East of Edamame

Taste of Temari's food doesn't live up to its looks

By the time the tuna tataki shows up, I'm convinced -- Temari needs a better fish purveyor, tighter quality control or both. It's just mean to showcase such a sophisticated-looking splay of gilled beast -- seared just on the edges and ruby red inside -- then have it taste so agonizingly of nothing. The fish is dry, tearing on its grainlike phyllo layers, and seriously overdone with harsh black pepper around its rim. Even when doused in excellent tataki sauce and forked with crisp greens, the fish flops.

Salads are just as miserable, particularly the baby squid salad. We're envisioning tender squidlets in a dusting of batter, but are bludgeoned with wads of the ocean's tribute to inner tubes. Spicy ponzu dressing is superb, and field greens are garden fresh, but if that's all we wanted, we could have saved $2.75 and just ordered the dinner salad. Temari special spinach salad, meanwhile, is simply foul, its hot soy, bacon and straw mushroom dressing so salty it would wilt the spinach leaves even if it were poured cold.

Originally, Temari's menu included a Pacific Rim section, and to be honest, that was one of the main reasons I wanted to check the place out. Coconut shrimp with Thai sweet chile sauce. Grilled rib eye with garlic, straw mushrooms, Jack Daniels and soy sauce. Filet mignon topped with ground pistachio and wasabi on a sea of straw mushroom sauce. These sure sounded good, but are nowhere to be found on the current menu. Instead, the kitchen is churning out oddities like several nights' special of venison sushi (no, I didn't try it).

Soy it isn't so: Temari is ho-hum Japanese.
Annette Callahan
Soy it isn't so: Temari is ho-hum Japanese.

Location Info

Map

Temari Fine Japanese Cuisine

919 N. Val Vista Drive
Gilbert, AZ 85234-3704

Category: Restaurant > Asian

Region: Gilbert

Details

Appetizers:
Gyoza: $3.50
Panko fried oysters: $5.25
Tuna tataki: $7.50
Caterpillar roll: $8.50

Entrees:
Salted mackerel: $9.95
Tempura dinner: $10.95
Tonkatsu: $10.95
Unaju: $12.95

480-539-0159. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner, Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.

919 North Val Vista Drive, Gilbert

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Now, our choices run the gamut of familiar teriyaki, tempura, tonkatsu and shoga yaki (thinly sliced pork loin pan fried in soy ginger sauce). Only two creative touches have survived -- unaju (eel fillet) and mackerel.

These full Japanese dinners start off with miso soup -- a brainless but sumptuous broth. Usually. The simple soup here is uneven, bland and floating with too-firm tofu on one visit, full-bodied and stocked with correctly slippery curd on another, but missing any seaweed.

Tempura manages to be uneven on the same plate, over the same evening. How do they do it -- deliver succulent shrimp in crispy, gauzelike batter, but pair them with vegetables in such a soggy, tepid flour coat? The origin of tempura goes back about 400 years, to when the Portuguese missionaries arrived in Japan. If any modern-day missionaries happen to be passing through the Gilbert area, stop in at Temari and show them how it's done, hey?

The Valley is home to a growing Asian community, it seems, as evidenced by issues of Nikkei Weekly distributed at Temari. Printed in Japanese, the publication is a resource for everything local from Asian dentists, flower shops, acupuncture and herb clinics, Baptist churches and tutoring agencies. Subscribers are a likely clientele for unaju, an entree-size fillet of freshwater eel. Curious folks will want to start small, with the sushi serving, before venturing on to this hefty, skin-on sea creature as a main course. Ancient Japanese legend has it that the fish is so intensely nutritious that it allowed a famous thief of 1747 to see in the dark -- electric eel, perhaps? Regardless, this is an extremely high-fat fish, and tastes of it, further charged with a sweet glaze, laced with bitter nori strips (seaweed) and plopped on a bed of white rice.

A subtler entrance into Temari's entrees is mackerel, all the more interesting because it's been salted. If I were truly paranoid about the freshness of Temari's ocean catch, I might snipe that the fish has been salted to preserve it -- the flesh's high oil content leads it to spoil quickly. But this stuff is fine, even toned and grilled, with a delicious oomph when the salt kicks in.

The dry mackerel is best when slathered in an accompanying sweet, creamy, sesame-seed-dotted sauce -- a sauce that comes, oddly enough, with tonkatsu, too. Why we need a peanutty yogurt-style topping for pork, I don't know, but the pig itself is competently done. An ample fillet enrobed in panko and deep fried is light, soothing, and just as expected. I can't be satisfied, though, with places that don't serve tonkatsu with its traditional partner of chopped green cabbage. A field salad with vinaigrette just can't match the impact of crisp cabbage drizzled with thick, gutsy tonkatsu sauce.

It's taken me 15 years to get over my disdain of Molly Ringwald and The Breakfast Club, leading people to believe that sushi is merely trendy takeout, and that the prefab slabs served at Safeway are as good as any. There is a difference -- a huge difference -- between great Japanese food and stuff that's only done halfway. Until Temari can meet those expectations, I've got to say: So long, sushi, goodbye.Contact the author at her online address: carey.sweet@newtimes.com

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