In the raw

Family-owned Rice Bowl adds to its recipe for success

KING KWONG<br>Sushi chef Peter Kwong serves it up at the Rice Bowl.

Sushi chef Peter Kwong serves it up at the Rice Bowl.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Rice Bowl

2804 Esplanade
Chico, CA 95926

(530) 899-9098

For the first time in my life, about 16 years ago in San Francisco, a friend persuaded me to eat slices of raw fish splayed over a white rice ball, in soy sauce, and with lots of wasabi mortared around the piece.

I had always recoiled at the idea of eating uncooked fish. Yet in spite of irrational culinary preconceptions and fear of the unknown, what I had previously thought “yucky” turned out to be my absolutely favorite thing to eat.

“Open thy mind, Grasshopper.”

So when I found out recently (and much belatedly) that the Rice Bowl was serving Japanese food in addition to Chinese, we of the Cult of Sushi answered the siren call and were pleasantly rewarded.

The Rice Bowl is the longest-running Asian restaurant in Chico. It was beautifully renovated and vastly expanded in 2004 by the new sibling owners Henry and Rose Fong, who “grew up” in the restaurant that opened at Lassen Avenue and The Esplanade in 1958. Their father sold it to some restaurateurs from the Bay Area in the late ‘90s, at which time the restaurant saw a change in menu and service, and business declined drastically.

These unfortunate changes “were breaking my dad’s heart,” noted Rose, who with her brother stepped in three years ago to resuscitate the business. And they have roundly succeeded. They excel in all four aspects of dining out—quality of food, atmosphere, quality of service and price.

The restaurant now seats nearly 300 people and is divided into four sections: the sushi bar, the Chinese dining room with its traditional reddish, warm colors, a Japanese banquet room with traditionally cool colors (blue-green), and two tatami rooms, where diners sit on the floor Japanese-style.

The new booths and tables are spacious and comfy, with sandblasted glass partitions engraved with Asian motifs that create an intimate, cozy setting. Diners may converse softly and still understand each other—a “must” in my book for proper dining—owing to the partitions, the billowed fabric draped from the ceiling and the carpeted floors, which baffle the sound. A dozen large white jade figurines—copies of museum pieces—line the walls, encased in lighted glass showcases. Instrumental music is played softly, and the large television in the sushi room is muted (yes!).

My sushi partners and I decided to dine in the tatami room, for full effect. We started out with tofu agedashi ($3.95): cubes lightly breaded, with a fish sauce and seaweed—tasty. This was followed by miso soup ($1.50 a cup), seaweed salad (crunchy, with sesame oil, $5.50), octopus cucumber salad ($4.95) and a baked sea bass appetizer ($8.50) in sakana sauce of miso, orange peel, sesame seeds, fish stock and dried mushrooms. Yummy. Then a ginger clam soup ($3.50).

This was followed by, of course, sushi.

I myself am “maguro crazy.” Yet for this review, I had to venture out of my safe zone. We had hamachi (yellowtail), unagi (eel) and maguro (tuna), of course; a Dragon roll (California roll with whole fresh-water eel for $13), and the Spicy Rainbow roll (spicy tuna, salmon, red snapper, yellowtail, shrimp, $12). Since I habitually put generous amounts of wasabi on my rolls, the “double hit” on the latter was my own doing. The subsequent sips of sake did, however, help ease the blow.

So then: How is the Rice Bowl’s sushi? On a scale of one to five, I give it a five. Truth is I give the sushi in most places four or five. Anything else would be impossible: Sushi must be fresh, and carefully handled, or it can’t be served as sushi. Sushi restaurants by definition are already in the four-to-five range, or they couldn’t operate.

So, what else makes the Rice Bowl special? A “four” for reasonable prices, “four” for friendly service (our server, Chiko, from Japan was very attentive and helpful), and for me most of all a “high five” for the calming environment where great food and company can be enjoyed in a timeless setting.