Thursday, June 13, 2002
Photo by Randy Tunnell
Photo: Sushi looks simple on the plate, but it takes years to perfect the delicate preparation techniques, as Ryo Chiba of Hanagasa has.
Few Carmel restaurants can pull off an atmosphere like Hanagasa''s. Not if they tried. Especially not if they tried. Restaurants are often described as unpretentious, but they are usually deliberately, self-consciously so. Hanagasa doesn''t even seem to know it isn''t.
During the five years since Ryo Chiba opened his Japanese haven, he assumed you came for excellent food and he made certain of it by providing little else. Though it''s a refuge from artifice, I wished Ryo would make some attempt to appease aesthetic sensibilities. He''s finally replaced a bleak carpet with wood flooring and has some new art, and it''s much more pleasant.
I recently entered to hear rock playing at a moderate volume (KTOM) as Mychelle, a 20-year-old waitperson, crisscrossed between the sushi bar and the small dining room, comfortable in her street clothes. Lacking in pretense and remarkably knowledgeable, the staff is as much a part of the atmosphere as any item of décor. Mychelle never ran to the kitchen to get answers to my obscure questions.
Though all dishes have Japanese names, I''ll stick with English. No one will care whether you order hamachi or yellowtail, whether you know maki from nigiri (rice and fish rolled in Nori seaweed vs. rice balls topped with fish), or that Soba noodles are thinner than Udon but thicker than Somen and Ramen.
No one will flinch if you blow the protocol regarding the use of chopsticks (e.g. do not spear food, do not point or wave them around too much).
Once I asked Ryo to recommend a premium sake. He replied, "People from San Francisco like Karatamba and people from Los Angeles like Otokyama." I tried both and wouldn''t you know, I''m a Northern Californian to the core ($7.75/small; $13.25/large).
Miso soup often launches Japanese meals. Because we scrutinized the menu on this occasion, a gem at the end of the appetizer list caught the eye of my research assistant- clam miso soup ($5). The flavor the clams add results in a broth that should please any finicky gourmand.
Sushi-making looks easy, but it takes years to master the technique. Even the guileless-looking rice requires careful attention to product quality, preparation, and shaping. If you hyperventilate at the thought of eating raw fish, give it a couple tries. Tuna and yellowtail are deliciously rich, but not fishy. Lighter fishes such as halibut and red snapper are milder. Only mackerel is slightly fishy, and quite good as long as it''s fresh.
Cold food isn''t normally considered comfort food, but sushi is an anomaly. A cool sliver of ginger and the startling heat of wasabi with raw fish can send one into paroxysms of Omega-3 fatty-acid ecstasy. If only it weren''t so expensive. I could end up like my sister-in-law, supporting a $15-a-day habit and turning to a life of crime.
Some of the mouthwatering delicacies that emerge from under Ryo''s knife are seasonal. Try giant clam (and they mean giant), uni (mushy but prized sea urchin), toro (the filet mignon of tuna), ama ebi (sweet shrimp), and kani (crab).
Hanagasa rocks when it comes to rolls, a strong point of comparison. You''ll find the standards, plus some eloquent signature designs. The Hanagasa Roll wraps shrimp, papaya, cucumber, and roe. The Jazz Roll fuses tuna, yellowtail, avocado, and white radish sprouts. There''s an Alaskan Roll, a New York Roll, a Kawasaki Roll, a Philly Roll-all concocted to make us return to the source again and again.
The spicy rolls deserve an award. Many restaurants use bottled hot sauce that makes my highly tuned palate recoil. I don''t know Ryo''s secret, but taste it for yourself.
Hanagasa serves wonderful cooked dishes and offers complete dinners ($13 to $17). Most Japanese chefs were proponents of small-plate dining long before it became a trend, and in addition to sushi, sashimi, and rolls, Hanagasa presents 31 hot appetizers.
We tried the moist, grilled yellowtail collar with ponzu dipping sauce and the grilled squid with grated ginger. Non-fried squid is a rare treat and this was good, but minimalist. It also comes with teriyaki sauce if you prefer more flavor. Mychelle recommends baked scallop and mushroom with fish roe sauce and the vegetable tempura.
If you come for lunch, you''ll get a raw deal (or, if you prefer, a cooked deal) of slightly smaller portions at nearly half the price.
One caution: Wherever deep fat fryers exist, grease ventilators must be kept clean. On sporadic occasions, dining at Hanagasa meant that I arrived home to my boudoir smelling like shrimp tempura-a significant deterrent to any would-be suitors.
At meal''s end, Ryo might offer those at the counter a fresh orange, carved into a fanciful origami-like shape. It''s a lovely metaphor for Japanese design, whether applied to art, furniture, or food. The use of simple ingredients and a light touch, allowing what is natural to radiate-a collaboration we in the West could engage in more often.