“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making plans,” goes perhaps the greatest throwaway line in rock ’n’ roll. The lyric—buried in the center of a John Lennon song about his young son Sean—suggests that the really bitchin’ stuff happens spontaneously or when those plans go awry. Such is the case with Zen Toro in Davis.
A mission to see if the food at Davis’ Crepe House Uni goes bad after the restaurant is found dungeon dark and locked tight. Stay or head back to Sacramento? Ravenous hunger dictates. Catty-corner to the crepe house is a sign that says “Zen Toro.” It’s like the old name of Zen Sushi on 15th and I streets. That, combined with famine, is sufficient endorsement.
Two visits now provide far more compelling endorsements. Subsequent research determines this is indeed the same Zen Toro that used to be in Sacramento. It’s like reuniting with an old friend. A veteran gray-templed maestro mans the sushi bar. Without a morsel eaten, Zen Toro enters the plus column since, as everyone knows, age and guile beat youth and beauty every time. Add another plus for the bursting-with-drinking-and-dining-options menu of the dark, bamboo-festooned eatery.
There’s the better part of 18 sakes, ranging from the $42-a-bottle Kamotsuru from Hiroshima to the more pedestrian $9.50-a-bottle Sho Chiku Bai from the often-overlooked fifth big island of Japan, Berkeley.
Of the 32 special sushi rolls, 22 are Zen Toro creations. Asked what rolls without anything deep-fried in them she likes, the efficient server volunteers a handful of favorites. The Sean Hawaiian Poke Roll—$10 worth of marinated tuna, seaweed salad and a dusting of green onions—resonates. As does the Tataki Attack—with sinus-clearing spicy tuna, snow crab and avocado. Tataki is briefly seared meat, in this case ahi, marinated in vinegar then flavored with ginger. The sauce and tempura onion squiggles are a crunchy and citrusy compliment. No dip into wasabi-laden soy needed.
Equally enjoyable is the $11 Tuna Lovers Dream roll with semi-fiery tuna on the inside and three types of tuna draped over its saddle: dust with green onions, flavor with two sauces, weep openly in appreciation.
The club soda—no limes, only lemons—comes quickly, as does the vibrant cup of complimentary salad.
Sunomono? Not on your life. Mixed greens, bell-pepper squares, fingernail-sized carrot chunks, wafer-thin red onion slivers in a dressing that comes on sweet but signs off with a wondrous zing. The temptation to ask for a second portion is wrestled down with difficulty and achieved only after swearing a sacred oath that experimentation in the Lucas Family Test Kitchen will not cease until the glorious creation is replicated. Those efforts are underway.
There’s a fair amount of Hawaii on Zen Toro’s menu beyond the poke, which, frankly, doesn’t pack the same punch corseted in a roll as it does mounded on a plate in a puddle of special sauce for $7.50 on the dinner menu. The new summer menu touts Spam musubi, a popular Hawaiian snack. Don’t be fooled by the menu: It says two pieces, but the two pieces are cut in half, creating four fist-sized trapezoids of spiced rice with a slice of Spam and sweet potato. Incredibly filling, and a worthy candidate for wasabi-soy baptism. For those with youthful arteries, the deep-fried Aloha Chicken Katsu, $8.50, is another island treat on the lunch menu. As are the $8.75 Kalbi-style barbecue short ribs or Hawaiian Loco Moco, an $8.50 beef patty teamed with gravy, sautéed onions and paniolo (Hawaiian cowboys) scrambled eggs.
Chef Masa-created specialties like the Loco Moco abound on both the lunch and dinner menu. The Unagi-Ju is a trip worth taking, a peppery pleasure of barbecued eel strengthened with secret sauce.
Months could be blissfully consumed munching on the varied delights of Zen Toro. The City of Trees’ loss is the People’s Republic of Davis’ gain.
The commute is worth it: The authoritative offerings far outweigh the chubbier carbon footprint created by cruising across the causeway.