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[whitespace] Sushi plate
Photograph by Erika Pino

Swimming In Style: Sauces are like art at this sushi-rific star bar.

Le Poisson Japonais

While the name says it all, the relaxed chic of this new Palo Alto hot spot showcases sophisticated fusion flavors

By Christina Waters

THE SMART copper doorway sends a clear message: Le Poisson Japonais orchestrates its glamorous menu with style, substance and prices to match. And while the celadon-green Plexiglas tables, dark wood chairs and exhibition sushi bar and staging area all conspire to make the work-weary diner completely comfortable, it's the unusual sushi menu that draws Palo Alto's most glamorous crowd in to feast.

Exotic sauces set up intriguing harmonies between Western ingredients such as tarragon and truffle oil and Asian delicacies like yuba bean curd, yuzu, yamaimo yam and other goodies that begin with "y."

Le Poisson Japonais is the place to do serious sake sampling, with a rice-wine list as long as most chardonnay inventories. But since we were driving to San Francisco, we stuck with icy Kirins to partner our multicourse forage into the wilds of sensational sashimi. The menu, incidentally, not only includes myriad prix fixe options but also lets you choose many of the fresh-fish starters done sashimi-style, lightly seared or tartare.

From where we sat, we could enjoy the sight of sushi chefs wearing white toques while they whipped up many a pretty plate. Service-intensive--every course arrived with fresh plates--the restaurant staff pampers without hovering.

We began with two beauties. The evening special of alabaster amberjack sashimi was fanned out across the plate and accompanied by two miniature nests of zippy daikon sliced into microthreads ($14). An intense lemony sauce and dusting of infant garlic chives played off the rich, firm jack. Another dish offered velvety tuna sashimi arranged in soft curls next to a substantial froth of organic baby lettuces ($14.80). An electrifying sauce of puréed daikon and garlic and a hint of hot chile ignited greens and ahi alike. Dishes here are beautiful, if not abundant, but this clientele comes to dine, not to count pennies.

Another wave of beautiful plates soon arrived--again, each course was swiftly removed and more dishes provided, along with utensils for splitting the pretty creations into shared servings. A side dish of crispy tofu was presented in a deep bowl ($5). Four large ovals of lightly battered bean curd revealed creamy interiors, and the voluptuous tofu was enhanced by a few well-placed mushrooms, pine nuts and sesame seeds all bathed in a knockout sauce of mysterious earthiness.

A pair of textbook-perfect shrimp tempura came next, served in a little wooden box and showing off a supercrunchy, lighter-than-air batter ($4.80). The shrimp themselves were moist and tender, and we rejoiced about a kitchen that takes tempura seriously.

I was spellbound watching one of the chefs at the sushi bar mixing up toppings to squiggle onto each new sculpture of sashimi (or, as the menu would have it, "Japanese carpaccio"). From a variety of containers and bottles, he mixed and stirred and then applied these sauces and garnishes in tiny drops and scatterings with all the precision of a surgeon with an MFA.

Each of the courses we sampled at Le Poisson Japonais left a delicious, lingering aftertaste as well as a visual imprint. And the final dishes, small in portion like everything else, proved memorable. The fat scallops atop slices of yamaimo yam were a vision of white on white ($17.80). Here, a little color counterpoint might have been effective. Each plump scallop was seared just to the rare point, and the slice of yam, which tasted almost like potato, made a fine companion.

It was, however, the nuanced saucing that really blew me away. Crab infused a pool of yuba bean curd, a creamy style of tofu with enormous depth of flavor heightened by a citrus undertone. Any Michelin-starred culinary operation in Paris would have been thrilled to have produced this truly stunning sauce.

Our other entree--seared wild salmon with a yuzu (Japanese citrus) and minced cucumber relish--provided yet more unusual flavor pyrotechnics ($12.80). Had we saved room for dessert, we could have tried some of the house pastries. Green tea crème brûlée sounds like an X-rated treat for the taste buds.

Le Poisson Japonais
Address: 642 Ramona St., Palo Alto
Phone: 650.330.1147
Hours: Dinner from 5pm nightly
Price: Expensive
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From the May 23-29, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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