The Zen of Grilling

Hana Zen
115 Cyril Magnin (at Ellis), 421-2101. Open Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 5 to 11 p.m. Dinner menu (yakitori) starts at 5 p.m. Dinner reservations strongly advised. Not wheelchair accessible. Parking: city garage, Fifth Street & Mission. Muni and BART via all Market Street/Metro lines to Powell Street.

Yakitori are the tapas of Tokyo, a parade of neat little nibbles adding up to an endlessly engaging meal. When done right, as they certainly are at Hana Zen, each small bamboo skewer of grilled goodies is a miniature piece of culinary art, its central ingredient marinated, glazed, sauced, and/or garnished to brilliantly enhance its own specific nature. But despite their sushilike purity and focus, these tidbits haven't developed the cloak of formality that surrounds sushi -- they're sidewalk eats that evolved into bar snacks but never lost their street-smarts.

These days, there's a bright new neon sign over Hana Zen's door, but the restaurant has actually been here for five years, in its earlier incarnation as a franchise of the Nambantei of Tokyo yakitori chain. Some of its staffers bought the restaurant last spring, renamed it, and augmented the grill menu with tempura, noodles, and donburi (rice dishes).

They also expanded the restaurant to occupy the building's whole narrow second-floor mezzanine, incorporating a pre-existing sushi bar on the other side of a short entry stairway. The halves are now unified by a spiffy Japanese-modern decor of black wooden chairs, lustrous cherrywood tables, and very comfortable red banquettes. The long, narrow spaces keep the noise in check, and the windowed outer wall (looking out on a sushi bar and a ramen joint across the street) offers the illusion of spaciousness.

Bad pop music was playing loudly at the street entrance when we arrived, but as we mounted the stairs the sonic slop faded, replaced by a buzz of human energy. We were glad we'd made reservations -- by 7:30 p.m. on a Friday night, the place was so jammed that drop-ins faced a wait as long as two hours. Unlike most Japanese restaurants near Union Square, Hana Zen evidently draws a tourist-free, largely suitless dinner crowd -- a few families (both Asian and non-) and numerous vivacious twentysomething Japanese, Nisei, and Anglos, with singles and pairs mainly seated at the counters and groups occupying the tables.

The dinner menu runs a daunting eight pages, but your main destinations should be the "delicacies" and yakitori sections. Some of the delicacies are traditional Japanese treats -- for example, sashimi, pork stew, and chawan mushi, a delicate egg and shrimp custard -- but many are cultural exchanges like grilled asparagus with mayonnaise and flying fish roe, grilled oysters with bacon, and so on.

Our first delicacy was a cross-cultural enoki maki ($5.25), consisting of little grilled packages of tiny enoki mushrooms wrapped in prosciutto. They were a revelation -- smoky, velvety, and crunchy, a thrill to four of the five senses. Tempura fish cakes stuffed with cheese (chikuwa no isobeage, $4.25) were another stunner, tiny greaseless puffs of whitefish coated with airy panko, each cosseting a tiny gush of light, buttery melted cheese. Lending contrast to this Japanese version of chicken Kiev was a sharp-flavored dollop of shredded daikon radish.

Grilled black cod (gindaro no kasuzuke, $7) is cooked to order (a 15-minute wait). Also known as ablefish or butterfish, it's a deep-water species with mild, fatty flesh from the seas off Eureka. Its melting texture and near-sweet flavor were set off by a faintly sweet, lightly peppered sake paste glaze. Sharing the plate were a half-dozen okra-shaped emerald green grilled Japanese peppers, crisp and slightly bitter to play against the cod's sweetness. The Zen in the restaurant's name began to seem descriptive -- each of these dishes, and the regular yakitori that alternated with them at our dinner, was a little chance at satori, an epiphany on the nature of flavor.

The yakitori menu includes two pre-selected assortments. But they're for the timid -- we had a great meal just browsing on things we wanted to taste.

Most yakitori arrive as two small skewers that have done a short stretch on a 450-pound iron grill imported from Japan, stoked with very hot (500 degrees) Japanese charcoal. Although tori means "bird" (and yaki is "grill"), the term now embraces the whole length of the food chain from vegetables to quadrupeds. (Yakitori differ from teppan yaki in that teppan means "grilled at the table"; the difference between yakitori and dengaku, meanwhile, is that the latter delicacies are grilled between two joined skewers shaped like a nutcracker. Quiz on Monday.)

You get a plateful of lemon wedges and French sea salt to add at will, but we were too happy with the kitchen's work to edit it. Starting with invertebrates and moving toward higher life-forms, our yakitori included baby octopus skewers (iidako, $3) with swoony-tender body parts and tender-crunchy tentacles, all wonderfully smoky and touched with a subtle thin sauce. They enlightened me about why humans choose to eat octopus. Cuttlefish (ika maki, $3.50), which thoroughly defied our expectations of giant squid, consisted of soft white microfillets wrapped around clean green fine-chopped shiso leaves, herbal and a little peppery. Eel (unagi, $4.50) was splendid, arriving tender and boneless with an intriguing sweet soy and wine marinade.

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