Critics’ choice: Japanese cuisine, beyond sushi

Chotto in San Francisco; Robata Jinya in Los Angeles; Shigezo in Portland

Chotto San Francisco

As Japanese restaurants have become almost as commonplace as pasta joints, more chefs are moving beyond sushi and sashimi, said Michael Bauer in the San Francisco Chronicle. In the Bay Area, this has led to the appearance of a number of excellent izakayas, Japanese-style pubs that specialize in small plates (they’re essentially Tokyo’s answer to tapas bars). This “chic” 68-seat restaurant on busy Steiner Street is a standout recent addition. The menu is divided into eight categories, with most items priced between $8 and $13. The sushi is “always a good bet,” but there’s so much more to choose from—like a “sublime” deep-fried tofu or the kushiyaki offerings, meaning meats or vegetables that have been skewered and grilled. The best of these is the tsukune—moist chicken meatballs set off by “sweet, crunchy bursts of water chestnut.” The service at Chotto is a bit unpredictable, but give me a bowl of chef Armando Justo’s astonishing noodle soup—which begins with the slow-cooking of chicken and pork bones—and “everything is right with the world.” 3317 Steiner St., (415) 441-2223

Robata Jinya Los Angeles

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You wouldn’t expect that a place nominally specializing in grilled meats would have fresh tofu that’s so otherworldly, said Jonathan Gold in LA Weekly. But this second Los Angeles–area outpost of a small Tokyo-based enterprise isn’t a typical robata restaurant. It’s not even clear that robatayaki—grilled food—is the kitchen’s focus. Like its sister restaurant in Studio City, this new Jinya serves “really good ramen, among the best two or three bowls anywhere in Southern California.” But maybe it’s only me who’s so easily detoured from the extensive robata menu, which includes “meltingly soft pork belly,” garlicky prime beef, and miso-marinated beef tongue. It’s just that the fresh tofu, made right at your table, is “the most striking Japanese dish” I’ve had in quite a while. Into a “beautifully weathered bowl,” the waiter pours a stream of soymilk and a few drops of nigari—a seawater-based coagulant. “Don’t stir,” he counsels. Five minutes later, the tofu is ready—“soft as a sigh” and ready to be seasoned with “planings of dried bonito, grated ginger, and a syrupy drizzle of ponzu.” 8050 W. 3rd St., (323) 653-8877

Shigezo Portland, Ore.

“The genius of Shigezo is not that it does something new—it’s how sublimely skilled it is at resurrecting the old,” said Aaron Mesh in the Portland Willamette Week. An izakaya that gives a Japanese chain its first foothold in the continental U.S., this unassuming downtown spot is a jovial place: Familiar customers are greeted with shouts from the sushi chefs; exiting diners emerge from their private alcoves and bang a giant drum to signal their satisfaction. And it’s no wonder they’re happy: Almost every item on the very traditional menu is “an outrageous success.” For an entrée, opt for one of the “rib-sticking staples.” In Japan, katsu curry is standard fast food—a sweet stew topped with a panko-breaded chicken cutlet. Here, it’s “embarrassingly delicious.” Only the tonkotsu shoyu ramen is better. The slice of barbecued pork flank that comes with its homemade noodles is “so tender it melts apart at the touch of a spoon.” 910 SW Salmon St., (503) 688-5202

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