Splurging on sashimi: Barlow’s new Japanese restaurant worth it
People have wildly different financial priorities, which helps make this world such an interesting place. I've never wanted a Prada purse, for example. Or a yacht. Yet I get seriously excited when I find high-quality hay for my horses. Or fluffy, cozy pajamas for myself.
It's not that I'm not cheap. I love a gorgeous house and car, as much as I can afford them. And I go nuts for sushi. The pristine, usually pricey raw fish is an indulgence I'll undertake anytime, even while thinking, “wow, this dinner bill would have bought me five bales of alfalfa.”
Some people splurge on sports - Lakers tickets that average $170 to $2,500 per game. I put my sheckles into sashimi. Some people spend millions on a single painting, while I didn't really think twice when I read that a Japanese fellow paid more than $3 million for a single fish the other week. It's true: Kiyoshi Kimura, the self-titled “King of Tuna” and owner of the Sushi Zanmai restaurant chain in Japan, paid 333.6 million yen for a 612-pound bluefin tuna, translating to about $4,900 per pound.
Is it any surprise, then, that I'm thrilled to welcome Kosho to The Barlow in Sebastopol? It's a tiny jewel box, small plates Japanese restaurant with a brief dinner menu and even smaller lunch menu, and it offers some of the best sushi and sashimi I've had in recent history.
Some people have yipped to me that it's too expensive, but I say, such is the nature of truly good sushi. And you can always cut back another household budget to compensate – such as sending that kid to college.
Of course, I jest. In the realm of Sonoma County's original world-class Japanese restaurant, the revered Hana in Rohnert Park, Kosho is comparable in quality and price. So let's just spread the love, and order another of Kosho's luxurious toro aburi sashimi ($22).
The dainty bites of seared fatty tuna nearly melt in your mouth, layered in marvelous textures and flavors of white soy, crispy potato, avocado and white onion dressing.
Chef Jake Rand clearly knows how to select perfect seafood. He's visited many Japanese fish markets, including the renowned Tsukiji, and gets his seafood from its new location at Toyosu.
His sushi menu includes other pedigrees, too - sustainable farm-raised Kindai toro fatty tuna ($12), Tahitian maguro ($8), New Zealand king salmon ($8), Grecian black snapper ($7) and various cuts from the Nagahama market in Fukuoka.
Black cod makes the short trip from Monterey Bay, to be pampered with a miso sear and anointment in tangy, citrusy yuzu cream and spicy young ginger ($18).
It's Rand you'll see behind the sushi bar, crafting signatures like machi bon of sweet snow crab wrapped in yellowtail and dotted with salty tobiko and sesame soy ($13).
This is a family operation, with Rand's father as partner, along with Rand's wife, Danielle, plus, as the chef jokes, “our twin babies, Clark and Caroline.”
The mood feels more professional than a typical mom-and-pop, however. Set in the former Vignette pizzeria space, it's airy with large windows, a roll-up garage door, and minimalist décor warmed with walls of Japanese pottery, art collectibles and sumi-e banners.
Polished wood tables are crowded, and its get loud, but sitting at the sushi bar is a joy - it doubles as a tiny open kitchen and buzzes with energy.
We started with a sashimi appetizer, and the fish was so clean, silky and succulent I could have eaten triple the order of two pieces each maguro, hamachi and king salmon ($18).
In fact, another evening, I came back for the 15-piece sashimi dinner, and savored it all by myself. The maguro, neon orange ocean trout, salmon and the chef's selection of golden eye red snapper and mackerel were all presented on a pretty pottery plate decorated with shiso, daikon tendrils, and pats of wasabi pressed into leaf shapes ($34).
I love that sushi and sashimi dinners include miso soup, too, especially because Rand's version is extra umami-rich and bobbing with wild mushrooms amid the tofu, seaweed and shallots ($6 a la carte).
But the idea, really, is to order plenty of plates and share. Particular standouts include dry aged beef gyoza, gently steamed for a juicy interior and drizzled in chile oil ($9), and charcoal grilled eggplant, nicely firm and dressed with miso, walnuts and creamy mushrooms ($8).
The seaweed salad is excellent, too, in a colorful mix of local and imported seaweeds, avocado, cherry tomatoes and orange segments in a brilliant orange yuzu vinaigrette ($11). The salad looks almost furry with sesame seeds; I appreciate the crunch and toasty notes they bring.
The handful of modern sashimi plates are worth exploring, as well. They change often, but I was very happy with the mild hamachi electrified with bits of jalapeno, sharp garlic soy, yuzu juice, crunchy micro celery and radish ($15). The yuzu really makes a difference, and indeed, the restaurant name Kosho refers to yuzu Kosho, the beloved Japanese chile paste that sings with spice, acid and vibrant citrus.
I'm not a fan of the okonomiyaki, however, which was thicker and mushier than I like. Ours arrived lukewarm, and positively buried in a mess of mayonnaise squiggles, sweet-savory okonomi sauce and bonito curls.
I know the dish is traditionally served like this in Japan, but still, all the glop makes it hard to taste anything but the nice mushrooms scattered atop ($12).
I'm on the fence about sushi presentation, too, since the rice is made with akazu (red vinegar made from sake-brewing lees) instead of rice vinegar (komezu), so it has a brown-orange color. Some chefs claim that akazu adds more umami than komezu; to me, it tastes strong against the delicate fish.
But back to the great stuff. Kosho is a good place for another of my favorite meals: bento boxes. Served at lunch, the symmetrically partitioned wood trays brim with plenty of deliciousness, including two ($26) or three ($29) entrées, miso soup, white rice with pickles and slippery chilled sesame spinach.
My go-to: the combo of sweet miso black cod, veggie roll sushi, and, of course, sashimi (three pieces).
The Rand team also put thought into the sake list, offering nine selections including my pick, the Kanbara Jumai Gingo Nigata, or “Bride of the Fox,” which unfolds in notes of green grapes, minerals, wheat and steamed rice ($9 glass/$150 1.8L bottle).
I liked that my server, too, let me sample the Trefethen Oak Knoll Dry Riesling before I ordered a glass ($12/$45); lately more restaurants have become stingy about the practice, it seems.
OK, so yes, I can't claim that Kosho (sadly for me) is on my everyday dining budget. But wait. It's almost free, really, compared to that Sushi Zanmai bluefin. It's settled. I'm on my way back for dinner as soon as I send this article to my editor.
Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at email@example.com.