Sake to me?
‘ImaginAsian’ turns into realization at Pasadena’s Japon Bistro
By Erica Wayne 03/12/2014
Usually I write my own headline and deck — that second title line, the grabber. When we first visited the new Japon Bistro a decade ago, I was searching for something catchy when I looked down at a piece of paper I’d grabbed from a table at the front of the restaurant. “Imagination meets ImaginAsian,” it read. So I cribbed it.
The last in a series of sushi places to have occupied the long narrow space on the north side of Colorado Boulevard just east of Lake Avenue, Japon Bistro is now 10. I’ve got to hand it to them. Few upscale eateries have made a success of it on this side of town (Bistro 45’s the sole survivor now that Noir’s gone). Somehow the overcrowded, parking-challenged Old Pasadena crush attracts both diners and restaurateurs hoping to haul them in off the teeming streets.
We, on the other hand, hate going round and round in parking structures, jostling through hordes of merrymakers and cooling our heels barside while our 8 p.m. table is readied at 8:27. One thing we adored about Japon Bistro from the first was its location. Even on weekends, we can park around the corner without needing tickets stamped, change for a meter or (heaven forbid!) valet parking.
The transformation from its predecessor’s coffee-shop “décor” when Japon Bistro opened was miraculous: cherrywood furniture, silk and black leather upholstery and bleached hardwood floors. Indirect lighting, starched linen and elongated framed rectangles of bold calligraphy made for real elegance. Background jazz, buzzing sushi bar and young, hip clientele created a “casual chic” atmosphere that would do West LA proud.
There were cloths on the tables, and the server offered us steamy towels to wipe our hands at the start of the meal. Tri-part sake samplers, one of Japon Bistro’s highlights, came with printed review sheets listing 16 brands, with space for comments. But on our second visit, tables were bare, no towels were offered and the names of the sample sakes were jotted by our server on a sheet of scrap paper.
We were left wondering if the fact that it was a weeknight made a difference or if some of the extra flourishes were being dropped. But, in truth, we hadn’t come back for hot towels or linens. We wanted a repeat of some of the great dishes we’d eaten, a few we hadn’t, and to try more of those sakes.
Among the more interesting appetizers were grilled beef tongue, fried spicy tuna-stuffed shishito peppers and a spring roll combo of six miniature teriyaki-glazed barbecue eel-avocado rolls with an equal number of citrus-sauced shrimp-asparagus rolls. A hot pot of hokkai-nabe (chunks of salmon, potato, tiny scallops and greens in a creamy miso broth) was also wonderful — vichyssoise Japanese-style.
We demolished a grilled ocean combo with a slice of tender sea bass, marinated in “yu-an” sauce and a firm piece of black cod in a “saikyo” marinade. And we drooled over the list of chef’s-choice omakase dinners, one featuring Kobe beef, king crab, lobster, shrimp and (no kidding) blowfish, that sometime fatal temptation for ultra-gourmets who live life in the fast lane.
Over the years, progressive simplifications have diminished Japon Bistro’s reputation for original cuisine. Its ambiance and décor are almost the same; service and food are still good (especially the sushi). But “imagination meets imaginAsian … creations never imagined … taste always remembered” (all part of their early advertising) are no longer phrases that come to mind.
The menu is down to a simple one-page list. Stuffed shishito peppers ($9) are still available and so is the beef tongue. But, alas, the innovative spring roll twins and the hokkai-nabe aren’t. No ocean combo, no elaborate omakase dinners (though I’ve read on Yelp that some are available at the sushi bar) and no Chilean sea bass (probably a good thing since it’s so endangered).
The sampler sakes ($16) on our most recent visit, at least according to our server, are down to nine listed on three laminated cards. But the trio we chose (Urokasumi honjozo genshu, Namahage Yamahai junmai and Ohyama tokobetsu junmai) were primo, all quite different from one another, all delectable, and all extremely complex.
As for our edibles: miso black cod ($10) and hamachi kama (yellowtail collar - $12) appetizers are favorites we order in just about every sushi place we frequent. Japon Bistro’s were delicious, but small (half a collar and a 3-inch by 4-inch thick piece of cod) and served unadorned on beds of shredded cabbage with ponzu. (I confess to being spoiled by the enormous, equally tasty, FULL collar I had at Glendale’s Zono Sushi last month for the same price.)
Unlike many newer sushi establishments, Japon Bistro’s rolls are confined to a “mere” 27: 16 (most standards) on their printed sushi/sashimi list and 11 on a “special” menu. A traditionalist, I’m usually quite happy with rainbows, caterpillars, dragons and spiders and/or simple seafood on rice. Japon Bistro’s fish is way above average, so complexity’s superfluous.
But last week we tried two $16 “special” creations: a “Northern Delight” (shrimp tempura, avocado and cucumber inside; tuna and caviar outside) and a “New Age Roll” (filled with tuna, salmon and daikon sprouts, topped with albacore, avocado, fried onions and a “secret sauce.” Both were beautiful, especially the first, with alternating dollops of red and black eggs, and quite good, although the onion tendrils were less crisp than chewy.
When Japon Bistro opened in 2003, its concept was far more ambitious than it is today. And, of course, there were fewer competitors. Now, with not only Kabuki, but Roku, Oba and Osawa and others vying for clientele, Japon Bistro seems to be relying evermore on its exceptional sushi bar. But the ambiance is pleasant, the service is good, the sushi and sake delightful and parking is free. In short, Japon Bistro is still well worth a visit.
927 E. Colorado Blvd.,
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