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Monday, May 2, 2011

April Food Excursion: Confessions of a Sushi Virgin

Most foodies by definition have a fairly open mind, willing taste buds and are adventurous when it comes to trying new bites. However, I have never warmed up to eating any protein that has not had at least some heat applied to it. I know, it is practically anti-American to not be on the sushi bandwagon. I suspect that we are now eating more sushi here than they do in Japan. So what happens when everyone wants to go out and grab some sushi? I usually just tag along and opt for the steamed white rice and tempura platter.

When my foodie friend, Stacie Tamaki, and I were discussing where this month's food excursion should be we instantly got onto the subject of sushi. She was bit surprised that I am not big on sushi but also pleased that my mind was open to exploring other areas of Japanese cuisine. After all, Stacie is a Japanese American and passionate for food so she is well qualified to help me explore and expand on this food genre. We both prefer to eat less meat so we are a logical pairing in this quest for discovering great vegetarian Japanese cuisine.

Adding to our advantage is the plethora of Asian restaurants right here in Silicon Valley. We began our journey at one of the area's nicest Japanese restaurants called Mizu.

Mizu sits right on busy Winchester Boulevard on the border of Campbell and San Jose but as soon as you enter the inviting decor transcends you to a happy place. Everything about this restaurant is right. The lighting, furnishings, signage, staff and, of course, the food. We started off with their complimentary miso soup which was a surprise and very nice touch.

Stacie was most eager for me to try their Agedashi Tofu. For me tofu is tricky. Because it is light on flavor the texture is everything and sometimes it just doesn't cut it. At Mizu they delicately deep fry it so there it is perfectly crispy on the outside. It was a generous portion served in a savory broth and so satisfying it could have been a whole meal by itself.

Our excursion was just beginning with much more food ahead so we had only one other dish at Mizu called Wakame or Seaweed Salad. It was bright, crunchy and had a tasty sesame dressing that perfected complemented the seaweed.

Our next stop was at the Campbell location of a Santa Clara County three store restaurant chain called Kazoo.

Even though I've shied away from sushi I admit the concept of sushi boat service is brilliant. How much fun is it to watch the flotilla of little boats parade by you with all of those morsels tempting you to help yourself?

Stacie ordered a couple of vegetarian rolls (Maki) shown here. We enjoyed the Umekyu (plum) and Cucumber (front) and also Oshinko which is pickled Daikon radish on the blue plate. They were a great combination of a little sweet Daikon and the really tart Umekyu.

I chose the "Santa Cruz" which was a tempura shrimp in the center of a maki roll topped with avocado. A generous side of Wasabi and Ginger was served at each place setting.

Japanese chefs take a lot of pride in presentation. The attention to detail is superb. It is almost impossible not to eat with your eyes first. Obviously a lot of care and dexterity went into crafting these Santa Cruz rolls. The extra step of using a tempura cooked shrimp in the roll was especially appealing to me because I really do love the spirit of this food but still prefer not to eat raw fish. I was surprised to learn there are cooked options available in sushi dining at I love that choice.

The folks at Kazoo definitely have a sense of humor and slip in a few unexpected treats on their boats. For the record we did not partake in the chocolate cake but rather just enjoyed watching it float by.

Our next stop was to hit Japantown. San Jose is home to one of only three Japantowns in the United States. Our first stop was for ramen. Unfortunately, the popularity of packaged Top Ramen on the grocery shelf is what so often comes to mind first. Fortunately, Stacie knew exactly where to go for ramen that is the real deal. Kumako Ramen is right in the heart of Japantown and is where you go when you want a ramen experience. As this picture of our vegetarian ramen tells the whole story. This ramen is neither your grocery nor garden variety. The portion was huge. The broth was super savory and I will return here just to enjoy a whole bowl of this by myself for lunch. It is totally satisfying but also feels like a healthy choice.

Great ramen is not the only thing you find at Kumako Ramen. They are also known for their Una Don which is broiled eel on top of rice with ginger and a special sauce. It tasted like it just came off a wood fired grill and I noticed every other customer had ordered it too. It was so tender that it kind of reminded me of slow cooked pork that would just fall off the bone.

The perfect side dish with Una Don is the Daikon salad with carrots. It is cool and crunchy like a nice slaw with a savory miso dressing.

Anyone still have room for dessert? Stacie's plan to round off our Japantown experience was right next door at Shuei-Do Manju Shop.

Manju is a popular Japanese confection. There are many varieties but most of them are made from flour, rice and buckwheat on the outside and have a filling made from azuki beans and sugar inside. The texture is crazy good. It is like eating a big soft jelly bean. Although you can get them in Japanese specialty markets and on-line none compare to the made-from-scratch fresh version sold here at Shuei-Do.

The only thing left to do at this point was to hit the streets of Japantown and walk off all that incredible food we just ate. Stacie had yet another really cool place to show me called Nikaku Japanese Arts.

Nikaku is tucked around the corner from the main drag so it is easy to miss but it is also full of great art objects and gifts. If you are looking for something truly unique that definitely does not say "chain store", Nikaku is the place.

I bought this really cool "dual" vase and knew that it would be the perfect memento of my day of Japanese cuisine and culture.

Big thanks go out to Stacie Tamaki for a great education on Japanese food. With the current crisis in Japan it was especially nice to sample the cuisine and support the local Japantown merchants. Although I am far from becoming an aficionado I have certainly expanded my taste buds and appreciation of the cuisine. My parting shot at Kazoo Sushi Boat really says it all. It's sushi o'clock somewhere.

More Food Adventures:

January - The Eats of San Francisco:
February - A Tasty Tour of Santa Cruz
March - The Cowgirl Creamery
April - Confessions of a Sushi Virgin
May - Best of the East Bay
June - Palo Alto Eateries
July - Cheap Eats & Secret Menus

1 comment:

  1. This was such a fun day! And you were a great dining daredevil. Your willingness to try so many new things all at once was great. I'd hoped you would like half of the dishes. I didn't expect you would like all of them :D