By Mike Dunne, Bee Restaurant Critic
Laboratories generally are stripped-down spaces where experiments are carried out with precision and patience, and with as little distraction as possible.
At Taro’s, however, guests quickly forget that they’re guinea pigs in a lab where the culinary world’s equivalent of the mad scientist is verifying his latest theories on eating.
That would be Kotaro “Taro” Arai, executive chef of the Mikuni group of restaurants.
Arai didn’t invent sushi, but more than any other Sacramento chef he’s introduced its wildest forms to the city, and the city has responded by making Mikuni a phenomenally popular family of Japanese restaurants.
Taro’s by Mikuni, which opened in December in space formerly occupied by Max’s Opera Cafe in Market Square at Arden Fair, is his lab for developing new forms of Japanese cooking to assure the continued prosperity of the group. If it works at Taro’s, goes the thinking, it will show up at the other Mikunis, of which there are four, with more on the way.
Taro’s is the most meticulously and intriguingly designed of them all. The Arai family apparently gave Sacramento architect Kevin Donnelly a free hand, and he responded with a sage and artful tribute to Japanese culture, particularly its tie to the sea. The configuration, materials and shape of the exterior suggest the history of Japanese ship-building. A huge, white curtain draped atop the barrel entrance looks like the hand-tossed net of a Japanese fisherman. Inside, metal shimmer screens evoke both flowing water and the rising streams of bubbles in the restaurant’s aquariums, stocked with all sorts of bright and exotic tropical fish. Thin branches of manzanita and birch suggest coral, while the comic-book art of lobbyist and artist Terry Flanigan sums up the charisma and tension of Taro Arai in a series of “Zen City” posters in the foyer.
The Arais are profoundly religious – the Rev. Koki Arai is the founding father of the restaurants, and “mikuni” in Japanese means “kingdom of God” – so Donnelly lit up the back dining room with a series of drop-down cross lights that also look somewhat like jacks.
If there’s a flaw to the design, it’s the lack of noise-absorbing materials. The place is in a constant din, starting with the shouts of sushi chefs to greet each patron and continuing through a long, detailed explanation of the menu whenever a server attends someone who is at Taro’s for the first time. Against this, the restaurant’s sound system, tuned to throbbing techno music during our visits, is progressively cranked up as the night progresses. It’s a loud and youthful setting, but at least one middle-aged couple found a satisfactory solution; he read a book, she a magazine, apparently putting their dinner conversation on hold until the drive home.
Taro Arai approaches the Japanese culinary arts playfully. He’s respectful of tradition, but eager to transform it into something modern. The result is dishes recognizably Japanese but with Western heft – wholesome, buoyant and pretty on one hand, and complicated, spicy and rich on the other.
Not that guests won’t find some dishes that don’t veer far from the norm. “Hamachi toro” falls under the “freaky style” nigiri sushi of the menu, but the yellowtail is cut, draped and dressed pretty much like any other nigiri sushi (two pieces for $6). The pale flesh, sculpted like the soaring, curving fender of a 1950s American car, with a thin, silvery sash of membrane, was fresh and mildly rich. A dab of grated wasabi and green onion on top of each piece added fitting flavor without the biting heat usually delivered by wasabi paste.
The lightness of yellowtail was exploited deftly in two other slightly more involved dishes.
“Don Don” is a donburi dish in which thick cuts of raw yellowtail were arranged atop a bowl of sweet and vinegary sushi rice, then seasoned delicately with thin slices of green onion and wasabi sprouts, adding up to a meal that is filling but not heavy ($15).
My favorite yellowtail composition, however, involved very thin, moist slices of the fish glistening with olive oil and ponzu sauce, each piece alternating with a strip of grilled red pepper whose faint smokiness balanced deftly the delicate sweetness of the fish ($12).
Overall, however, my favorite dish was a blooming flower of Canadian albacore, the tip of each petal of tuna topped with a thin slice of jalapeno chile pepper, which in turn was topped with a cut of fried garlic ($12). In the mouth, the play of silken fish, snappy jalapeno, and pungent, sticky and sweet garlic added up to an harmonious and lingering treat.
Also impressive was albacore grilled just long enough to bring a fresh dimension to the rich fish, accompanied with two sauces, one spicy, the other kind of garlicky ($11), and buttery oil-blanched salmon brightened with a zesty orange salsa ($12).
At Taro’s, Arai also is experimenting with fusion cooking, bringing Japanese ingredients and techniques to dishes more closely identified with other cuisines. The aptly named “lick my chops” consists of three tender and juicy grilled lamb chops glazed with a sweetly fitting teriyaki sauce ($10), while the “cold pizza” is a thin and toasty flour tortilla topped with slices of maguro, avocado, asparagus and jalapeno ($11). Despite the spiciness of the jalapeno and the sauce, each component could be tasted clearly.
Not all of Arai’s fusion inventions succeed, however. His take on the sweet and spicy Thai noodle dish pad thai includes tempura red snapper that became soggy and lost under the weight of the other elements ($11).
Hefty and novel maki rolls have been more responsible for Mikuni‘s success than any other style of Japanese cookery, and here Arai continues to turn out entertaining models. Not yet on the menu is a $10,000 roll he is working up that is to include a diamond ring, so we settled for the “pimp my roll,” a rich and flashy assembly of tempura shrimp, spicy tuna, macadamia nuts and assertive red sauce, briefly torched and topped with masago and onion ($12). With its spiciness, saltiness and sweetness, it’s a roll designed for the baby boomer palate.
Just two inventive desserts were available: “yellow fever,” a tempura banana, hot and creamy, cut into pieces to resemble sushi rolls, accompanied with a green-tea mousse that looked and tasted like whipped cream infused with a faint tea flavor ($5); and the more refreshing and impressive “serenity dental roll,” pieces of fresh mango wrapped with sweet sticky rice in a lavender-hued raspberry and coconut cream sauce ($5).
Beer, sake, cocktail and soft-drink selections are extensive enough to accommodate most any thirst, while the wine list is more ambitious than those usually found at Japanese restaurants. Most wines are available by the glass as well as the bottle; the cellar is largely Californian but several other regions are represented, and prices tend to gravitate to the high side.
Servers were friendly and earnest, but they struggled to make themselves heard above the noise of the place and they generally lacked the confidence and polish of a restaurant that aspires to be a destination.
Taro’s is drawing a clientele that looks to be part curious, part intent on having a really good time. It provides pleasure in several ways, including the energy of most of its food and the dynamic conviviality of many of its customers.
Given the novelty of many of its dishes, Taro’s is a somewhat risky venture, but the food almost invariably is well- conceived. Portions tend to be generous, while prices are restrained for the quality of ingredients and the extent of detailing that goes into most of them. Taro’s may be a testing ground, but the wizards behind its inventiveness look to have the formula for success firmly in hand.
Reach The Bee’s Mike Dunne at (916) 321-1143 or email@example.com. Back columns: www.sacbee.com/dunne.
Taro’s by Mikuni
1735 Arden Way (Market Square at Arden Fair), Sacramento
* * * / $$-$$$
FOOD: Kotaro “Taro” Arai’s restless creativity reigns colorfully and daringly in his new eponymous restaurant. Traditional nigiri sushi and sashimi can be found here, but for the most part the menu runs to his freestyling makeover of all classes of Japanese cookery.
AMBIENCE: From aquariums stocked with bright and exotic forms of sea life to architect Kevin Donnelly’s sly yet sensitive interpretation of Japanese history and culture, Taro’s is a treat for the eyes with the symbolism and harmony of its design.
HITS: Corkage is a modest $10, not that anyone will bring their own wine once they hear of Taro’s extensive list.
MISSES: Two things explain why it’s easier to get into Taro’s than any other branch of the Mikuni group: Both the noise and the parking are a strain, but the latter could be relieved if the restaurant’s management gets an OK for valet service, which it is seeking.
HOURS: Food served 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays, noon-11 p.m. Saturdays, noon-9 p.m. Sundays.
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