J Nippon is the spot to go on the northwest side for upscale Japanese food, no matter how you want it. It also seems to be a hip watering hole for the younger, well-heeled neighbors, if the bar scene on both visits was any indication. Add the teppan station, a sushi bar, a patio hidden from the parking lot by swishing bamboo, and the main dining area, and--voila! You've got just about everything.
Karyn Zoldan and I visited on a Friday night. It was relatively early, but the meal ended up being a leisure hour-plus, so we got to observe the crowds gathering in the bar/patio area. And observe, we did, thanks to the walls of windows that allow diners to see into the bar or the impressive wine collection that is along one wall. Live jazz is part of the scene on weekend nights, and we could both see and hear the band from our table.
We were tucked into a corner table that allowed us a great view but proved to be too small for all the accoutrements that were part of the meal. My seat was part of a long bench that had beautiful Asian-inspired patchwork pillows for padding. Two walls were made of rugged rock; others were painted black with red accents.
We started out with the tuna tataki ($9.95) and the horsetail prawns ($7.95), as recommended by our server. Several words on the service are needed here: While there was plenty of effusive, customer-friendly service, there were several significant faux pas. As an example, when served our entrée of chef's choice sashimi, we had to call our server back to the table to explain which fish we had. At the end of the meal, there was no offer of dessert, the excuse being that someone was using the dessert menu, and we'd have to wait.
He was dead-on about the prawns, though. There were only two of them, but they were good-sized and cooked perfectly. They had been stuffed with Japanese horseradish, wrapped in wonderful bacon and then grilled. A drizzle of carrot-chipotle sauce added sweetness and heat. The shrimp were an ideal combination of taste and texture.
The tuna tataki was no slouch, either. Barely seared slices of white tuna were served with a house ponzu sauce--again, a nice balance.
For entrées, we ordered the above-mentioned chef's sashimi choice ($19) and the quaintly named shrimp with geisha hair pasta ($14).
The sashimi was fab! Fresh tuna, salmon, snapper and yellowtail were sliced thin and served with the traditional wasabi and pickled ginger.
The shrimp were, as expected, cooked just right, and there was plenty of geisha hair pasta to share, but it was the sauce that made this dish. A creamy, coconut pesto blended with a tomato concassé (finely chopped tomatoes) was tossed over the noodles. Tiny corn and grilled asparagus added color and a firm bite. This dish was decidedly different and delicious.
After our server found the dessert menu (could there really be only one?), we ordered the mochi three winds ($5) and the bananas in ginger sauce with red bean ice cream ($5). The three winds consisted of mochi-wrapped vanilla, strawberry and melon ice cream. It was good, as far a mochi goes--but the bananas were better. Served warm and swimming in a sweet, thick ginger sauce, the bananas were then topped with three scoops of creamy red bean ice cream, a perfect contrast to the bananas.
Visit two was on a Thursday evening with John. The sweet hostess asked us if we wanted to see the drink menu, and as she sat us down, she gave us a clipboard with some bedraggled pages listing wine, sake and special mixed drinks. While the lists were impressive, the presentation was odd.
For starters, we went with the crab cakes ($4 at happy hour prices; $7.95 otherwise) and sake-steamed clams ($4/$7.95 as above). John ordered the five-spice halibut ($17), and I had the miso-glazed salmon ($14).
Service was more polished, although a grievous error was made with my appetizer: I was served the coconut curry mussels instead. For an instant, I was going to send them back. But the aroma was heavenly, and I was in no mood to wait another minute, so I ate them. They proved to be delicious (a hint of curry helped immensely), although mussels are seldom my choice.
The crab cakes were a huge portion of three hefty panko-breaded Dungeness crab cakes. Two sauces--a bell pepper-based one and an Asian beurre blanc--added several levels of flavor to the already tasty cakes.
Our entrées were also impressive. John's halibut was charred, and happily, the five-spice rub did not overpower the delicate, perfectly cooked whitefish. This was served atop white rice and sautéed bright-green pea vines. A ginger-soy sauce was part of the mix.
My salmon was served over a bed of sautéed mixed veggies (bok choy, zucchini, asparagus, carrots, onions, peppers and mushrooms) and some noodles that had been seasoned with a soy-kaffir lime sauce.
Our server recommended the triple chocolate mousse ($8) as "the best thing you'll ever have." This dish consisted of a layer each of dark chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate, artfully drizzled with a caramel sauce and white and dark chocolate sauces. The dark chocolate bottom layer was slightly overcooked, taking on a light cakey consistency, but this was a nice dessert nonetheless--although maybe not the "best thing I've ever had."
J Nippon is the sister restaurant of Yama, an upscale Japanese joint on the northeast side. With the many offerings and styles of dining, this is a pleasant addition to the mall scene. There's a kick-ass happy hour every night from 4 to 6:30 p.m. A Friday night on the patio, with some jazz, a few appetizers and a couple of drinks could prove to be a wonderful way to end the week.