Hold the mayo
Taro’s by Mikuni1735 Arden Way
Sacramento, CA 95815
The Mikuni empire’s conquest of Sacramento is nearly total. Practically every corner of the greater Sacramento area now has a branch of the relentlessly energetic sushi purveyor, including, now, that bastion of regional culture, Arden Fair Mall. Actually, Taro’s by Mikuni is a little past the main mall, right by the movie theater and its accompanying food court.
The restaurant sports considerable consumerist flair, with ads inserted in the menu, embroidered on the chefs’ jackets and festooning the host station. It’s all a little distracting; is Taro’s that hard up for corporate synergy and revenue? Flashiness, most of it more thematically appropriate, is a hallmark throughout the restaurant, from the chameleon-like, glowing façade to the clever shiny bead curtains that demarcate a semiprivate room across from the sushi bar.
We sat at the sushi bar, after asking the host whether a table or the bar would be more fun. We were treated to shouts of “Hai,” chef byplay, a view of the occasional blowtorching of a roll and a running conversation with “our” sushi chef at the long bar, but we unfortunately were placed at the two worst seats in the house, all the way at one cramped end and looking straight at a sink rather than at the gorgeous displays of quivering-fresh fish. Still, that afforded us a view into the kitchen, whose high-energy vibe appears to be fueled by one man whose job seemed to be delivering large paper cups of coffee to the chefs.
Even with less-than-ideal seating, the sushi bar was a great place to be. Taro’s menu is long, and it helped to have a little steering from someone who knew it well. Taro Arai himself was personably working the other end of the sushi bar, but both the chef we were talking to and our bubbly server were a lot of fun. At the suggestion of the former, we started out with the barbecued white tuna, which comes with either red or white sauce; we got some of each. I loved the piquant, nubbly textured red sauce, but the white was too mayonnaisey for me. I’m not a big mayo fan, especially when it drowns out the flavors of the fish that should be sushi’s main event, and it’s a staple here. The flash-grilled tuna, however, was almost sweetly fresh, and cool in the middle.
Meanwhile, we also were getting recommendations from the other side of the bar. The wine list is divided, nicely, into several sections, and I wanted a recommendation from the “alternative whites,” since a standard chardonnay or a cabernet sauvignon would be a disaster with sushi. Our server suggested, rather tentatively at first, a German Valckenberg Gewürztraminer, which was exactly what I’d had my eye on. When I responded with enthusiasm, she waxed eloquent about how well it went with sushi. It was an excellent pairing, and I appreciated the fact that she recommended one of the lowest-priced wines on the menu. It was a deal at just $5 per glass.
Next, our sushi chef said he’d make something for us. It turned out to be the Canadian flower, with petal-like slices of albacore topped with thin jalapeno rounds and garlic chips that crunched at first and then resolved into a satisfying chewiness—all of which afforded a delicious contrast of flavors and textures. (We weren’t exactly sure what made it Canadian, though my husband, who is in fact Canadian, liked it a lot. He also liked the fact that there was hockey playing on the ubiquitous TVs.)
We then got a hot, non-sushi dish, the “healthy tempura.” I have no idea what made it healthy—it’s fish wrapped in aromatic shiso leaves with a dab of salty-sweet ume plum paste, battered, fried and served with a side of seasoned salt—but it was sure good. Our server was again enthusiastic, this time about the salt; it was toasty and ground with sesame seeds, and it was so yummy that I started eating it plain when we ran out of tempura. After that, a salad seemed in order, so we tried the Fuji Ebi, a spinach salad that comes with shrimp and slices of apple, plus toasted pine nuts and too much of an otherwise pleasant yuzu dressing.
We were quickly approaching fullness and wanted to try at least some of the sushi. The chef had mentioned he had some excellent fresh mackerel; he had wrapped up his shift by this point, but I asked for mackerel nigiri from the new guy helping us. He looked dubious and asked if I liked strong fish. The answer was yes, but he put a little pickled ginger on top anyway, clearly thinking I wouldn’t like it after all. It turned out the nigiri was excellent, strongly oceanic but not really fishy. We also ordered a roll, asking for something with eel; he made us a spicy koki roll, with tempura shrimp, spicy tuna, eel, avocado and scallop. It was outrageous, in signature Mikuni style. I could have done with a little less of the messy sauces, but the blend of flavors was nice.
Desserts are not a strong point here, but they do have a tempura banana available and a mango dessert as well. The slightly-too-oily banana came with chocolate sauce that tasted suspiciously like Hershey’s and an enormous mound of astringent green-tea whipped cream. Next time, I think I’d stick with the modest little chocolate mochi ice creams, which are a more restrained ending to an over-the-top, yet largely tasty, sushi experience.