E ditor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience.
There's a trend in Japan right now of teenagers going gaga for mayonnaise. The youths, or "mayolers" as they're called, add it to everything: sushi, noodles, tempura, even tequila for a disturbing drink called a mayogarita. On a recent trip to the country, I saw kids toting squirt bottles of the slimy stuff in their backpacks.
So perhaps it's a nod to this niche group that's led Toyo Japanese Grill owner David Lin to feature the condiment as a star ingredient on the menu at his three month-old restaurant in northwest Santa Rosa. He offers sushi and teriyaki, but also honey-mayo prawns, deep-fried mashed potato croquettes with mayo, battered oysters with mayo and calamari tempura with mayo.
Perhaps, bobbing in a sea of North Bay sushi houses, Lin is just trying to snag some wave. Located in the strip-mall space that used to house Wharf Seafood Bar, Toyo makes an effort to break out of the everyday Asian affair with a lengthy menu of more than a hundred items. Happily, the standard dishes here are well-crafted, and most of the offbeat attempts are remarkably good.
Among the standouts are an excellent (real crab!) rainbow roll ($11.95) and such lively sushi as spicy salmon and daikon wrapped in Vietnamese rice paper ($8.95) and spicy prawn and red snapper in shiso leaf ($12.95). Alongside the feather-light-battered vegetable tempura ($12.75), there's moist and fleshy salted mackerel ($14.75), grilled until the skin blisters and crackles, then served with a splash of tart ponzu to cut the oiliness.
Katsu comes as the typical chicken or pork, but also as halibut ($16.50). The panko-encrusted fingers are delicate if a bit dry, but revive quickly with a dunk in either tonkatsu sauce or sweet lemon sauce. And while yaki stir-fry usually features ramen-style soba, Toyo serves udon ($12.75). The plump, slippery noodles are wonderful, piled with shrimp, dark meat chicken chunks and vegetables in sweet soy.
Fluttering dried bonito flakes over gently fried logs of agedashi tofu ($5.75) is another marvelous touch. The smoked fish melts into the custard and ginger-kelp-mackerel broth for one of the best renditions of this dish I've enjoyed. A generous serving of crunchy wakame ($4.25), meanwhile, includes a bonus mound of salad greens marinated in sesame oil.
The details are painstaking. We start our meals with oshiburi , eat with expensive wooden chopsticks and drink out of thin-rimmed, oversized wine glasses. Even the standard green salad and miso served with entrées are better than ordinary, thanks to sparkly vinaigrette on the crisp iceberg and perfectly balanced dashi broth stocked with lots of tofu and seaweed.
Lin stops by the tables frequently, flashing a big smile and asking if there's anything else he can do to make our meals more enjoyable. Thanks, but no, it feels good to simply sit there amid shimmering gold curtains, green tea painted walls and a soothing fountain separating the sushi bar from the more formal dining room.
And while dessert offers mochi ice cream and a banana tempura split, I'm content to savor a simple glass of plum wine ($4.95). No extra mayo needed.
Toyo Japanese Grill, 3082 Marlow Road, Santa Rosa. Open for lunch and dinner daily. 707.527.8871.