Cox: Pinnacle of Japanese fare

In addition to the high quality of the food, there's a grace and elegance at Hiro's in Petaluma that's palpable as soon as you enter.

One reason is the artful d?or, created by a master artist, Naoki Takenouchi, that's at once restrained and exuberant. It appears minimal but its ambiguous suggestions fill your mind if you contemplate the work for a bit. For example, the wall behind the sushi bar is dominated by a 20-foot-long woodblock print of a fish, either gulping or disgorging an urban landscape, depending on how you're feeling that day.

The chief reason for the elegant tone of the place is Hiro Yamamoto himself, as gracious a host as there is in the North Bay. He favors crisp dress shirts and suspenders, and as a former executive of Suntory here in America and the H.J. Heinz company in Japan, he knows and appreciates fine wine. He's a great proselytizer for wines, both whites and reds, that go with Japanese food.

But he also knows that sake is a perfect accompaniment for this style of food, and his list of 13 carefully chosen sakes takes precedence at the restaurant. His list gives one a quick course in sake's manufacture and qualities. Each sake carries a fanciful name, such as "beautiful boy," "first grandchild," "devil slayer," and my favorite, "nothingness," a slightly sweet, cold sake whose delicate flavor mingles and merges particularly well in the mouth with sweet slices of raw fish.

Seaweed Salad ($8, 4 stars) is made with wakame seaweed cut into noodle form. It's a sweet, very nutritious and delicious seaweed that's also one of the world's most invasive species (it was found in San Francisco Bay in 2009 and efforts are underway to eradicate it; maybe we can eat it to death). The translucent strands are dressed with ponzu sauce and toasted sesame dressing and sprinkled with pine nuts.

Hiro's specials menu is replete with types of seafood not usually found at ordinary Japanese restaurants, but that people knowledgeable about the finer points of this cuisine would recognize. For instance, you'll find yellowtail collar — the choice part of this fish in Japan — on the specials menu, along with scorpion fish, sea robin, and a special cut of blue-fin tuna richly marbled with fat.

You'll also find Angry Shrimp ($8.50, 4 stars), six of them lightly crusted and delicately fried, given a few tablespoons of diced, green, spicy serrano peppers to anger the shrimp so they bite your tongue, plus diced red and yellow sweet bell peppers and onions.

Pork Gyoza ($7.50, 4 stars) are little triangular packets of ground pork mixed with minced napa cabbage and green onions in a fresh-tasting melange. You get six. If you order the Shrimp Siu Mai ($7.50, 3? stars), you'll note that these popular dim sum dumplings aren't stuffed with shrimp, mushrooms, ginger, oyster sauce and sesame oil they way the Chinese do them, but are lighter and more delicate in flavor, featuring the shrimp rather than the condiments.

Hiro's Carpaccio ($16, 3? stars) is, in effect, a sashimi salad. Thin slices of soft, sweet hamachi, firm scallops, and even firmer tilapia surround a salad of lettuce, sprouts and pickled ginger, plus tomatoes sliced as thin as carpaccio. The fish is drizzled with ponzu and olive oil. There's no fishy odor or taste, just the sweetness of the salty sea.

The menu offers 23 kinds of nigiri sushi — the best sushi around. Hamachi ($5.50 for two pieces, 4 stars), or yellowtail, is a thumb-sized log of sushi rice topped with a fat slice of hamachi.

Dinner finished with a perfect California Roll ($7, 4 stars), an eight-piece bargain of avocado, cucumber and sweet crabmeat rolled in nori with rice outside.

To sum up: We are lucky to have Hiro's superior Japanese restaurant here in Sonoma County. If you haven't eaten there, go. If you have, return.

Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for the Sonoma Living section. You can reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.