As good as it gets

Reviewing Japanese restaurants can be somewhat problematic. Culturally, the Japanese seem obsessed with cleanliness and order, and this is reflected in the style and preparation of their cuisine: the neat compartments of the bento box; the perfect symmetry of pairs of nigiri; the precise, efficient movements of the teppan chef. For the Japanese chef, and, by extension, his or her Japanese-American counterpart, quality is not an abstract concept, but something that can be replicated, time and time again.

In Sacramento, this dedication to craft has led to an interesting phenomenon. There really are no bad Japanese restaurants in the River City. Each is indistinguishable in its goodness. Which leads to the aforementioned problem with reviewing Japanese restaurants. When all of them are good, how do you tell them apart, let alone which one is best? Katana, the Japanese restaurant at the corner of Alta Arden Expressway and Fulton Avenue, has only compounded this dilemma.

On a recent Friday night, Katana’s corner was buzzing with activity. Young men in low-slung automobiles pursued pretty girls in prom skirts through the endless car lots of Fulton Avenue. Arden-Arcade, some call this area; others refer to it as part of North Sacramento. Whatever you want to call it—American Graffiti, 2001?—it was definitely happening on this unseasonably hot spring night.

Inside, Katana was a study in neatness. Black and white-checkered tiles made of thick marble added a sense of perspective to a space that was not overly large. Two stainless steel teppan grills dominated the middle of the room; cube-shaped paper lanterns dangled from the ceiling. Everything seemed to be in the right place, including the patrons—who filled about three-quarters of the available seating.

I started with a bowl of miso soup and an appetizer of endamame, or boiled soybean. A miniature cloud of bean curd roiled up out of the light, not-too-salty broth, which, as always, seemed to soothe the stomach lining in preparation for the coming feast. The soybeans, sprinkled with sea salt, were tender and meaty, popping out of their pods with the slightest provocation.

Three samples of nigiri—sake (smoked salmon), maguro (tuna) and amaebi (sweet shrimp)—demonstrated Katana’s commitment to portions that are generous and fairly priced ($3 to $4). The amaebi, which was served raw, was particularly delightful, especially after the waitress inquired as to whether I would like to eat the heads of the shrimp as well. Why yes, I would, I told her, and several minutes later, she brought back a plate with the heads of two steamed crustaceans glaring at me with black, beady eyes. A hunk of cooked meat located where head and spidery legs joined together proved to be just as sweet as the raw variety, and the legs themselves were as salty and crunchy as potato sticks.

The highlight of the evening was the Katana roll. “Katana” is a type of Japanese sword, and this roll was truly double-edged. Approximately two inches in diameter and six inches long, it was composed of an Alaskan snow crab (the real stuff, not whitefish) and avocado center wrapped with nori, rice and a healthy amount of barbecued unagi (fresh water eel). It was amazingly rich and made for great leftovers.

While the Katana roll was a standout item, it was not enough to separate Katana from the rest of Sacramento’s sushi horde. Thus, a return visit for lunch a couple of days later was required.

On this occasion, the restaurant once again demonstrated its generosity with a nicely proportioned sashimi appetizer that featured maguro that was a little less red than I prefer, but adequate. On the downside, rice and miso had to be ordered separately, pushing the price over $10. More distressing was lemon grass chicken, which featured large chunks of white breast meat that were practically tasteless.

What does it all mean? Well, Katana is yet another decent Japanese restaurant in Sacramento. You’re not going to find anything here that you won’t find at any other Japanese restaurant in the area, but maybe that’s the point.