Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Taste of Yanagi Japanese Bistro

Furikake Popcorn Shrimp
Salmon Sushi with Avocado, Red Onions, Shaved Bonito
Spicy Garlic Tuna Tataki Sushi
Warm Springs Roll with Rice Paper

Yanagi Japanese Bistro of Redondo Beach

Named after the Japanese word for willow tree, Yanagi Japanese Bistro is a quaint, casual affair situated on the main thoroughfare of Artesia in Redondo Beach.

Although not exactly a formal dining establishment, Yanagi is certainly a more upscale alternative to the fast food-style “Rice Things” Japanese dive just across the street, where one can pick up simple rolls of pickled radish or gourd for just $2.99, or sushi combinations served with miso soup that start at $7.99.

The menu at Yanagi is fancier than that, and while its wall menu boasts traditional sushi fare such as toro, blue fin and uni, there are also a few surprises, such as furikake popcorn shrimp for $11 (six curly pieces of shrimp tempura slathered with a sweet mayonnaise sauce and dusted with seasoned seaweed bits known as furikake), and albacore sashimi with crispy onions for $14.

I notice the chef preparing salmon sushi laden with avocado and shaved bonito, and my mind flashes back to something similar I once saw at Koi Restaurant in Seal Beach. It was exactly that, salmon sushi with avocado and shaved bonito, only Koi had added white onions to it as well. (I’ve met picky sushi snobs who will only eat salmon sushi with chopped raw white onions.) I ask Yanagi's chef if he has white onions in his sushi station and am told he only has red onions. “Even better,” I say (I personally prefer red onions anyway). Then I request that ponzu sauce be added to all of this and suddenly feel very much like a picky snob myself.

Other types of sushi may be ordered: “spicy garlic tuna tataki” or “spicy garlic albacore” ($4.50 to $5 for two pieces), although in my opinion there was no spiciness at all, only a garlicky essence mixed with ponzu sauce.

The owner suggests I try the “Warm Springs” roll, an unconventional six-piece hunger-squelcher for $12.50, which features the uncommon yet delightful rice paper as a wrap, the gooey, slippery alternative to soy paper and seaweed. “Warm Springs” encases spicy tuna, imitation crab, soft shell crab, avocado, and shrimp tempura in its translucent folds, and after it is placed on puddles of spicy mayonnaise and eel sauce, it gets sprinkled with furikake as well. And why not? It’s a medley of color and flavor as it is, although after this saccharine, syrupy overload, you’re bound to want to skip dessert. Yet the desserts here, too, sound tempting: you can choose from green tea cheesecake or the ever-unusual fried plum wine ice cream.

Yanagi Japanese Bistro
2400 Artesia Blvd., Redondo Beach

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Selections Abound at Sakura Ichi of Pomona

Sayori (Half Beak)
Spicy Tuna on Crispy Rice
Shima Aji
Orange Served with Plum Powder

Showcasing Sakura Ichi of Pomona

It’s always a pleasant surprise to stumble across a new sushi bar, especially in an unlikely area, and especially one with such great personality behind its service.

With its funky little name and spacious, sophisticated dining room, Sakura Ichi, tucked nearly out of sight in a plaza in Pomona, is a local’s delight, and there is a certain chef named Eddie whose sunny disposition and zeal for all things sushi will brighten anyone’s day.

Chef Eddie informs me that this sushi bar offers rare fish such as Sayori, known as Half Beak; as well as Shima Aji, which is also called White Trevally. On the wall menu, even Ankimo (monkfish liver) is offered as an appetizer.

For the first time, I learned why the silvery-gray fish is called Half Beak; quite literally, the fish boasts a prominent, beak-like projection from its jaws, in which the lower jaws are remarkably longer than the upper ones. And I had learned this only because Chef Eddie chose to serve Sayori sashimi-style, with the hacked-up pieces of this raw fish flanked by its head and tail as decoration, upon a bed of lettuce, and with masago topping and a stem of yamagobo to boot. Ponzu sauce comes on the side, for those who like to add zest to their sashimi with this citrus-based dip.

I caught sight of a grooved glass platter upon which one of the chefs was arranging blocks of spicy tuna on crispy rice, topped with slivers of avocado, slices of jalapeno, chopped green onions, ponzu sauce and Togarashi powder (I asked for the omission of eel sauce, which it normally comes with, because in my opinion it would have oversweetened the dish), and I ordered the plate immediately.

This six-piece version of Spicy Tuna on Crispy Rice is a twist of my traditional favorite dish of the same name at Katsu-Ya in Studio City, which comes topped with slices of Serrano chili. To my relief, not only was Sakura Ichi’s rendition tasty, but the crispy rice base was not overly crunchy and hard as it tends to be at some restaurants; rather, it had a toasty, buttery crisp to it, about what you’d expect out of the version at Katsu-Ya.

I ordered the Spider Roll because unlike most sushi bars, Sakura Ichi uses minced crabstick, rather than the standard imitation snow crab mix, as a filler next to the softshell crab in its roll, and I was curious as to how this would result in the texture. Although I ultimately prefer a Spider Roll to be served sans any imitation crab-filler, and I still think Nobu’s Soft Shell Crab Roll holds the standard, the Spider Roll at Sakura Ichi adequately satisfies the need for something fried and filling. The soft and stringy crabstick offered a nice contrast alongside the crunchiness, although it didn’t seem to make a significant difference than if it had been served with imitation snow crab mix.

I also tried the Shima Aji sushi and not only was it fresh, but the texture and flavor was just right, slightly reminiscent of yellowtail sushi.

Other noteworthy details that make this restaurant stand out: the edamame comes smothered with toasted garlic bits; and the half-orange that is served for dessert is sprinkled with plum powder, which, as Chef Eddie imparts, enhances almost any fruit.

Sakura Ichi
101 W. Mission Blvd., Pomona