Sushi’s sweet spot
Zen Toro Japanese Bistro & Sushi Bar132 E St.
If someone was asked to play word association with the term “Japanese food,” the first thing likely to pop into his or her mind would likely be sushi or ramen.
“Dessert” would probably not be part of that list, but there’s a dessert at Zen Toro Japanese Bistro & Sushi Bar that could change that. The “uji kintoki parfait” (it translates roughly to “Best. Dessert. Ever.”) is served in a sundae glass filled with layers of green-tea ice cream and sweet red beans, and it’s topped with whipped cream, chocolate Pocky candy, salty sesame crackers, peanut clusters, and warm, soft squares of mochi.
Not only does Zen Toro serve inventive desserts, the menu changes seasonally, a distinction that reflects the great care that chef Masa Nishiyama puts into his food.
Nishiyama used to operate a Zen Toro in Sacramento, but he’s since sold it in order to concentrate on the Davis outlet. And concentrate he does: Nishiyama, a serious man with salt-and-pepper hair, is often found behind the sushi bar, deliberately crafting rolls at a steady pace.
This lack of speed is sometimes a problem during a lunch or dinner rush, and Zen Toro isn’t really a place for a group dinner—although it will make you a sushi boat if you insist. The boatload of sushi will be good, but its preparation will take forever. Here, each server is responsible for quite a few tables, so there can be a lag for drinks, the bill, etc., but they are invariably knowledgeable about the dishes.
And you may need to test their knowledge, because there are some uncommon offerings on the menu. Kinpira gobo with renkon (braised lotus and burdock-root salad) comprises matchstick-sized fibrous pieces of burdock root and juicy slices of lotus in a sweet mirin soy sauce. The server tells us that the sansai (mountain vegetables) are “hard to explain,” but that they include fern shoots called warabi. The sansai arrives served in a soup that’s accompanied by either buckwheat or udon noodles and contains every color in the autumn palette, from brown to orange to deep green, with a mushroomy broth to complement.
Hiyashi mazemen, a cold ramen-style noodle dish, is listed under the category “house specials” and is a wonderful summer dish; the al dente noodles are dressed in sesame-miso vinaigrette and accented with the same chashu (pork slice) that tops the ramen. The ramen is also listed under house specialties, but it’s only serviceable, and the tonkatsu broth too subtle for this customarily bold dish.
Zen Toro features a large sushi menu, made up of both the steroidal Americanized rolls and traditional nigiri. Every day there’s a roster of five or so recommendations, which are wise to heed. I try the anago, a skinny strip of saltwater eel draped flamboyantly across the warmed plate; its lightly smoky meat yields under the barest pressure of a chopstick. The ombré kanpachi (amberjack), which shades from deep rose to pale white, has an assertive fishiness and springy bite. The uni is sweet and firm on one visit, but has runny spots and a strong, unpleasant flavor the next; I blame the fact that Nishiyama wasn’t manning the bar on that visit.
The nigiri rice portions are bite-sized, as they should be, and sticky, never gummy, with nary a grain out of place. This same exquisite rice makes the ikura bowl a dream for fans of salmon roe.
Zen Toro is not just “good for Davis,” it’s actually worth braving the congested streets of the People’s Republic of Davis. Just be wary of darting pedestrians, and don’t bump your head on any funk art.