Restaurant Reviews :
by Robert Rich, March 2003, for MV Voice
I keep my antennae tuned to recommendations for great restaurants in the area, so I perked up when I overheard someone say that Sushi Tomi had become the favorite Mountain View restaurant among his visiting Japanese business guests.
I often walk past this tiny restaurant, near residential streets two blocks from Castro, and it almost always seems full. Now that I've tried the food, I can see why it remains so popular among locals and Japanese visitors alike.
Owner and head sushi chef Takao Kitamura has lived here since 1985, after working in Tokyo and Belgium. In Tokyo he specialized in preparing unagi (eel), later perfecting his sushi skills in California. He opened Sushi Tomi in 1994, and he still works the sushi bar daily.
Kitamura serves some of the freshest and most succulent sushi around. Sushi lovers can order individually from a long list, or let the chef select an assortment. If you prefer your meal cooked, you can choose among favorites such as tempura, teriyaki, udon or sukiyaki.
The diverse menu also offers traditional items that I rarely see in American Japanese restaurants. The lengthy appetizer menu marks a few of these with a friendly warning for newcomers.
Xenophile that I am, I feel compelled to try new foods; so I interpret those cautions as invitations. I welcome the surprise of unexpected textures, fragrances and tastes.
Sushi Tomi fills up for lunch on weekdays. Many people order the affordable daily special combination ($6.90, varies.) On the day of my visit, this included two halves of crispy fried mackerel and a healthy stack of teriyaki chicken, with rice, daikon salad and orange slices.
The standard lunch combination ($8.40) lets you choose two among teriyaki beef, chicken or pork, sashimi (sliced raw fish), gyoza (pot stickers), broiled mackerel or salmon, or tempura.
A bowl of donburi makes a lovely light lunch. Tomi serves these generous bowls of meat and sauce over rice with a small salad and bowl of miso soup. Donburi choices begin with oyako don ($6.90), combining chicken, eggs, onions and scallions topped with a light sweet soy broth. Other choices include pork cutlet, tempura, teriyaki beef or chicken ($6.90-$7.90) and unagi don ($11) with barbecued freshwater eel.
Nabeyaki udon ($7.90) serves thick noodles in an iron pot with slices of chicken and fish cake floating in soothing hot broth, five pieces of tempura thoughtfully placed on a dish to the side. (Many restaurants place the batter-fried tempura on top of the broth, turning it soggy by the time you eat it.)
The udon noodles have a perfect rubbery mouth feel, squishing firmly between the teeth. A raw egg cracked into the iron pot swiftly cooks amongst the noodles as it arrives steaming to your table.
Of course the lunch menu also includes sushi. You can select among two daily sushi combinations ($11), or various combinations of maki (rolls), sashimi (sliced raw fish), chirashi (rice topped with sashimi), and more. Sushi prices range from about $12 for regular combinations to $20+ for the extra special.
Extra Special Sushi
Every piece of sushi and sashimi that I have tasted at Tomi has been exquisitely fresh and buttery tender. If you want to experience raw fish at its best, ask the chef to prepare his own selection of the day's catch ($20-$25).
If you order the chef's choice special sashimi ($25), take note of the subtle addenda that show rare sensitivity to quality. A real shiso leaf adorns the platter (not the usual plastic cutout), tasting fresh like a cross between parsley, mint and basil.
Sushi Tomi uses real wasabi on its high-end platters, not the green colored powdered horseradish mix that you'll find in almost every Japanese restaurant in America. You can discern the fresh wasabi by its more fibrous texture, lighter olive-green color and milder flavor. Real wasabi tastes sweeter and less bitter than horseradish.
Both roots give that telltale aromatic head rush, but true wasabi is rare and expensive in America. Fresh wasabi roots cost $40-50 per pound, but Sushi Tomi at least serves preserved wasabi on the sashimi platter or by request.
The chef's choice sashimi often features bluefin tuna, lighter pink in color and among the most delicate tasting of the tuna family. Mackerel, giant clam, red snapper, fatty tuna, yellowtail, sweet shrimp and uni (sea urchin) might also grace the platter.
The uni at Sushi Tomi is the first sea urchin that I have ever liked. I have often tried this expensive treat, hoping to understand why the Japanese prize it so highly. Usually it tastes like old tidepool water.
In contrast, this uni tastes buttery and rich like egg yolks or foie gras, with only a hint of nautical flavors. Chef Kitamura buys the highest grade uni, collected fresh in Santa Barbara, costing him $35 per small container.
Clearly the careful selection of ingredients makes an enormous difference in the resulting flavors. Sushi Tomi is more expensive than some local sushi spots, but you can taste the quality.
Adventures and Bargains
Bargain hunters will appreciate Sushi Tomi's $12.95 combination dinners, offering a choice of two entrées from a list of beef, chicken, pork or salmon teriyaki, tempura, sukiyaki, sashimi, broiled fish or gyoza. All dinners come with salad, miso soup and rice.
Yosenabe means "odds and ends bowl", a traditional way for cooks to use good kitchen scraps, simmering them with broth in a heavy iron kettle. Tomi's classy yosenabe ($12.95) features seafood and vegetables with a savory dipping sauce. In Japan, the kettle typically cooks on a flame at the table, but here it arrives finished from the kitchen.
Most intriguing of Sushi Tomi's various menus, a page featuring appetizers and noodles warns timid Westerners, "These items are popular in Japan but you may not enjoy their flavors. Would you like to try?" I say yes.
I tried ika-natto ($5.90), sliced raw squid topped with fermented soybeans and shredded dry seaweed, in a beautiful small ceramic bowl. The slippery firmness of the mild squid contrasted with the malty intensity of sticky crushed fermented soy beans, a musky combination that deepens with a dram of hot sake.
Yama-kake ($6.90) also arrives in a hand-glazed ceramic tea bowl, this time featuring chunks of raw tuna buried under mildly sweet grated yams, whose natural gluten lends mucus-like texture to the pastel lavendar mash. It tastes delicate and comforting.
Alongside two dozen such traditional appetizers, you can find selections of sunomono (pickled seafood salads, $6.40-$9.90), broiled fish ($4.90-$8.90), salted meat skewers ($4.30) and various fried foods ($4.90-$6.90) such as soft shell crab, oyster, gyoza, chicken, pork, and more.
Sushi Tomi has many loyal customers who appreciate this taste of Tokyo tradition. Clients can even buy fine bottles of sake to keep at the restaurant, labelled with their name for return visits -- a common practice in Japan.
Sushi Tomi offers some uncomprisingly authentic dishes, along with top notch Japanese comfort food more approachable to the squeamish.
The food at Sushi Tomi is such high quality, the mood so friendly and intimate, that it will hopefully seduce you into trying new flavors and textures. Deliver your culinary curiosity to chef Takao Kitamura. You can trust him to make your experience worthwhile.
Lunch Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m. - 2 p.m.
Street parking only