The signs in the window at the new Izakaya Kitaru in Petaluma look pretty cheesy, with advertisements for ramen and udon “served all day,” ice cream sandwiches for sale, and a part plastic letter/part hand painted, quite confusing “hours open” placard.
But step inside, and wow. This charming little spot oozes class and casual comfort, feeling like one of the true izakayas I used to hang out at when living in Tokyo. The food, too, is authentic, offering delicacies not usually found in Wine Country, like takoyaki (battered octopus dumplings, $9), and gyutan (thin sliced grilled beef tongue scattered in scallions, $10). There’s also ika maruyaki ($11), grilled whole squid that reminds me of one of my favorite street foods while in Japan; we used to walk around Ebisu marketplaces munching on the char-edged, teriyaki kissed squid on a stick.
We can thank owners and husband-wife team James Chang and Helen Su for the ambitious project. Chang has been a sushi chef for twenty years, and most recently owned three restaurants in the Peninsula area, including Sushi85 of Mountain View.
First, I love the eatery’s look, entirely transformed from the space’s previous life as the somewhat stark Andy’s Kitchen & Sushi Bar. Now, the walls and sushi bar are paneled in dark-ish ryokan-style wood with Asian farmhouse-style rafter trim and small shoji screens here and there. Importantly, lighting is moody, glowing from round pendant lamps that cast customers in romantic shadow appropriate for imbibing multiple sakes, beers, and sake bombs.
Curious about that sake? You can see bottles on display in clever, rustic wood crates hung over the bar. And as a sake-fueled izakaya really should, this small joint can get quite loud when folks let loose.
Second, I love the food. Kitaru isn’t as sophisticated as Miminashi in Napa, as pristine as Hana in Rohnert Park, or as artisan as Ramen Gaijin in Sebastopol, but it is excellent in its more casual style.
You can get a fine rainbow roll ($15, and laced with the unusual addition of sea bream), maguro nigiri ($7), or even the offbeat Tokyo Cowboy of seared beef with tempura green onion and shiitake ($15). But why would you, when specials include stars like otoro, the prized, fatty tuna belly that melts in your mouth as three sumptuous strips of sashimi ($21)? Another evening’s special sushi brought an elegant seared-salmon nigiri daintily topped in tobiko, avocado, a hint of olive oil and the bracing bite of jalapeño ($15). The two pieces of salmon were so generous, the presentation looked like high heel slippers of fish draping past their rice nubbins.
As with many Japanese restaurants, it’s more fun to sit at the sushi bar, where the chef can tempt with specialties, but when my server learned my group was hoping to explore more uncommon fare, she suggested two winning dishes. Ankimo ($9) is like foie gras, the monkfish liver lightly steamed to a velvet texture and its exceedingly rich flavor tempered by acidic ponzu sauce. I also hadn’t had hiyayko this way before – the chilled tofu is intriguing, dressed with briny, dried baby anchovy ($6) instead of the more traditional scallions and bonito flakes.
I consider myself a ramen connoisseur, and the rendition here ($14 lunch/$17 dinner) is spot on. You start by choosing your broth base, of buttery miso, tonkatsu creamy with pork fat, spicy curry, or my favorite, the salty shoyu. Then the kitchen layers in lots of skinny noodles, seaweed, bean sprouts, green onion, bamboo, sliced soft boiled egg looking like the sun with its golden yolk, bright pink fish cake, sesame seeds and a generous slab of chashu pork.