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Zipangu, 1006 East Warner, Tempe, 480-839-3924. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.
"Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet," wrote Rudyard Kipling.
Obviously, the poet never made it to the Valley of the Sun. That's because these days, East and West are getting together all over town, upsetting traditional notions of both geography and gastronomy.
Over on the east side, at the Tempe-Chandler frontier, sits Zipangu, a self-styled "Amerasian bistro" whose kitchen likes to tweak Japanese dishes in an offbeat way. Out on the west side, Bamboo Grille shares the same Amerasian philosophy, using familiar Asian flavors to attract the Occidental tourist.
Set in the inevitable shopping-strip storefront, Zipangu looks a lot more handsome from the inside. The design is sleekly modern, with Asian and Western touches in tones of black and gray. The walls are hung with an East-meets-West combination of art that includes Japanese calligraphy and a Mondrian print. Tiny bulbs illuminate the small room. You can take a spot at the sushi bar, or sit at a table. But if you do opt for the latter, try to resist the urge to play restaurant hockey. You'll be sitting on chairs with wheels that glide effortlessly over the smooth wood floor.
Management has set the tables with care. White cloth napkins are artfully folded on the wood table tops, and you can lay down the pretty black enamel chopsticks on a china butterfly when they're not in use. The kitchen expects you to use the chopsticks, too: The fork-and-knife crowd has to ask for cutlery.
If you're into grazing, you'll find green pastures at Zipangu. Most everything on the menu is designed to be nibbled, munched or otherwise easily consumed. And most everything is so tasty you won't have any problem swiftly consuming it.
Sushi is a good grazing option. You won't find anything particularly daring here, but the usual suspects are competently prepared and put together in larger portions than I'm accustomed to seeing. The most effective way to sample a variety of tastes is to bypass the sushi list. Instead, order the Nigirizushi off the regular menu.
For $16, you'll get an eight-piece sushi platter, consisting of tuna, yellowtail, salmon, shrimp, crab, octopus, clam and freshwater eel. You'll also receive three morsels from a tuna cucumber roll. Sushi hand rolls are another appealing grazing alternative. The spicy scallop and salmon skin models are especially compelling.
What sets Zipangu's nibbles apart, however, is the yakitori, bite-size pieces of marinated chicken, beef, pork, seafood or veggies, skewered on wooden sticks and grilled. You can quickly run up a tab enjoying these addicting treats, priced from $1.50 to $5. I liked everything: soy-sopped white meat chicken, pungent ginger pork, zesty garlic beef, juicy scallops, firm shrimp and earthy shiitake mushroom caps.
Don't overlook the plain-sounding "Rolls," inconspicuously listed at the bottom of the sushi menu. They're cleverly crafted. The chef spreads out a thin slice of pork, then rolls it up with asparagus, eggplant or enoki mushrooms. These munchies are exceptionally tasty, good enough to fill up on.
Other grazing pleasures await. The vegetable spring rolls won't remind you of spring rolls you've had elsewhere. You get two of them, small, deep-fried noshes cut diagonally in half, and gracefully stuffed with a thimbleful of shiitake mushrooms, carrot, scallion, sprouts, corn and snow peas. They're as pretty to look at as they are to eat. The $5.50 tag, though, may give you pause.
Nothing, however, should keep you from the tempura. It's a generous assortment--a couple of prawns, calamari, mushroom, asparagus, onion, green pepper and sweet potato. They're right out of the fryer, coated with a light, delicate batter.
Chilled shabu shabu shows some creativity. Shabu shabu is a hot dish, paper-thin slices of beef cooked briefly in a seasoned broth. (The dish gets its name from the hissing sound the meat makes as it's plunged into the bubbling liquid.) The chef here, though, cools six slices of beef, and rolls them up with enoki mushrooms and spinach, in the shape of a cone. Dip the concoction in ponzu sauce for some extra punch.
If grazing isn't your style, you can go two ways. The obento dinners lead off with miso soup and a terrific house salad, put together with a mix of fresh greens and dressed with a perky lemon-ginger vinaigrette.
The obento box itself features six compartments: one for the entree, one for the rice, and four filled with a selection of veggies. Tonkatsu, tender pork loin that's breaded, fried and sliced, is a first-rate obento entree choice. So are the spicy garlic prawns, five meaty shrimp that bite back. The chef does a fine job with the veggie sides, too. With items like spinach topped with dried fish flakes, seasoned mixed peppers, marinated shiitake mushrooms and cucumber salad, you won't have to be urged to eat your vegetables.
You can also make a main course out of some very untraditional noodle dishes. The waiter tried to talk me out of the buckwheat soba--"People don't like it, they send it back," he advised. Naturally, after that kind of warning, I felt practically duty-bound to check it out.