Sonoma County has three top-notch Japanese restaurants as you drive north on Highway 101. At the south end there's classy Hiro's in Petaluma. Cotati has the impressive Shige Sushi, and now Santa Rosa has Haku Sushi, which opened a couple of months ago in the Brickyard Center.
The owner is Han Soh. Mr. Soh is a kidder, as his signature rolls attest. He named them and makes little comments after their names on the menu. For example, there's the Afternoon Special, "Where we learned about life ... and rolls." And the Alex P. Keaton, "Every high school had someone like Alex ... it was probably you." His comment on the Date Night roll is, "Soy paper AND crunch?!? Someone's getting lucky tonight." He's named rolls Little Death, Roll Me a Fatty, Silent but Deadly, and What She's Having, among others.
But while the names of some of the rolls may be funny, he's serious about his restaurant. Two sushi chefs know how to make each presentation beautiful. The fish and other ingredients are as fresh as you dream they should be. Dishes are assembled with refinement and the flavors are delicate rather than obvious.
As a sucker for merriment, I ordered the roll called Release the Kraken ($13, 3 stars), a catch phrase usually proclaimed with mock solemnity by college kids referencing the over-the-top action movie, "Clash of the Titans." While the name may be a running joke, the roll itself is a lovely piece of work. Avocado, crab and yellowtail are draped with black nori, over which sticky sushi rice is laid. A long, thin filet of seared white tuna covers the rice, sprinkled with ponzu sauce, ringlets of green onion stalks, and red tobiko, then sliced into 10 pieces and decorated with pickled ginger at one end and a thick lump of green wasabi at the other.
The kitchen has a habit of sending out little un-ordered treats as small gifts. Two slices of California Roll were the best I've ever had of this combination of crab and avocado covered with a special sauce that's firmed up quickly in a hot oven. Another was a small seaweed salad that reset my benchmark for this standard Japanese dish of wakame seaweed touched with a dash of toasted sesame oil and sprinkled with sesame seeds. It was served in a beautiful white, scallop-edged bowl.
Tsukemono ($4.95, 3 stars) delights with its presentation of four pickled vegetables and a parsley sprig in a five-chambered porcelain dish. Turnips, carrots, eggplant and cucumbers are lightly pickled in brine rather than vinegar, giving them a distinctive Asian rather than European flavor.
The beauty isn't just in the presentations of the food. The sushi bar has the look and feel of a rustic Japanese cabin, with nine seats arranged along its length. Booths and tables fill several side rooms. White globes and green Japanese lanterns give the place a soft, inviting look. The windows looking out to Seventh Street are hung with Venetian blinds.
Drinks include sake, beers and a short wine list. Service is pleasant and snappy.
Menu highlights include three Bacon Shrimp Skewers ($8.95, 2? stars), each made by sliding a shrimp onto a bamboo skewer and wrapping a slice of bacon around it in a helix, then placing the skewers on a barbecue. They're yummy but the shrimp welds itself to the bamboo. Shrimp Spring Rolls ($8.95, 2? stars) were easier to eat. Three rolls of shrimp, cabbage, carrots and shiitake mushrooms are wrapped in a wonton and deep fried, leaving them a little oily. A pretty group of puffy, squiggly, dry noodles held in a nori cummerbund lent visual interest. A house sauce, whose ingredients the waitress said are secret, lends a mild, savory umami flavor that goes with any dish.
Hamachi Nigiri ($5.95, 4 stars) was a perfect and gorgeous presentation of two fresh, sweet fish slices laid gently on a bit of rice, all set off by the dark green of a bias-cut banana leaf, giving the plate a modernist look.