Big-city nights

Welcome to the 21st century, Sacramento. Today, we will be dining at one of Sacramento’s hottest nightspots, Mikuni Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar, adjacent to the popular P.F. Chang’s China Bistro. Both are housed on the ground floor of one of Midtown’s most industrially chic renovations. Your dining experience at Mikuni will be enhanced by several large, flat-screen TVs and a stylish bar where enticing drinks will soften your 45-minute wait. Then, should you want some ringside action, you’ll have not one, not two, but three sushi bars at which to sit. Thank you for choosing Mikuni.

Having opened its third location with great fanfare late last year, Mikuni in Midtown is possibly the most San Franciscan restaurant Sacramento has opened to date. Actually, strike that. It’s the most “SOMA” restaurant—SOMA meaning the industrial South of Market pocket in San Francisco that screams, “Lofts, lofts, lofts!” There’s a difference, you know. Mikuni is not an upscale restaurant per se. You can still get by wearing jeans and sneakers. The difference is that you’d better be attractive while wearing them. (Think Queer Eye for the Straight Guy test.) Mikuni straddles the middle ground between fashionable chic and fashionable fun. It’s a tailor-made habitat for the sushi-and-cocktail crowd.

Like every other fabulously hip restaurant, Mikuni is big on cocktails. Many—like the Godzilla martinis, Fuji apple martinis and wasabi bloody marys—have obviously Japanese themes. Sitting ringside at the liquor bar during a 45-minute wait, we were mesmerized by the sheer speed, volume and presentation of the cocktails.

Not to be outdone, the kitchen and sushi chefs matched the bar’s performance by turning out amazingly fresh, well-crafted food with flair. The barbecued white-tuna appetizer held three hunky pieces of tuna. Each piece was seared on the outside but rare on the inside, with textbook-perfect grill marks. Their exteriors were sweet, as if brushed with marinade. The “barbecue” dipping sauce was a spicy, pungent red paste—almost a rip-off of the Korean red-pepper paste that goes into bibimbap. The difference was that this one was better—more refined, to complement its tuna companion.

The agedashi tofu appetizer also came off well. Generous portions of soft tofu covered with a light, fried batter ("tempura lite") sat in a sweet, delicate dipping sauce, flanked by grated ginger. The exterior batter came off too easily, but the flavor was spot-on.

The capper on our round of appetizers was an oyster shooter. The oyster came drowned in hot sake. Chili sauce and a quail egg served as its last earthly companions down the hatch. Two flicks of the wrist later, the shooter was gone. It was more like a drive-by than an appetizer. It wasn’t clear what had happened. Only the heat in the mouth and the belly remained.

Admittedly, I’m a bad judge of oyster shooters. I like my oysters. I like my sake. I like my chili sauce. I like my quail eggs. But I prefer to relish the character of each alone.

This actually brings me to a point about “sushi,” e.g., sashimi, nigiri and rolls. Sashimi is the ultimate form of ingredient separatism. It’s just the fish in its naked, raw state, with only a little soy-sauce-wasabi mixture to baptize it. Nigiri departs from this purity with a rice foundation. Rolls represent the opposite end of the spectrum, with an ingredient orgy. You hardly know how each ingredient tastes, only how they taste together all mashed in your mouth. At Mikuni, eating at one end of the spectrum or another is a cinch.

The yellowtail sashimi, sliced on the thin side, imparted a superb velvety feel to the mouth. Absolutely fresh, the sliced fish were beautiful specimens with a glossy sheen. Likewise, the fresh salmon nigiri proved excellent, attractive in hue and simply presented.

The rolls were more substantial and filling. We tried the Folsom, which came with fried oyster, rice, seaweed and kisses of avocado on top. It was drizzled with special sauces—a mayonnaisey one and a sweet, teriyaki-like one. The oyster was more prominent in some pieces than in others, but the whole combination was highly pleasing. The rice, in particular, stood out, with its perfect sticky consistency and just the right amount of rice vinegar to achieve a tangy backdrop.

The hand roll—the Mikey to be exact—fared less well. Although the ubiquitous seaweed was pleasant, the snow crab was bland, and the avocado sparse, and the solitary fried shrimp desperately needed something to bond it to the other ingredients. It lacked the simplicity of nigiri but fell short of the depth of flavor of the multifaceted rolls. Apparently, the special sauces assigned to the hand roll had gone missing.

Service at Mikuni—from the on-target hostesses to the uber-bartenders and the friendly, knowledgeable wait staff—was flawless that evening, which shows that Mikuni is more than ready for prime time in a thriving restaurant city. Could it be that Sacramento has finally become that city? To be sure, the 21st century may not be found everywhere in Sacramento, but on the corner of 15th and J streets, it sure is.