Cafe Reviews

Yearning Japanese

Eating healthful food lets us live longer. That's something everybody agrees on. But what exactly is healthful? Scientists can't agree on which kind of fat will kill us. We hear that alcohol is bad for us, and then nutritionists tell us to drink one or two glasses of wine each day "for our well-being." Virtually every cuisine has been dissected at some point by medical groups, warning us about the perils of the high-fat land mines found on every restaurant menu in town.

Sometimes, it seems it simply isn't safe to go in the kitchen.

Unless it's the kitchen of a Japanese restaurant like Haiku.

Japanese food is just about the only food that hasn't yet been molested by scientists, nutritionists and investigative reporters from local news programs.

What's not to like? Japanese staples like green tea and soy contain phytochemicals, considered beneficial in lowering cholesterol, fighting cancer and even slowing the effects of aging. Complex carbohydrates like rice and high-fiber vegetables such as carrots and broccoli are considered to be premium fuel, giving the body long-lasting energy. Lean meats, chicken and fish are fine sources of protein that contain all the essential amino acids. Fish, in particular, is excellent for sustaining well-being, containing Omega-3 oils, or heart-healthy polyunsaturates. All these foods are mainstays of Asian dining. And in Japanese fashion, they're served simply, without heavy sauces, butter or excess fat.

Eating healthfully doesn't need to be a challenge. And when the food is as good as it is at Haiku, it's an outright joy and a privilege.

Haiku has been open about seven months now, nestled in the Safeway shopping center on the northeast corner of Scottsdale and Pinnacle Peak roads. The creation of chef-owner Tabanobu Miura, the place is surprisingly small, with perhaps 10 tables and a compact sushi bar. For a breath of fresh air, try one of the dozen or so tables out on the patio.

This is Miura's second restaurant; his first was Yama Sushi in south Scottsdale, which lasted for about a year and a half until it closed last May. Perhaps it was the location; the restaurant may have been easily overlooked, tucked as it was inside China Gate near Miller and McDowell roads. The new Haiku should bring in more traffic, and even better, customers with a lot of money to spend. The neighborhood isn't exactly low-rent.

Certainly it couldn't have been the food that caused Yama Sushi's demise. I never made it there myself, but if it was even half as good as the dishes served at Haiku, it would have been above-average. Haiku is, in fact, one of the most exciting Japanese restaurants in town.

The restaurant's focus, the menu tells us, is a blend of "poetic food and art." Haiku is Japanese poetry, the "sentiments of emotion to admiration of the seasons," the menu says. In keeping with the theme, the only art in the sushi shop is boards attached to the walls, to which customers are invited to affix their own penned creations with clothespins. Empty sake boxes take on a personal touch, too, stacked on a shelf near the door and decorated with doodles by happy guests. Music's a mixed bag; on one visit, we're bopping to Cyndi Lauper and Janet Jackson, but appreciate another visit more when the station's been changed to light jazz.

Someone has taken some time to come up with a clever menu concept, too. A thick metal slab holds multiple staggered sheets labeled "tsumami" (appetizers), "zen" (main courses), "shiru" (soups), "tsumtai sara" (salads) and "menrui" (noodles), sushi and more sushi. We rip off a sheet in each category, check the appropriate boxes and hand them to our server. It's fun, and certainly efficient for the kitchen, although the bolts holding the sheets to the slab need to be rethought; they're too big and tear the top part of the pages off.

My dining companions, who love Japanese food as much as I do, come in one evening, stomachs rumbling and almost dizzy from hunger. In this job, I don't often get too hungry, but I've purposely starved myself all day in anticipation of this feast.

The discipline is worth it. An appetizer of tonkatsu -- a meaty pork cutlet dipped in panko batter and deep fried to a nearly greaseless golden brown -- is terrific. It's served in traditional fashion, with sides of shredded cabbage and an assertive tonkatsu sauce (a tasty blend of ketchup, rice wine, soy, Worcestershire, mustard and spices).

I'm also impressed with New Zealand mussels, stuffed with real crab and a creamy mushroom sauce, then slid under a broiler. Four beauties come to our table lounging in a big bowl, gently browned on top and gooey warm. I like the strong seafood flavor, and especially enjoy the unexpected bonus of salty smelt roe served on top.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet