Venue Review: Kappo Nami Nami
Long gone are the days when sushi was considered the cutting edge of hip Japanese dining in the South Bay. Today, fans of Japanese food have a wide choice of restaurants serving everything from the elegant multi-course kaiseki to the casual pub food typical of izakaya.
Even so, the menu at downtown Mountain View's Nami Nami is filled with wonderful surprises: tender slices of raw scallop and sweet nectarine in a salad with a mellow green pepper dressing; slivers of slippery, crunchy sea cucumber paired with earth-bound cukes in a vinegary sauce; a fillet of pike conger eel, rolled around a bundle of asparagus and fried tempura-fashion.
The attractive 6-month-old restaurant is the first in the area to serve dishes in the kappo style that originated in Kyoto. It's an imaginative cuisine, based on the seasons and spotlighting outstanding ingredients. Chefs are expected to give free rein to their creativity.
This is food for the adventurous diner open to new tastes and textures. Owner Keisuke Suga -- who previously owned Himawari ramen shop in San Mateo and the Hanamaru sushi boat restaurant in Sunnyvale -- notes that even Japanese diners rarely are familiar with the dishes that his three Osaka-trained chefs turn out.
A native of Osaka, Suga first came to California to visit a friend and fell hard for the Bay Area. Eventually he opened his own restaurants and brought his cousin, Shoichi Shiono, who had gone to culinary school in Osaka, to work at Hanamaru.
The kappo dishes his cousin made for the employee meals were so good that Suga decided he should open a restaurant to showcase that style of food. He named it Nami Nami for the waves he and the chefs like to surf in Santa Cruz on their days off.
Acting as his own designer, Suga has transformed the storefront on Castro Street into a charming, tranquil space in the spirit of Zen minimalism. Undulating lines incised in the pale yellow plaster walls evoke the waves for which the restaurant is named. Pendant lamps in twisted rice paper shades hang low above cherry-stained wood tables, and light strips run behind the black upholstered banquettes.
Kappo dining is known for highly refined food prepared by master chefs with the best seasonal ingredients. In Japan, the restaurants are often small, with the chef working behind a counter and talking with diners as he prepares a succession of dishes, much like at a sushi bar.
At Nami Nami, though, the small plates of artistically arranged food are prepared in the kitchen and delivered to the tables as they're ready. Soy sauce is used sparingly to let the natural taste of ingredients shine through.
At lunch, the choices are limited to 10 bento-style meals, which are served on a selection of dishes and platters rather than in the traditional lacquered box. The offerings are more conventional and include teriyaki chicken ($10), tempura udon ($10) and grilled fish of the day ($12) with exceptionally good rice, a rather ordinary miso soup, salad and pickled vegetables.
My companion and I went to the top of the price list for the Kobe beef ($19) and Naminami special ($24) bentos. The presentations were gorgeous, each dish arranged on a plate that appeared to be designed just for it. Sizzling slices of the super-tender beef arrived on a small ceramic konro, or grill, the better to cook them to taste.
The special came in a multitude of dishes arranged on two platters. There was beautiful fresh tuna and yellowtail sashimi, yam with a mild chile sauce, cold stewed eggplant with sardines, grilled salmon, tempura shrimp and vegetables, teriyaki chicken stuffed with vegetables and a small dish of the fascinating sea cucumber mixture -- altogether too much food for one person when you factor in the soup, salad and pickles. Still, it's a great introduction to the myriad flavors of Nami Nami.
Dinner is more free-form. The six-page menu, which just switched to summer dishes focused on fish and vegetables, starts with appetizers and works its way through salads, sashimi and cold dishes in vinaigrette to grilled, deep-fried and stewed items. There are unusual snacks meant to go with sake, such as salted sea cucumber innards ($9), as well as more commonplace donburi bowls and noodles. There's also a selection of sushi.
Order whatever appeals to your fancy -- at least two dishes per person is a good rule of thumb -- and settle in for a leisurely meal. Our servers were friendly, flashing bright smiles, but in no hurry to take our order. Food was delivered randomly as it came out of the kitchen. Dinner stretched to three hours and would have gone longer if we hadn't flagged down a server for the check.
We loved the scallop and nectarine salad ($13) and the chilled chicken vinaigrette ($6), chunks of poultry sauteed in butter and served in a piquant sauce of dashi stock, vinegar and soy sauce with marinated onions. They're refreshing dishes perfectly suited for hot weather. Jibu-ni ($14) won fans for its pairing of poached duck breast in a syrupy sweet and savory sauce of soy and sticky yam, tucked beneath a delicate blanket of frothy foam.
Hamo asparagus tempura ($18) brings together the difficult-to-prepare, meaty eel and crisp asparagus inside a brittle tempura jacket for an appealing play of textures and flavors. Best of all, though, was the Ishiyaki octopus ($18). Paper-thin slices of translucent flesh and several bits of tentacle from sashimi grade cephalopod were delivered to be grilled at the table on a hot rock poised over a konro, then dipped into a ponzu sauce with plum accents. It was at once tender and chewy with fresh ocean flavor.
Unlike many Japanese restaurants, Nami Nami puts as much creativity into its desserts as its entrees. Although Inari sushi ice cream ($7) -- rice ice cream tucked into a pocket of fried sweet tofu -- was disappointingly bland, mango mousse ($7) was bright and creamy with its layers of silky mango and coconut pudding, served chilled. The real treat was the green tea ice cream parfait ($8), sandwiching a toasty rice cake between two scoops of subtle ice cream crowned with a dollop of red bean paste.
Savory or sweet, Nami Nami brings a new perspective on Japanese cuisine to the South Bay.