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Really good restaurants in Tokyo aren?t afraid to try new ideas, and yet their creations remain essentially Japanese. After all, rice and noodles are fundamental to both Japanese and Italian cooking, and some Japanese chefs boldly experiment with risottos and pastas without losing the thread of their culture.

But here in the United States, so many Japanese restaurants go down the well-worn sukiyaki and yakitori paths; offering up the same familiar sushi; serving miso soup, sunomono salad and edamame starters, and slicing up unadorned sashimi served with wasabi and soy sauce. They figure, one supposes, that these classics are what customers think of when they think of Japanese food, so why not give it to them?

Here?s another idea: why not give them something they haven?t tried before, something creative, and something smashingly good to eat?

That?s what?s going on at Gohan Japanese Restaurant in Petaluma, where Japanese food is given some Western twists and updating, but the result isn?t weird, it?s scrumptious.

Many of the familiar items of Japanese fare are on the menu: tempura and udon noodle soup, for instance. But there?s also something as wonderful as a long, rectangular white ceramic dish with eight slices of albacore in a house-made citrus and ponzu sauce that softens and partially ?cooks? the albacore, the way lime juice ?cooks? raw seafood when making ceviche.

This is Albacore Sashimi New Style ($12, 4 stars), and part of the new style is the cored and seeded jalape? that?s cut into rings and laid across the thin rectangles of albacore, giving the fish slices crunchy, spicy heat. It?s altogether enchanting, and a tribute to employees like assistant sushi chef Armando Caamal, who adds subtle Mexican influences to Japanese cuisine. If it weren?t for our under-appreciated Mexican cooks, there would be no world class food in Wine Country restaurants. And whether they?re cooking Japanese, Italian or whatever, something of that south-of-the-border feeling ends up in the food. And that?s all to the good. That said, Gohan?s food is still decidedly Japanese.

Seen from the outside, the windows are draped inside with cloth and the place looks like it could be closed. But there was a small sign beside the door that read, ?Open.? Inside, there?s a black wall with Japanese calligraphy writ large down one side. The main room is tastefully decorated in minimalist grey-orange-white-and-black by Japanese architect Fumio Suda and by the late Steve Tam, the young man who had the vision to open this place as chef and owner in 2007, before his untimely death last August.

Now Linh Tam, Steve?s widow, is the owner. Ly Tran is manager and does some of the food preparation. The head sushi chef is Katsu-san. These people deserve a mention because they are doing something quite unique at Gohan (the name translates from the Japanese as ?cooked rice? or ?mealtime?). That is, they seem to be having fun with the traditional dishes and reworking them into interesting variations. Other ?New Style? sashimi on the menu included ahi tuna with white miso dressing, monkfish pate, the mellifluously named hamachi carpaccio, hirame and tuna tataki with citrus-ponzu sauce, and Hawai?ian ahi poke.

And they?re doing this as they maintain the highest standard of quality. For instance, there was nothing ?fishy? about anything that our table sampled on a recent evening.

Besides tables, there are nine seats at the sushi bar. As for beverages, 15 sakes run the gamut from crisp and dry Junmai types to rich Ginjo and classic Daiginjo (ask Ly Tran which sake pairs best with your food). A small but excellent wine list offers good choices, like a Domaine Carneros brut sparkler for $42. Among the white wines that pair so well with sushi and sashimi are German riesling, South African chenin blanc, pinot grigio from the cool Friuli region of northeastern Italy and arneis from Piemonte in Italy?s northwest, and a raft of Sonoma County sauvignon blancs. Prices run in the $20-$30 range. And of course there is beer, and also premium teas.

Service at Gohan is performed by stylishly dressed waitresses with ready smiles, even when asked several questions that sent them to the kitchen for answers. Though most of the tables were full at the dinner hour, everyone appeared well taken care of.

A word about the presentations. There is a tradition in Japanese cooking that food should be presented as artfully as possible. It?s one of the pleasures of the table. No exception at Gohan, where the serving dishes and the arrangements of the food were delightful to look at as well as tasty. That applied to the first dish of the evening, Mixed Tempura ($8, 3 stars), with shrimp forming a tepee under and around which were laid slices of shiitake mushrooms, squash, sweet onion rings and eggplant, everything encrusted with crunchy, champagne-colored panko without a hint of oiliness.

Potstickers are popular in Japan, where they are called Gyoza ($6, 3? stars). Seven of these little potstickers, filled with pork in a vinegar sauce, were as delicate and flavorful as anyone at the table had ever experienced. Potstickers can be clumpy and heavy in the wrong hands. At Gohan, they are light.

The Seabreeze Cocktail ($6, 2? stars) consisted of a martini glass with glassy-green seaweed in the bottom topped with an ice cream scoop-sized portion of snow crab meat, topped in turn by black tobiko. The crab and seaweed were fine, but I have trouble with the tobiko. This flying fish roe is highly processed and dyed. If a restaurant, especially a good one, wants to use fish eggs, there are salmon roe, paddlefish roe, and other, less monumentally expensive alternatives to sturgeon roe (true caviar) without having to turn to tobiko.

Sushi at Gohan is simple and elegant. Unagi ($5, 3 stars) is two pieces of sushi made of broiled eel laid over snowy sushi rice, while Kanpachi ($6, 3 stars) is amberjack from Hawai?i and Hamachi ($6, 3 stars) is yellowtail. All the raw fish sushi was perfectly fresh and clean tasting.

Dinner ended with the Ninja Roll ($15, 2? stars), a special maki roll cut into eight pieces. Rice enclosed two spears of asparagus and was topped with ahi, snow crab, and eel, all given a sweetish sauce and topped with black tobiko. The latter only detracted from the slightly spicy roll, which was elaborate and lacked the simplicity and cleanliness of flavor of all the other dishes we tasted.

To sum up: Gohan is one of the best Japanese restaurants in the North Bay. When it keeps things simple, it?s unsurpassed.

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

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