Just hint to my family that Chinese food is a dinnertime option, and you can see them mentally chowing down moo shu pork as they race to the car. Call up my buddies and suggest Mexican fare, and you can hear them salivating over margaritas and nachos on the phone. But just try to get my family and friends interested in Japanese cuisine. I'd have an easier sell if I stood at a freeway ramp holding a sign that said "Will work for Iraqi war bonds." How come Japanese food seems to put off more Americans than any other ethnic cuisine? Maybe it's because Japanese dishes are so unlike what we're used to. Raw fish, vinegared rice and strange dipping sauces aren't likely to tickle the taste buds of spud-eating carnivores. Maybe it's because Japanese dishes seem just a little too healthful. More and more, people think of a restaurant meal as a nutritional vent, where they can temporarily blow off the frustrations of maintaining caloric correctness. Folks who crave something deep-fat-fried, schmeared with butter or draped in chocolate are not going to find sliced vegetables picturesquely fanned across the plate very compelling. Maybe it's portion size. You don't need to have spent the day working the lower forty to feel a hunger pang after some Japanese meals. You have a better chance spotting Sasquatch hiking up Squaw Peak than eyeing a doggy bag being carried from a Japanese restaurant. Or maybe it's the cost. Japanese food may be ethnic, but it's certainly not Third World.
Whatever the reasons, those people who won't set foot in the recently opened Mikado are making a huge mistake. The food here is simply wonderful. It's run by the proprietor of Sakura, a well-known Tucson Japanese restaurant. Set inside a refurbished two-story bank, Mikado looks as smart as its clientele. The dinner tables are downstairs, set off in small groups by rice-paper screens. Quiet Japanese watercolors hang on the walls. Upstairs, three sides of the room are taken up by a sushi bar. Private, Japanese-style dining areas are tucked behind sliding screens. But Western sensibilities aren't ignored: Deep wells under the traditional short Japanese tables permit diners to dangle their legs instead of curling them under their bodies the whole evening. The only jarring note in this tranquility and elegance is the absolutely absurd music pumped over the sound system. I like the Beatles as much as anyone, but I certainly don't want to hear "Nowhere Man" with my sushi. I just want to listen to my own sighs of satisfaction.
The sushi is meltingly fresh. Unagi, freshwater eel, is my favorite, and not only because it's supposed to be an aphrodisiac. The smoky flavor and soft texture create a mouth-watering treat. The spicy tuna roll also produces high levels of satisfaction. And don't shy away from the temaki sushi. The sushi chef will stuff these hand-rolled, cone-shaped beauties with just about any kind of fish you like.
If your sense of adventure doesn't extend to raw fish, opt for the wafu shumai appetizer. They're tasty steamed dumplings, filled with ground chicken and shrimp and garnished with broccoli. The vegetable tempura here is also well-fashioned, coated with a thin, greaseless crust that doesn't smother the taste of the veggies.
But don't fill up on appetizers. Mikado is particularly adept at nabemono: hearty, hot-pot dishes for two prepared right on the table. While nabemono is usually considered winter fare, Mikado's versions are good enough to order in August. The seafood nabe takes highest honors. The server lugs over a portable hot plate and gets the subtle soy-, sake- and seaweed-flavored broth boiling. Alongside, waiting to get dunked, is a massive platter of eye-catching ingredients, artistically arranged. There's no chance of buyer's remorse once you inspect the mounds of shrimp, clams, scallops, crab, snapper and salmon, surrounded by piles of cabbage, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, tofu and spinach. What makes the experience doubly delightful is the service. At different points in the relaxed nabemono cooking process, a kimono-clad Korean waitress, the Japanese manager and the restaurant's Korean proprietor all took turns dipping, stirring and serving. They took great pride in their fare, trumpeting both the freshness and quality. The pride is justified: This seafood stew is so good, I didn't even mind that it was nutritious, too. If you prefer to share meat instead of seafood, consider the shabu-shabu. This popular beef dish gets its name from the sound that the raw, millimeter-thin beef strips make as you (or the server) swish them around to cook in the broth. Perhaps as an accommodation to American appetites, Mikado offers a generous helping of beef, which shares hot-pot space with vegetables and rice noodles. When they're all ready, dunk the ingredients in the vinegary ponzu dip or thick sesame gomadare sauce for a peppy taste kick. If you can't agree on sharing a nabemono dinner, there are individual alternatives, mostly nonthreatening, teriyaki-basted chicken, fish and beef plates. The wafu steak should please folks who don't want beef tricked up in too foreign a manner: It's beautifully grilled and sliced filet mignon, served with asparagus and rice. Instead of A.1. Steak Sauce, though, you liven it up with a spicy clump of grated radish.