By Deirdre Bourdet
To the collective delight of sushi lovers in wine country (and really,
the entire state of California), Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto opened the
doors of his first west coast restaurant in downtown Napa this July.
From what I can tell the place has been packed every night since it
opened… including the random Wednesday evening I finally made it there
to sample some of the Iron Chef’s creations.
Strolling in with no reservations, I figured we might score two seats in the urbanely armchaired lounge area, which adjoins the bar counter and the dramatically gnarled Zinfandel vine suspended behind a glass plate above the liquor bottles. But at 6:15–did I mention this was a Wednesday?–both the lounge and the bar were already full of tippling guests giddy with excitement at their good fortune. Fortunately for me and my sashimi-loving partner in crime, the nine-seat sushi bar and its priceless, ringside view of the sushi chefs were wide open and waiting for us.
For people more interested in the food than the social scene, this is the place to be. The gleaming rainbow of fresh seafood laid out before you, the playful sass and surgical precision of the young sushi chefs, the furor and smells of the open kitchen busting out dishes like a well-oiled machine…and the near-constant view of the Iron Chef himself at the window, expediting orders like just another restaurant manager. Clad in a black t-shirt, shorts, white sneakers, and a long black chef’s apron, Morimoto looked like a fun dude rather than a stern and terrifying Iron Chef. His willingness to indulge star-struck guests with photo poses and seemingly genuine welcomes confirmed the rumors that he is, in fact, very nice. When he wasn’t at the kitchen pass-through window gathering orders, he was out in the room greeting guests and thanking them for their patronage–not in a smarmy, glad-handing kind of way, but with sincere humility and appreciation. I’m a fan. He even serves only sustainable bluefin tuna.
But no amount of chef worship will keep me coming back to a pricy restaurant that has mediocre food… which is why my partner and I breathed a joint sigh of relief (and ecstasy) at our first bite. The food is roll-your-eyes-back-in-your-head delicious. Our first taste was the “tuna pizza” appetizer, a clever eastern riff on a salade niçoise and one of our favorite dishes of the night. It begins with a crispy tortilla base entirely covered with pristine maguro sashimi–amply justifying its $18 price tag–that is subsequently topped with halved baby tomatoes and niçoise olives, sliced jalapenos, baby cilantro sprigs, and a modern checkerboard drawn in spectacularly delicious anchovy aïoli.
Another standout item for us was the Wagyu carpaccio, one of our server’s suggestions. At $21 per plate, it seemed overly pricy for an appetizer until it actually arrived. Thirteen gorgeous sashimi-style slices of Wagyu beef had all been flash-seared on one side, then placed raw side down in a delectable puddle of yuzu, ginger, sweet garlic, and dark soy. The succulence of the raw, the texture of the seared, and the full spectrum of flavors of the accompanying sauce made this twist on carpaccio utterly irresistible.
The pages and pages of menu items both excited and dismayed me, as they made it clear I could not eat it all in one visit. Similarly minded souls should consider the $110 per person omakase option, where the kitchen selects a multiple-course introduction to Morimoto’s cuisine. Next time I go, I may do that… if I can resist the siren call of the à la carte sushi options. In addition to the expected standards (maguro, sake, hamachi, unagi), and the de rigueur high-end staples (uni, chu-toro,oh-toro, king crab, lobster), Morimoto offers up some more unusual things for those seeking new adventures in raw: snow crab tomalley, abalone, and–truly the ultimate in freshness–live octopus. There is also the option of a Chef’s Selection in sushi and sashimi, for those times when you just want to kick back and be fed.
Like the food menu, the beverage list covers all bases and aims to have something for everyone. To wit: original cocktails like the Morimotini–Ciroc vodka, Morimoto junmai sake, and Japanese cucumber), a full range of shochus and sakes, including flights of Morimoto’s own sakes and a two ounce pour of his aged 1972 version (for a mere $60), domestic and imported beers (only $4 for draught pints!), and a fairly priced wine list composed almost entirely of local labels, with a few Old World bottles thrown in for good measure.
In the excitement of m first visit I barely noticed the retail center at the entrance of the restaurant. This front room, though disguised as a casual dining area, actually sells plates, bowls, Japanese knives, books, sake, and… Morimoto-grade fish and meat products for home cooks.
Downtown Napa has arrived! Get your seafood on.