who at the table will happen upon that fiery morsel and subsequently gulp down a half pitcher of water, eyes bulging, as I did.
The miso marinated cod ($24.50) was a far more subtle and refined experience. The serving was on the skimpy side, but the fish was delicate and beautifully caramelized, reminiscent of Nobu's famous (and much pricier) dish. A small skewer of tender beef tongue ($4.50) was met initially with trepidation but then appreciation around our table.
Savory and fragrant, the three-mushroom fried rice ($10) was a favorite, studded with enoki, shiitake and shimeji mushrooms. Deeply flavorful and moist without being oily, the dish still could have benefited from a more generous hand with the mushrooms.
I was far less enamored of the poke special ($7) on offer during one happy hour visit. A few morsels of flavorless ahi were sprinkled atop corn chips -- a complete misfire.
The house specialty okonomiyaki, a savory, frittata-like dish, is made with flour, eggs, shredded cabbage and a host of other ingredients, fried and served on a hot skillet. Diners can order it traditional ($12) or Hiroshima-style ($15), layered with eggs and egg noodles. Add-ons such as shrimp, kimchee, crab, bacon or mochi run an extra $2 to $5. Both versions are liberally topped with Japanese mayo, bonito flakes and other sauces. I didn't care for this saucy, somewhat mushy pizza-pancake hybrid, but my hunch is okonomiyaki is a bit of an acquired taste. It is not a dish one sees often in local Japanese restaurants, and it certainly speaks to Yen's original goal of showcasing lesser-known Japanese specialties.
156 Castro St., Mountain View
Lunch: Tuesday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 1:45 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday-Sunday, 5-9:30 p.m., Friday 5-10:30 p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Outdoor seating: Limited
Parking: Street and garage
Alcohol: Full bar
Happy hour: Tuesday-Friday, 5-6:30 p.m.
Corkage: $15 per bottle
Noise level: Moderate