TASTY TOZAI: MODESTLY PRICED SEBASTOPOL SUSHI RESTAURANT OFFERS EXCELLENT, AUTHENTIC FLAVORS OF JAPAN
Except for a rather wide expanse of ocean, only a few miles of land separate Sebastopol from the shores of Japan. And so it seems appropriate that our Sonoma County town would have a couple of good Japanese restaurants. A well-known place that has been open for many years in that town is Sushi Hana, but there's also Sushi Tozai.
Tozai is Japanese for east (to) and west (zai) and the name means "East meets West," where the food of Japan can be enjoyed by westerners. And enjoy it you will, for Sushi Tozai is a pleasant surprise for those lunches or dinners when you just must have sushi, sashimi, or any of the other familiar Japanese dishes.
The first thing you'll notice as you enter is the authentic Japanese look of the restaurant. It's made from floor to ceiling from many shades of polished wood -- from light maple to dark walnut with warm fruitwood shades in between. Paper screens at the windows and paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling add to the rustic Japanese look. The six-stool sushi bar has an overhanging roof with rounded posts, like the roof of a woodland cabin. The Japanese aesthetic is oneness with nature, and the natural wood decor reflects that.
The second thing you'll notice is a large Maneki Neko, or "beckoning cat," set beside the sushi bar -- a good luck and prosperity symbol easily confused with Hello Kitty but not as kitschy.
The sushi chefs are working busily behind the bar and waitresses rush the results to the customers at their tables. In fact, when the restaurant opened at 5 o'clock on a recent afternoon, there was a line of people at the door waiting to get in.
For drinks, cocktails made with soju -- a kind of Japanese vodka -- are available for $6.95 each, such as a lemon drop, kami-kaze, and Tozai lemonade. A large Sapporo is $7.95. A short wine list includes a Stonestreet Chardonnay for $30, Fanucci Trousseau Gris for $26, and a Matanzas Creek Merlot for $34. Vintage years aren't given on the wine list, and corkage is $15. The emphasis is not on cocktails, beer or wine, but rather on sake, served nicely chilled by the masu box, or by the 180 ml, 300 ml or 720 ml bottles.
A premium sake sampler is available for $13, where you can taste a range of styles. The medium-dry Bishonen (the name translates to Beautiful Boy) is $8.50 for the smallest-pour box to $80 for a full bottle. A medium-dry sake has enough heft to stand up to highly flavored sushi but also is elegant enough to support the delicate flavors of sashimi.
As you sit down, a waitress will bring you a bowl of edamame -- soybeans boiled in their pods in salted water -- for something to nibble on. Utensils are plastic chopsticks, thankfully set across a small plate to keep them off the table. You'd be surprised how many Asian restaurants don't provide a place to set your chopsticks.
Freshness of the seafood, of course, is everything in a Japanese restaurant. Four Hood Canal Oysters ($5.95 ***) were sweet and not too creamy (a term referring to the muddy-tasting summer spawning sac), but ask about whatever dressing the restaurant is adding to them. Mine had a spicy hot sauce added, whereas oyster aficionados usually like them with nothing more than a squirt of lemon juice. Oyster Tempura ($5.95 ** 1/2 ) featured oysters rolled in panko bread crumbs and given a quick deep frying, rendering them tender but not as icily sweet from the sea as fresh oysters.
Kappa-Kani ($7.95 *** 1/2 ) is an appetizer of cucumber rounds topped with snow crab, spicy tuna and a pinch of tobiko flying-fish roe, all dressed in savory-tangy, house-made sauces. It was arranged in a fancy presentation on beautiful Japanese stoneware and had a rich, excellent flavor. From surf we moved to turf with three Marinated Ginger-Beef Skewers ($7.95 **) nicely grilled. The problem with the four pieces of marinated beef on each skewer was their texture: tough. The meat doesn't have to be tenderloin, but it shouldn't be chewy to the point that it's hard to eat.
Spicy Mango Tuna Roll ($7.95 ***) featured pieces of ahi tuna and cubes of mango rolled in rice and topped with a lightly spicy pink house-made sauce. The combination and presentation were delightfully creative. The order of Yellowtail Sashimi ($16.95 **** ) was the prettiest presentation of the night. The raw fish consisted of 12 pieces arranged in three forms: six triangles, three elongated triangles, and three strips curled to make a flower shape. The sashimi was garnished with microgreens and accompanied by wasabi and pickled ginger. The reason for giving this sashimi full marks was the freshness of the fish. It was sweet, turgid with freshness, with a clean smell -- nothing fishy. In fact, if you dine in a restaurant where the sashimi smells like fish, send it back because it isn't fresh. Raw seafood should always smell clean, never fishy.
Sushi Tozai offers 30 kinds of nigiri sushi and 39 kinds of maki sushi. Nigiri sushi is an elongated lump of rice topped with seafood, usually raw, and sometimes held with a cummerbund of black nori seaweed. Maki is a long roll of stuffed rice cut into rounds.
As a sampling, I tried the Hirame Nigiri ($5 *** 1/2 ). It comes as two pieces, each a lump of sushi rice topped with sweet, lovely piece of elegant halibut. A quick dip in wasabi-laced soy sauce to give it a slight kick, and one piece becomes a mouthful. A second sushi was Unagi ($5 *** 1/2 ), freshwater eel marinated in soy sauce and broiled, set on rice, and wrapped with nori. The eel may have been caught in fresh waters or raised in farms in Japan, but the eel goes to the ocean to lay its eggs and when the fry return to fresh water, they are caught and farmed to maturity. In North America, the eel spawns in the Atlantic's Sargasso Sea and then returns to freshwater streams to mature. Wherever the eel is from, it is a sweet treat and seldom seen on American menus except in Japanese restaurants.
To sum up: Sushi Tozai is modestly priced and serves excellent, fresh sushi and sashimi along with bento boxes for lunch or dinner. Well worth a visit.
Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review for the Sonoma Living section. He can be reached at email@example.com.