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In Search Of Omakase

Mountain View's Sushi Tomi offers a rare opportunity for a little-known sushi tradition

By Stett Holbrook

SOMEWHERE along the way, sushi restaurants went disco. Formerly respectable sushi restaurants began creating all sorts of gimmicky rolls and combinations that are a far cry from what I love best about sushi: impeccably fresh fish elegantly presented. I imagine sushi chefs from Japan coming here and holding their noses as they're asked to make "Godzilla" and "tsunami" rolls and other fancifully named fabrications. I doubt folks in Tokyo are eating many macadamia nut-encrusted, cream cheese, flying fish egg and smoked-salmon unagi rolls.

When I eat sushi, I want to be wowed by the singular quality of seafood prepared by the deft hands of a sushi chef with a really sharp, expensive knife. I like sitting at the bar and chatting with the chef to find out what's best that day. "What do you recommend? What do have that's unusual or special today?"

Questions like these will let the chef know you're serious about your sushi and after more than California rolls and edamame. But for a really special sushi experience, the word you need to remember is omakase.

In a sushi bar, omakase translates as "putting your trust in the chef," and it means you're letting the chef create a tasting menu for you based on the freshest, most interesting and traditional food in the house. Not all sushi restaurants offer omakase meals, but when you find one that does you're in for a treat. Mountain View's Sushi Tomi offers a great introduction to omakase dining. Sit at the sushi bar if you can. That way the food passes directly from the chef's hands to you.

Located off Castro Street's restaurant row on West Dana Street, the restaurant isn't much to look at from the outside. Inside, it's a tidy place with a dining room on one side and a sushi bar and a few tables on the other. But the place has been open for nearly a decade and gets crowded quickly with a mainly Japanese clientele.

It's best to call ahead for an omakase meal. Putting together such a dinner requires a bit of forethought on the part of the chef, so he'll probably appreciate the heads up and possibly set aside something special for you. The cost depends on what you eat. A meal of just fish is less than one with fish and other items. For the 11-course tasting menu of sushi and cooked dishes the charge was $50, a good deal considering what I ate.

Before embarking on my culinary journey, the chef checked in with me.

"Do you like everything?" he asked, wanting to sort out any aversions I might have.

"I like everything," I said.

"Even blowfish?" he asked with a sly look.

Blowfish must be cut with the trained precision of a neurosurgeon or the fish releases a neurotoxin that will kill you. Although not typically found in the U.S., it's the ultimate expression of one's faith in the skill of the chef. "If you know how to cut it, I'll eat it."

It turns out he didn't have any blowfish, but I think he was feeling me out to see how game I was before we got started.

First up was a cold dish of chicken skin in a light soy and sesame oil sauce topped with chopped green onions. The dish was infinitely better that it sounds. The skin, chopped into small pieces, was devoid of any trace of greasiness and was light and refreshing. Next came several rounds of sashimi, most notably fresh octopus and tuna belly. Octopus is usually boiled and quite rubbery, but here it was served raw and had a texture somewhere between clam and scallops. And the tuna belly, laced with a fine network of fat, was as buttery and melt-in-your-mouth-rich as a piece of chocolate.

The grilled shima aji (baby yellowtail) collar was an unexpected treat. The fish head is served with just a wedge of lemon, and you eat the cheek meat and the rich pocket of flesh just before the gills. Then came grilled octopus, delicious nubbly bites of meaty pink tentacles.

The multitude of dishes started to overwhelm my powers of memory. After a review meal, I usually sit in my car and scribble out a few pages of notes on what I ate. But by the time the fifth plate of food arrived, I started to doubt my ability to recall. So I surreptitiously started taking notes on my chopsticks wrapper. I'm sure the chef saw me, but I think he just figured me to be another sushi nut studiously documenting his meal.

At this point, we moved onto the actual sushi, fish atop rice. There was more tuna belly, flamed salmon and vinegar-drizzled albacore.

"Just eat, just eat," said the chef as he handed me each piece.

By this, he meant don't bother dipping it in soy sauce or smearing it with wasabi (theirs happens to be made from fresh wasabi root, and is really good). Proper etiquette is to eat it in one bite to get the full effect.

He handed me another. "Just eat."

My trust in the chef complete, I did just that. Again and again until the meal was over.

Sushi Tomi
Address: 635 W. Dana St., Mountain View.
Phone: 650.968.3227.
Hours: 11:30am-2pm and 5:30pm-9:30pm Mon-Fri, 5pm-9pm Sat-Sun.
Price range: $4-$50.

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From the April 13-19, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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