SF: Hachi Ju Hachi (in Saratoga, CA) (Feb. 2013)
I love Hachi Ju Hachi. There are a couple restaurants that make me feel instantly at home the moment I step into the dining room, and Hachi Ju Hachi is one of them. It’s not just the clean and neat decor, or the increasingly numerous handwritten notes on the walls of the restaurant from former customers (if you order the kaiseki, you literally get to leave your mark on the restaurant – my sister somehow wrote on the ceiling).
What makes Hachi Ju Hachi wonderful is the food and the chef. It’s like stepping in my grandma’s kitchen, if my grandma cooked badass Japanese home-style cooking and had a wonderful sense of humor that made me feel at ease. Chef Suzuki-San is always in the kitchen with a bright smile plastered onto his face and has a fantastic sense of humor that just makes you feel like you’re part of the family. And he serves fantastic food that reveals an underlying intensity about food that hides well behind his friendly grin.
This isn’t an izakaya or a sushi bar (although there is hakozushi (boxed style sushi)). It’s much closer to kaiseki a la carte, with actual kaiseki options available if you call ahead. On my most recent trip I didn’t try the Kaiseki, but we did order a ton of the dishes and a lot of them kept me floating on a blissful cloud 9 made of great flavors. Let’s get to the food:
Eggplant deep fried with grated mountain yam and seaweed
Unagi with Tamago
I don’t know how this is made so delicately, or how its simplicity can result in such a fantastic mouthful of flavor. It’s kind of mind boggling. Only egg and unagi – but with the egg oh so gently rolled around the eel to create this pillow of sweet goodness. It’s really the delicate texture of it all – really it is like a pillow – that makes this dish fantastic. I wish my own pillow was made of this stuff. Except then I’d just be eating in my sleep and wake up without a pillow.
This was an interesting seaweed roll that was literally a roll of seaweed. The texture was pretty chewy and had a bite to it – not dissimilar to abalone. The flavor profile was intensely soy/miso – I had to eat this as a complement to some of the other dishes since it was a bit salty by itself.
Yum this almost tasted like sashimi in how delicate it was. The flesh just gently gave away with subtle sweetness.
Grilled Pork Belly
Hachi Ju Hachi is known for their juicy sweet pork belly and this particular preparation didn’t disappoint. I’ve had the braised one before, which was just pure melt-in-your-mouth, but this grilled one was great too because the edges of the skin had this great crunch to it. And yes, the meat was still full of pork flavor and oozed on your tongue after that initial crunch. I think the meat might’ve been marinated in white miso. It’s really fantastic.
Steamed Mushroom with seaweed
More mushrooms – never a bad thing. This dish was not too different from the mushroom broth – slightly earthier and less sweet due to the different mushrooms.
Steamed Mackerel with Red Miso
This is a dish that actually expanded my breadth of flavor profile, and for that, it’s changed my life. The red miso intensely rich and earthy – it’s really hard for me to describe it other than by saying umami. Maybe it’s like a really intensely smoky mushroom with soy flavor? It just smacks you in the mouth with flavor and the socks fly off. I loved it.
This is, hands down, the best tempura I’ve had in my life. Suzuki-san likes to say that his restaurant is not about bento boxes and I know that tempura is a staple of the bento box. BUT trust me, this is perfect. The vegetables are perfectly tender inside, while the outside was this crazy light but flaky with its crispy coating. It was the lightest fried food I’ve ever had, and yet still the tastiest as well. I’m not exaggerating. Again, a life-changer. Twice in one meal? Ridiculous. (Actually the pork belly here changed my life too the first time I had it, but that was 2 years ago). [On further reflection, the unagi tamago probably changed my life too].
We ordered a couple of zoushis (rice in soup) to end the meal. This one was just an onigiri rice ball in broth. The burnt rice ball was whimsical for me and I liked it.
Cod Roe Zoushi
I really liked how light the tamago zoushi was. The cabbage and egg was simple, but really flavorful at the same time. The cabbage didn’t taste stale at all like some cabbage soups do, and the egg custard just gently clouds the soup with sweetness.
We left very full, extremely happy, and with warm bellies to carry us through the night. Suzuki-san was in the middle of a conversation with another patron but quickly hurried over to wish us good night. If you’re in the bay, do come visit Hachi Ju Hachi. It’s worth it every time.