The first time I consumed, and subsequently fell in love with, Japanese cuisine was at the house of a good friend. His wife is Japanese (need I say more?) and the spread of pan fried veggies, tofu and tender, “citrusy” steak was exquisite. Now, she claims it was “Americanized” Japanese food, but to my inexperienced tongue, it was heaven. And besides, she could get away with Americanizing her dishes because they were truly based on the real thing.
This initial encounter was a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because I have since discovered that Japanese food is my favorite cuisine, but a curse in that my homemade dishes are never quite up to par. Plus, when I dine out at local restaurants and sushi bars, I tend to have unreasonably high standards.
Zen Toro Japanese Bistro and Sushi Bar lived up to my expectations. I have to admit, as I approached the restaurant I thought to myself, “Really? Another sushi bar?” In my opinion, though, Zen Toro is a notch above some of the fat disguised as teriyaki chicken that I’ve encountered at other places.
The ambience was unique and inviting – huge bamboo stalks arranged around the entryway, warm, gray-purple walls, and classily set tables. My friend and I were seated immediately by a friendly female waitress and handed, if I remember correctly, three different menus: one for sake/wine, one for sushi, and one for the actual lunch items.
The menu was divided into lunch combos, salads, entrées and noodle dishes, ranging in price from $8 to $11.
I decided on the lunch entrée sushi combo, complete with teriyaki beef and spicy tuna roll. My friend chose the Zen Toro special combo with teriyaki chicken, tempura and fried gyoza. The perk of inviting a friend to lunch was, of course, the chance to taste twice as much food.
Both of our lunches came with miso soup – which was probably the best miso soup I’ve ever had at a restaurant. The broth was flavorful, not too fishy, and far more appetizing than the milky, tofu-saturated broth that I’ve experienced in the past. Plus, the soup came with a miniature bowl of cabbage-type salad stuff, no additional cost.
The presentation was exquisite. When our meals arrived, displayed on large platters with each portion of the meal in its own designated spot, I have to admit I stared at my plate for a few seconds before digging in. My rice was in perfect little ball sprinkled with a Japanese seasoning, unblemished by the teriyaki sauce.
My teriyaki beef was tender, not overcooked, and I could tell that it was a quality cut of beef. My favorite part was definitely the spicy tuna roll, which was loaded with flavorful sashimi, not rice. The meal also included a side of salad – good, but a little heavy on the dressing for my liking – along with a chilled pasta salad.
My overall impression was that the chefs at Zen Toro had gone out of their way to go an extra step in presenting a typical Japanese lunch. The pasta salad was definitely an unusual bonus, as was the abundant tuna in my sushi. My only complaint is that I would have happily devoured twice the amount of teriyaki beef – the portion was a little scanty for the price.
Zen Toro isn‘t quite the same as my Japanese friend’s homemade cooking, but it’s a close second. I could taste the high quality of the ingredients, and could detect slight variations within each part of my lunch that distinguished it from the norm.
I must also add that, when I went to wash my hands, I discovered a heated toilet seat accompanied by a set of instructions posted on the wall. Go figure. It’s not everyday you get to see a self-heating toilet seat – unless, of course, you’re making routine visits to Zen Toro.
DARCEY LEWIS can be reached at email@example.com.