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Beyond Sushi

My Japanese friends must get a kick out of me.

I hang out with Yuko and Chinatsu every year when I visit Japan, a place I've been obsessed with since childhood. (Blame it on Hello Kitty, Mr. Miyagi, and the early '80s wave of Japanese fashion designers.) I met the girls 10 years ago, when I was working in Tokyo during college, and by now they've got me totally figured out. Most afternoons, I'm only up for burabura (loose translation: goofing off), leisurely wandering around our favorite neighborhoods, exploring quirky boutiques, and stopping by little cafes. In the evening, though, things are completely different. We're on a mission for good food. When the three of us conspire about dinner — a serious matter — Yuko and Chinatsu always dazzle me with options.

What do you want to eat tonight? Italian? Vietnamese? Japanese? Maybe we could try that new Okinawan restaurant, or we could go for Hawaiian . . .

The girls are never surprised when I want Japanese.

It's sort of our inside joke, because "Japanese" could be simple, home-style grub, or it could be really inventive fare. We visit everything from noisy, hole-in-the-wall pubs to upscale, dimly lighted taverns, but usually the establishments are called izakaya, and they're all about one thing: sharing. Well, drinking actually defines izakaya ("zaka" is a modification of "sake"), but not the kind you do alone. Instead, you order up a giant bottle of beer for the whole table, pick half a dozen or more small plates for the group to nibble at, and spend hours enjoying it all.

Sushi bars are mainstream in the States, but it's amazing that izakaya aren't. Well, not yet, anyway — New York and L.A. have seen an izakaya boom in the past few years, and now even the new execs behind P.F. Chang's (co-founder Paul Fleming is no longer in the picture) are in on the trend with Taneko Japanese Tavern, their new restaurant at the Borgata in Scottsdale.

I'm surprised at how much I enjoyed the place. The wait staffers were disarmingly enthusiastic, and the dining room was dramatic, with enormous red lanterns hanging from massive wooden ceiling beams, reminding me of an old-fashioned Japanese country house. Just like in Japan, they gave us oshibori (hot towels) when we sat down, and the drink menu was an interesting list of premium sake (including a nigori-zake I'd never tried), hard-to-find Japanese beer (such as the excellent ales from Hitachino Nest), some shochu cocktails (I liked the Roppongi Fizz, flavored with lychee and yuzu), and several kinds of hot tea.

None of that would have mattered, though, if the food didn't strike me as authentic. I do understand that Taneko could end up a chain someday, and that the whole point is to appeal to American palates, so I was anxious to see whether they'd play it safe. And to their credit, they took a lot more risks than expected.

Besides, Americans don't need concessions, do they? It could be wishful thinking, but hell, the U.S. already embraced raw fish, wasabi, and pickled ginger. Those are some strange acquired tastes. Seems like grilled fish, noodle dishes, and tempura would be easy to love. What's less likely to catch on is that whole "sharing" thing.

Most of the menu items were sharable if you wanted them to be, but a few were too awkward to split. No surprise, those were the non-Japanese dishes. American Kobe burger? Tempura fish sandwich with tartar sauce? Totally born in the USA, and not something I'd choose over real Japanese food. That said, I thought they were tasty, with moist house-made rolls.

Taneko's small details were impressive — especially presentation, very important in Japan. I also detected something special about the soy sauce (that savory "fifth flavor" called umami). Turns out Taneko does have a custom blend. Produce was topnotch, too, and it all comes from local farmers.

Simplicity really worked for many of the starters. Four kinds of organic heirloom tomatoes got a drizzle of sesame-tofu dressing, while scoops of fresh house-made tofu got the traditional treatment with a shot of soy sauce, shreds of katsuo bushi (dried bonito shavings), scallions, and a pinch of grated ginger. And the edamame were the best I've ever eaten, sprinkled with sea salt and sansho pepper. A quick toss in a hot wok seared the bean pods, imparting an unusual smokiness.

Tempura's pretty ordinary, but Taneko had a few eye-catching offerings. Fried squash blossoms were still attached to baby squash, and their filling of shrimp, scallops, and green tea salt had a creamy, marshmallow-like consistency. Ponzu sauce added a tart contrast. And plump oysters, each wrapped in a frilly shiso leaf and lightly batter-dipped, looked gorgeous in huge oyster shells arranged on a long plate.

What struck me as Taneko's likely star dish — the next chicken lettuce wraps, in P.F. Chang's parlance — was the Hot Rock, a heated river rock for cooking pieces of raw, marinated American Kobe beef at the table. The garlicky, gingery meat sizzled up quickly, and was remarkably tender even without a swish in the ponzu. If the Hot Rock catches on, I can only hope that other D.I.Y. dishes like yakiniku, shabu-shabu, and okonomiyaki (my favorite) become more commonplace.

Spicy lamb chops and a huge Kurobuta pork chop, both glazed with chile-citrus, were juicy and well-prepared, if not particularly inventive. And the only surprise about the tuna tartare — a touch spicy, and speckled with black sesame — was the heap of tempura-fried nori chips that came with it.

Wild Alaskan black cod was rich and buttery, served in a steaming bowl of mirin broth with baby scallions and chopped shiitake. That was one of my favorite dishes, along with the white shrimp (wok-seared, smoky, and amazingly tender, served with a pungent mix of ponzu, pickled garlic, and mizuna), and the roasted littleneck clams (steeped in a tangy broth with leeks, pork, sake, white soy, slices of yuzu, and tiny tomatoes that burst in my mouth).

Considering the emphasis on alcohol, desserts aren't a big deal at most izakaya. But if they are served, they're usually pretty light. Taneko's warm chocolate cake was the polar opposite of that, a conspicuous appeal to American tastes. I'm sure people will love its melty center and creamy soy milk crème anglaise, but this isn't what I'd crave after an izakaya feast. Scoops of strawberry and yuzu granitas, served with fresh cookies, were a little closer to what I had in mind, but the semi-freddo was the most refreshing, izakaya-friendly dessert option. Who cares if it was an Italian frozen custard? Japanese love Italian food, right? It was light, not too sweet, tinged with citrus, and smothered with fresh berries.

Yuko and Chinatsu would've slurped it right up.

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Taneko Japanese Tavern - Closed

6166 N. Scottsdale Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85253-5438

480-308-9950


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