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It'za Izakaya 

You can get (almost) any kind of Japanese food you want at Hime restaurant

Wednesday, Aug 15 2007
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Hime, a large, sleek Japanese restaurant located in a building in front of a motel on motel-heavy Lombard, has been described as an izakaya — a kind of Japanese restaurant that serves a wide variety of small plates designed to encourage drinking. The name izakaya combines "i," which means to remain, with "sakaya," or sake shop. What a concept: Stick around and drink! Almost all of the izakaya I've been to — in Los Angeles, New York, and Toronto, never in Japan, alas — have been modest, cozy places, neighborhood hangouts. Oyagi, on Clement, with its casual décor, is typical of such spots.

But Hime is chic and elegant. Its design features many harmonizing kinds of wood, from the forest of real bamboo poles that stands as a sort of screen between the massive windows that front Lombard and a long row of warm, reddish-grained wood tables, to the undulating grid of thin wood slats above the open kitchen, which reminds one of my companions of a sushi rolling mat. You sit at those glossy tables on comfortable high-backed dark-brown leather chairs, stitched in white. Other striking features are the red-and-black Asian furniture dotted around the place, and a mosaic of black river stones fronting the kitchen, where you can watch some of your food being prepared, though only from the vantage point of your table. Daringly, Hime has no sushi bar, though it features some of the best sushi and sashimi I've had in the city.

It offers almost any kind of Japanese food you've heard of, more than most izakaya have on offer, including ippin ryori (small plates, often called "Japanese tapas"), yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), kushiyaki (grilled meat and vegetable skewers), tempura, donburi (a variety of ingredients served over rice), udon (noodles), tofu, salads, and bento boxes that artfully combine several of these dishes. One of the few styles of cooking missing is shabu-shabu (cooking meat and vegtables in broth at the table), but co-owner Eiichi Mochizuki has that option covered in his Shabuway restaurants in San Mateo and Mountain View.

With young Osaka-trained chef Kunihiro Kinda, he's created a honed menu that highlights several dishes under the many kinds of preparations offered. A restaurant that specializes in yakitori would offer lots more varieties of skewers than you find here, but none tastier or more sophisticated than the tsukune, plump little glazed meatballs served with a cold poached egg, whose still-liquid yolk serves as a suave dipping sauce. Like Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, who says of a tiara that she's always excited to find a new place to wear diamonds, I'm always excited to find a new dish featuring poached egg.

My companion, an aficionado of New York sushi bars, was excited to discover that the prices charged for nigiri sushi ($4-$14) cover two pieces each, rather than the one he expected. Hime flies their fish in from Japan, and we delighted in the hamachi (fatty Japanese amberjack, aka yellowtail), saba (oily mackerel), maguro (bluefin tuna), and hon maguro otono (the fattiest, most succulent part of the bluefin tuna) — classic choices, classically prepared. We also enjoyed other dishes, chosen while we picked at a bowl of plump edamame. Smooth ankimo, the steamed monkfish liver that we think of as the foie gras of the sea, came with a mild ponzu sauce and snippets of green onions. The shrimp tempura was unusually sweet and still supple under a more tender crust than usual. The only slightly disappointing dish was the black cod saikyo miso yaki, the miso-glazed cod dish often attributed to pioneering Japanese fusion chef Nobu Matsuhisa. The cod, which peeled apart in large tender flakes, was nicely prepared, but I was surprised at its $21 price, among the highest on the menu.

Hime offers a well-chosen, if rather brief, list of wines (about two dozen) and beers, in addition to its sake offerings, also a couple of dozen, with about eight offered by the glass. We confined ourselves to a modest glass of chilled nigori sake each, but on either side of us, scenes that seemed to be from two different Japanese movies were playing out. On my left, four adorable, stylish young Japanese tourists, three guys and a girl, laden with expensive cameras, were excitedly cheering as their server poured cold sake into small wooden boxes set in deep saucers. The sake is supposed to slightly overflow the box, hence the saucer, but eventually, after several rounds, the amount of the overflow increased, changing the drink from a double into a triple — or maybe even an inside-the-park home run. On my right, six soberly suited Japanese businessmen drank steadily, somewhat more quietly than the kids, bowing formally at what seemed like every sip. They managed to put away an astonishing amount of alcohol, as well as covering their table with food. When we arrived around 8:30, the place was almost full, and despite what looks like dark acoustic tile covering the ceiling, the place was painfully, festively noisy.

Three of us, all girls, showed up for dinner close to Hime's 5:30 opening time, and enjoyed a quiet, even more intriguing dinner. We began with a couple of dishes that our server pointed out as new to the evolving menu. First came lobster salad rolls, the mayonnaised salad spread on iceberg lettuce, rolled and sprinkled with dark and light sesame seeds, and served with a slightly mustardy dipping sauce, the whole fresh and crunchy. Then came perhaps my favorite dish of the two meals, spicy scallop on crispy rice, three tiny browned cakes of fried sushi rice, each topped with a small ivory scallop, a dab of peppery pinkish sauce, and a green sliver of hot pepper — a witty assortment of textures, delectable in flavor.

We shared the most expensive assortment of sashimi of the three on offer, called matsu moriawase, featuring six different fish and shellfish, including beautiful curls of deep-red maguro, orange wild salmon, pale pink-and-white striped shrimp, and silvery sea bass, all dramatically displayed on a banana leaf atop crushed ice in a deep glass bowl. I was surprised that my two friends hadn't tasted uni, the creamy, pale-yellow roe of sea urchins, but they happily tried it, and they were in luck. The fragile lobes on Hime's sashimi platter, carefully placed atop a leaf covering a small bowl, were as fresh and delicate as any I've had, with uni's unique haunting and elusive flavor (which can get funky if it's less than fresh). It went well with our half-bottle of chilled organic Nama sake.

I was less enamored of the rather ordinary spider roll, but it was generous in portion and striking in display, with the crunchy fried crab legs sticking up alongside the sliced roll. And none of us were especially taken with the seafood okonomiyaki, an eggy pancake full of assorted sea beasts, including tiny squid, which we would have liked better without its slick of sweet, smoky barbecue-like sauce.

We were quite full, but kept skimming the menu, because there were so many interesting things that we hadn't tried: grilled eel, chicken wings, baked yellowtail collar, fried asparagus, stewed beef and tendon with egg. Alas, the final little plate we tried, sasami chicken with mentai mayo, proved to be the dullest dish of all: skewered chicken tenders that tasted like chicken teriyaki.

We were much happier with our desserts: a not-too-sweet chocolate mousse sided with scoops of chocolate ice cream; and three balls of vanilla ice cream topped with a hot sauce made from green matcha tea, like a Japanese version of the Italian dish called affogato, hot espresso poured over ice cream. With its broad array of focused dishes, Hime can fulfill almost all Japanese food cravings, in high style, and at very reasonable prices.

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Meredith Brody

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