By Molly Jackel
Editor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience.
The island nation of Japan has not been a land of plenty, nor did it used to be a place that welcomed outside ideas. Its cuisine evolved to emphasize quality and presentation rather than quantity and variety. Eating really fresh sushi can stir a quiet appreciation for a single perfect piece of beautifully presented fish.
At Sushi Tozai in Sebastopol, the ambiance is just the thing to encourage the stopping and smelling of roses, with its bamboo floors and clean, spare design. We sat at the bar and asked the sushi chef, Patrick, to make up a plate of whatever was fresh. He hooked us up with two pieces each (at $4–$5 for two) of salmon, shiro maguro (albacore), suzuki (striped bass) and buri (fatty yellowtail). The pieces were substantial and glistening like nobody's business. My favorite was the fatty yellowtail, "fatty" being the operative word. There is nothing I don't like about this piece of fish, with its buttery texture and rich flavor.
The shiro maguro was rich and succulent; the suzuki, more light and redolent of the sea. The salmon was almost hard to recognize with its subtle taste and slightly oily quality. Each piece was about as perfect as they come. Then there was uni (sea urchin gonads). The husband said it was "nutty." I say he's nutty. (Allegedly, it was some of the best he's had.) And lastly came the tamago, a light, sweet omelet that in Japan is often used by customers as the test of a skillful chef. Patrick gets an A.
Linda, the maki chef (with the most astounding life story I've ever heard--go ask her), made us a double-sized roll that she said was her favorite, the mermaid roll ($12). It's a good one to try if you don't eat raw, a flavorful combination of soft and crunchy with avocado, snow crab, eel and shrimp tempura, topped with two savory sauces (the hot one a combination of mayo, honey, orange juice, and Sriracha).
One of Patrick's favorite sakes is called Mu or "nothingness" ($14), which is served in a bamboo box filled to overflowing for good luck. It's dry and smooth, with a slight taste of pear and maybe pear leaves. For half the price, try "drunk heart" or suishin, which is a little sweeter and fruitier.
The fish at Tozai is superbly fresh and the chef's got the knife skills to pay the bills. He knows how to find gorgeous pieces of fish, and he presents them generously and with great pride.
I'm having a time coming up with something critical to say about Tozai. How about that every time I've been there, they force free mochi ice cream balls on me. Or that when someone behind the bar invariably shouts out "happy birthday!" and it's no one's birthday, the owner comes out on cue from the kitchen, smiling, and pours everyone at the bar a big shot of Japanese vodka. Or that no one agrees with me that the owner looks like Vince Vaughn. The nerve. This place sucks.
Sushi Tozai, 7531 Healdsburg Ave., Sebastopol. Open Tuesday–Sunday for lunch and dinner. 707.824.9886.
From the October 26-November 1, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.