If an izakaya can be a candy shop, this one is it
By Lesa Griffith
Special to The Advertiser
By Lesa Griffith
You can go to your favorite restaurants only so many times before you start thinking a trip to San Francisco is in order to re-awaken a bored palate.
That's when belatedly discovering an under-the-radar gem is mana from heaven. In-the-know izakaya addicts already flock to Sushi Izakaya Gaku, opened last year by chef-owner Manabu Kikuchi, a 10-year veteran of Imanas Tei. Kikuchi's spot shares some aspects with the university-area favorite: You can make reservations only for 5 to 7 p.m. Thereafter, you inevitably have to cool your heels on the sidewalk outside; the staff is genial and accommodating; the interior is traditional with a modern edge (even the maneki neko is a cool stylized gold cat).
The food is where Kikuchi veers off in his own direction.
While Imanas Tei keeps things simple (classic Japanese dishes impeccably prepared), at Gaku, Kikuchi has broadened his range with a multitude of alluring items, along with a nightly specials list. That's where you should focus your attention — past nights have yielded kurobuta pork ($9) that was simmered and then given tempura treatment (pray that it is on the menu when you go) and scallops that are fried, then bathed in a vinegary sauce ($4.50).
To say that eating at Gaku is like being a kid in a candy shop may be a cliche, but that really is the feeling that overcomes diners. The place induces a bad case of Eyes Bigger Than the Stomach Syndrome. Do I really have to choose between spicy negihama tartare ($9.50) and the luxuriously textured natto, 'ahi, uni and yamaimo with two kinds of egg (ikura and quail, $12.50)? With both dishes, you mix up the ingredients and spoon the goop onto a rectangle of crackling crisp nori, then wait for your eyelids to stop fluttering after that first pleasurable bite. The negihama tartare (a mixture of finely chopped fish, mayonnaise, sambal, sesame oil and a "secret ingredient," according to the sushi chef, who looks strikingly like Speed Racer) is topped with tobiko and a raw quail egg and as you bite through the nori crunch, you experience bursts of roe as your tongue plies through the creaminess.
You'll also find the usual standards such as karaage chicken and rib-eye steak, but seafood really is the highlight here. You'll even find it on a baked potato — Kikuchi tops a steaming spud with mentaiko (marinated pollack roe) and it's a no-frills winner. A nice, warm starchy-salty interlude amid all the fresh sea creatures.
Then there's the sushi. Kikuchi's one-bite-size jewels already made Imanas Tei the next best thing if you can't afford Sasabune or Nobu. He continues the tradition at Gaku and improves upon it by having nightly special options — say kohada, o-toro (flawless), halibut, a saba that oozes delectable oiliness in your mouth. So many sushi houses here have the same hamachi-maguro-ebi playlist, it is a relief to have fish diversity.
Charles Lloyd, John Coltrane and other jazz masters are on the speakers, and the woody interior of the small room (a trio of four-tops and two two-tops, plus two tatami-room tables) makes you feel like you're a member of a low-key private club, and boy does it feel good.
Kikuchi is behind the 11-seat sushi counter with two other quick-to-laugh chefs. It's the kind of place where if none of the salads on the menu appeals, one of the chefs will volunteer something that's not listed. One night an offering was a grilled salmon salad. The fish was expertly seared, so the black crosses were visible, but the inside was still sashimi-soft and flavorful. Pink rectangles topped a mountain of greens tossed with a vinegary ponzu dressing.
End a meal with a chazuke or hot udon with yamaimo and egg ($6.50) — one of the chefs makes the dashi fresh every day. After slurping the fat noodles and resonant broth, you'll be ready to be tucked in and say nighty-night.
Lesa Griffith, former Advertiser assistant features editor, reviews restaurants for TGIF once a month.