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.