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July 4-10, 2007

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First Bite

Hikuni Sushi Bar & Hibachi

By Carey Sweet

The couple across the sizzling teppanyaki table are grinning from ear to ear.

Since Hikuni opened last month near Montgomery Village in Santa Rosa, they won't be slogging more than a hundred miles round-trip anymore to get a fix of their favorite food: Japanese meats, seafood and vegetables seared on a giant metal griddle, sliced in dizzying theatrics by a chef wielding an extraordinarily sharp knife and flung through the air to (hopefully) land on their plates.

Bizarre as it sounds, for the past several years this dining duo had regularly been driving, often weekly, all the way to Benihana in San Francisco. They've been telling Mom and me about it since they sat down about 15 minutes ago, joining the group of four other new friends at our communal table.

No wonder they're giddy. At today's gas prices, I figure they've been spending almost as much just on transportation as their entire meal costs tonight. (In addition to its excellent food, Hikuni has impossibly low prices San Francisco can't match.) The hibachi tuna I've been feasting on is easily a pound of primo soy-marinated fish, grilled exquisitely raw inside as I requested, and costs a mere $18.95.

Mom, meanwhile, has been valiantly working her way through a wealth of tooth-tender calamari and chicken ($22.95), dipping bites in house-made ginger and mustard aiolis alongside mounds of sautéed mushroom, onion, zucchini and fluffy fried rice. We've been at this task for a while now, but we're barely making a dent.

And this is after we've already stuffed ourselves on the go-withs, including a fine miso soup and an enormous green salad under a lovely homemade dressing of puréed pineapple, cantaloupe, orange, lemon and ginger. Then, as the waitress had cleared the plates (gorgeous pottery, by the way), our chef arrived and--zip-zip!--fired up some freebie lemon-soy shrimp for us.

We've got so much good food, in fact, that our appetizers--tamago (egg custard) sushi ($3.50) and naruto roll ($10.95), a fat mosaic of salmon, tuna and yellowtail cradled in rice, avocado and a thick blanket of tobiko--have largely gone untouched. No worries, though; these leftovers are coming home with us, clutched fiercely to my bosom.

The chef is playing now. He makes a tall funnel out of an onion, douses it with sake and touches it with fire. Flames leap up to his chin, he shouts, "Volcano!" and the Benihana couple cheer. The chef hurls a piece of scrambled egg at the man, who catches it in his mouth. The woman screeches with such happiness that I'm almost expecting her to burst into tears.

They live about half an hour away, they gush, which saves them more than an hour's drive each way over that other place, their favorite . . . whazzit called again? Beni-who?

Hikuni Sushi Bar & Hibachi, 4100 Montgomery Drive, Santa Rosa. Open for lunch and dinner daily. 707.539.9188.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.