Japanese cool

Kozen Japanese Restaurant

2310 Fair Oaks Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95825

(916) 641-8880

From the outside, the new restaurant Kozen has an oddly dated look, with its faux lookout towers lending an ’80s-ish air. But on the inside, everything is supremely cool and up-to-date, from the sushi-bar-in-the-round in the main dining room to the minimalist waterfall and the pleasant thump of ambient techno music. Cool touches abound: The cocktail and sake menu forms a paper lantern around the candles on the tables, the dishes are spare and white and oversized, and the food is presented with an artistry so severe that you worry the flavors can’t possibly measure up.

On the whole, however, they do. Kozen’s menu is inventive, standing out with a distinct identity even amid a sea of new Japanese restaurants. It’s divided into three sections. First are the “Kozen originals,” which might be labeled “small plates” elsewhere. Then comes a long list of sushi, with everything from spare and authentic sashimi to the outlandish “u-ra-ra” roll, which combines bacon, tempura-fried jalapeno and pistachios. It sounds like something an Iron Chef contestant might come up with. The final segment offers an adventurous lineup of robata, or grilled foods, with appealing picks like baby back ribs with mango-wasabi sauce.

Our server advised us that each dish was roughly appetizer-sized; people might order one or two of the originals, a couple of rolls and a robata dish to make a meal for two. Such a plan makes for a pricey but filling dinner. We reversed this and got more of the intriguing-sounding originals, starting with a little trio of edamame. Normally, I object to paying $4 for a tiny portion of something you can get for two bucks a bag at Trader Joe’s, but Kozen makes its edamame interesting enough to justify an order.

The edamame come in three small mounds, the fuzzy pods tossed with a different flavoring in each. There’s sea salt, savory caramelized garlic and shallot, and shichimi with lime. Each of these is a different temperature, which further enhances the dish: cold beans and the sharp pop of chili and lime was a refreshing, appetite-whetting combination, while warmth released the aroma of the garlic-shallot topping.

One side effect of the gorgeous oversized plates was that there was only room for one dish at a time on the table, which meant that we’d inadvertently ordered a rather elaborate seven-course meal. It was presented as such, too, with a thorough and formal introduction for each dish from a parade of servers. There was nothing wrong with this, but I was expecting a typical small-plates meal, where you eat a little of this and a little of that, alternating among dishes. Instead we ended up focusing on each dish, but, for the most part, they were up to the scrutiny.

The kani-yuba, rolls of Dungeness crab wrapped in nori, tempura-battered and briefly fried, were full of excellent crab flavor. I might have liked them better without the subtle wasabi aioli, as the mayonnaise flavor muted the crab. Arranged in a grid and topped with pretty salmon roe, they arrived at the table looking like a piece of modern art.

The satsuki salad was a deconstructed and remade version of a Caesar, with steamed vegetables that included slender asparagus and okra slices in a creamy Parmesan-flavored emulsion, and romaine leaves dressed with a lightly wasabi-laced dressing. The frilly, sea-foam-green lettuce made the plate look like a Botticelli Venus might rise from it at any moment, and the clear flavor contrasts tasted equally lovely.

Our final original plate was hanagata, a plate of thick slices of peppery, just-seared albacore layered with thin slices of avocado and arranged in a flower shape around diced tomatoes. The raw tuna was perhaps a touch mushy, but the dish’s ponzu ginger sauce and topping of crunchy daikon provided plenty of flavor and textural contrasts.

We then moved on to a Kozen roll, with halibut wrapped around a center of cucumber, avocado and shiso leaves. The fresh, simple flavors were like a palate cleanser after the vibrant hanagata, and the roll was sliced into dainty pieces that were truly bite-sized—a nice change of pace from super-sized sushi.

Our final savory course was grilled marinated black cod, from the robata menu. It came in big chunks, faintly crisp at the edges and unbelievably silky and lush inside. Black cod isn’t called sablefish for nothing, and I wish I saw it on more menus, because it’s fantastically delicious. Here it was presented on three pools of bell-pepper puree—red, yellow and green, like a yummy stoplight.

Desserts are often an afterthought at Asian-influenced places, or are out of step with the theme, but someone at Kozen is really thinking about how to meld a Japanese sensibility with the Western dessert tradition. They offer sweets like banana crème brûlée on a mochi base and the two we tried: green tea and lychee ice-cream sandwiches on crisp wafers, adorned with sweet red-bean paste; and “drunken berries” macerated in sake and plum wine, with crème fraîche ice cream, a sprinkling of crunchy toasted rice balls and two sticks of Pocky.

The effect is witty and sophisticated, though I fear my palate is just too Western to appreciate sweet bean paste. At Kozen, however, the kitchen finds plenty of ways to tease the Western palate while playing with Japanese flavors and techniques.