On a roll
Not just sushi, Gen Kai is a tour of Japanese cuisine
I arrived at Gen Kai just after 7 on a Friday night, assuming the place would be busy, and it was. While waiting for a seat at the sushi bar, I spent a pleasant 15 minutes at the bar, sipping a Sapporo served to me by urbane bartender Ryan Hutchins.
Gen Kai’s full-service bar includes an extensive list of sakes, ranging in price from $3.75 for a small container of the house medium-dry Koshu Masamune to $180 for a party-sized bottle of “sweet and flowery” Miyanoyuki Junmai Dai Ginjo, plus various Japanese beers and one American (Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, of course, large bottles only, $5.95), as well as numerous specialty cocktails. There’s the tall and potent luminous-green Tokyo Tea ($6.50), which is similar to a Long Island Iced Tea, but with the colorful addition of Midori liqueur, and the impressive Scorpion For Two ($10.50), an exotic fruit juice, gin and brandy concoction served in a giant, clear plastic half-shell with two straws.
The horseshoe-shaped sushi bar was manned by charismatic head sushi chef and Tahoe transplant Kamo Kamogawa, known affectionately and respectfully to many as “Kamo-san,” and this evening’s front-of-the-house assistant, Emi Nakayama. Server Bryce Noble, lovely in a sleeveless sea-green top, attended to me quickly, taking my appetizer order for miso soup ($1.50) and Kimchee Tako ($6.25), an Asian fusion-style octopus and cucumber salad dressed with spicy Korean kimchee sauce and served in a martini glass.
The tofu-dotted miso, served traditionally in a Japanese lacquered bowl without spoon, came quickly. I enjoyed the savory warmth of it in contrast to the cold beer while perusing the extensive menu.
To take in the full-range of Gen Kai’s offerings, not only should one look at the main, laminated menu before ordering—which contains both cooked and raw items—but also check out the specials board at the door. Tonight was the Rainbow Roll: Crab and avocado inside-out wrapped with six types of fish and topped with crab meat and tobiko for $10.95. There’s also a large chalkboard in the sushi bar area, as well as the small paper sushi-ordering pads listing every sort of sushi available, both nigiri (oval) and maki (roll) style.
I ordered from Kamo-san the five-piece hamachi (yellowtail) sashimi ($10.95), the quail egg ($1.50)—a tiny, raw quail egg cracked over a seaweed-bound mound of red-orange tobiko (flying fish roe)—and the Death Roll ($8.50), a four-piece raw tuna and yellowtail roll with a very hot chili sauce. The hamachi was, as always, strikingly fresh and, aided by a generous helping of sinus-clearing wasabi, pink-tinted ginger and soy sauce, deliriously delicious. Ditto for the Death Roll. The quail-and-flying-fish-egg construction (or tobitama) was, well, unusual, but had an interesting sensuous quality to it—something about the crunchy saltiness of the tobiko mixed with the fleeting taste of raw egg yolk. “It’s like sea urchin,” the guy to my left offered. “An acquired taste.”
Somewhere in the midst of plates arriving and getting to know my sushi bar partners—the friendly, kissy couple to my right who announced at one point that Gen Kai has the best salmon sashimi in town, and Paul on my left—a small, unordered plate arrived with a whole small fish, head and tail attached. The raw flesh had been expertly removed, finely diced and marinated, and returned in a pile in the center of the fish, garnished with mint-like shiso leaf and delicate, hair-like curls of daikon and carrot. “Spanish mackerel” Kamo-san informed me, or aji tekaki ($14.95, and not on the menu). Delicate and very yummy!
Scott Dukes has owned Gen Kai for two years. Later he told me that in Japan, where as an Air Force “brat” he lived as a child, aji tekaki is prepared so that “for the first 10 minutes the fish is still breathing.”
Dukes has returned to visit Japan as an adult, recently with fiancée Dawn. “The minute [Dawn] ate that, I fell in love with her!”