East of Edamame
There's a lot to detest about The Breakfast Club, that 1985 movie about the group of high school kids who, forced to serve a day's detention together, come to realize that despite their apparent differences, they're all just people. Awww.
The film introduced us to Judd Nelson, an actor skilled primarily in the (supposedly) menacing, racehorse-like flaring of his nostrils. It presented the debut of fellow Brat Packers Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy and what's-with-her-hair-anyway Molly Ringwald. And it gave us one of the decade's sappiest, stereotypical-character-infested flicks -- a film that, when paired with the Duran Duran and Culture Club music of the era, illustrates why the '80s were such an embarrassing time for pop culture.
Worst of all, The Breakfast Club humiliated sushi. Who can forget the scene when, as the group breaks for lunch, the prissy Ringwald unpacks a cute little lacquered box. Under Nelson's flared-nostril sneer, she arranges soy sauce and chopsticks, picks up a piece of raw fish and rice, and in one bite turns a gorgeous food into a yuppie joke.
Adding insult to injury, she doesn't even do it right. Everyone knows that the secret to sushi is its exquisite freshness. The fish, only of the finest caliber, must be trimmed just before consumption. The rice, vinegared and sticky, must be both fluffy and moist. Prepared pre-breakfast and left to sit around in a painted box until lunchtime, the fish would have grown flabby and bland, the rice dry and reminiscent of plastic. If you've ever picked up one of those packages of pre-made sushi available at grocery stores these days, you know what I mean.
Or if you've dined at Temari, a Japanese restaurant plunked in the middle of a strip mall in Gilbert. In a cruel fit of culinary taunting, the menu reads well, with sexy-sounding dishes such as hiya-yako, cold tofu with fresh ginger and scallion; and salmon fillet grilled with sea salt. The food here looks appealing, too, with pretty colors and attractive presentation. Flavor, though, rarely makes it to the plate, and in a few spectacular performances, the taste actually offends.
Like any glitzy ordeal, things start out well as we take in Temari's vibrant setting. Named after the Japanese temari balls, beautiful, silk-embroidered orbs that line one wall of the restaurant, the eatery is rich with details. A stunning silk kimono hung on a wall is eye-catching, and little Japanese curtains hanging above the sushi bar lend a human scale to high ceilings. But jazz music is playing too loudly, and it's from the radio, we realize, as a Sleep America jingle brings our table conversation to a halt.
Though I've long given up the dream of finding complimentary edamame anymore (Shogun in Phoenix used to offer them gratis, like chips and salsa), Temari's offering is great. Soybeans have been boiled just to tenderness and glisten with sea salt, to be sucked between our lips until the firm seeds pop to our tongues.
Service is topnotch, too, quick, efficient and friendly, in a gentle hovering manner that keeps our water glasses full and finished plates whisked away to clear space on our quickly crowded table. We've ordered too much, seduced by the menu descriptions.
Gyoza, on a chilly winter's night? It's a good choice any time of the year, but particularly luscious when the steam from the tender bundles releases under our noses, fragrant with the perfume of chopped pork and bits of cabbage. A dance with the pan has left the edges expertly browned, ready for dipping in zesty Gyoza sauce. An appetizer of oysters is equally irresistible, cloaking four fat bivalves in panko batter, deep frying them and serving them up with a tonkatsu-mustard sauce. These sea critters are impossibly juicy, mellow-flavored and meltingly tender.
From there, the temari ball drops with a resounding thud. I've been anticipating a starter of agedashi tofu, swooning over the description of lightly deep-fried bean curd floating in a tempura sauce and scallion broth. But this dish has all the appeal of chewing on wet mittens. Fried tofu tends to get chewy, and this quartet of golden battered cubes tastes like Styrofoam. After soaking 10 minutes or so in the sauce, the tofu relaxes a little, but for almost four bucks, I'd rather order another plate of Gyoza instead.
There are few foods in this world worse than Temari's calamari, however. On a blind taste test, I'd never have guessed that the filling in eight fish-stick-style rods was squid -- as one dining companion so aptly put it, they are perfect matches to rubber sneaker soles. This isn't just poor preparation, but inferior ingredients, right down to the tasteless, mealy battering that's supposed to be crisp panko.
Sushi, too, the backbone of any Japanese eatery in the U.S., isn't cut out for the job here. I question whether the fish we receive is true sushi grade, and if it is, just how fresh it is. There isn't a single piece on the rainbow roll, after all, that has sushi grade's signature silkiness or brilliant flavor subtlety. Instead, strips of tuna, yellowtail, shrimp, whitefish and salmon are distressingly chewy over a damp rice tube stuffed with salty crab and avocado. The fish never improves over several visits, including solo pieces of mushy maguro nigiri (tuna) and lackluster hamachi (yellowtail). The best sushi, ironically, is the Santa Fe roll, which includes no fish but cream cheese, asparagus, crab and mild green chile wrapped in tempura batter.
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).
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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