Our server at Tomo sets an extravagantly constructed plate of food before us with a flourish of reverence.
"Tuna tartare," she quietly announces, then bows and slips away.
I've been awaiting this dish among the many we've ordered. Tuna tartare has come to mean among innovative Japanese chefs what de-boned chicken breasts are to American home cooks: a blank medium on which to paint a personality. At Soto, where you can eat our city's finest example of this genre, Sotohiro Kosugi varnishes minced tuna over a clear dish and scatters it with hither-and-yon elements: warming sesame oil, avocado, crunchy bits of Asian pear and pine nuts, with insinuations of garlic and hot pepper. Each mouthful mystically coalesces.
Tomo's take looks promising. Two claret layers of tuna enrobe a pale layer of satsumaimo, or Japanese yam. Nestled atop are greens and -- juniper berries? Nope, pink peppercorns. The plate is ornamented with a broad squiggle of balsamic glaze and scattered with pistachios.
But then I take a bite. The yam's texture wobbles somewhere between crisp and spongy, and the balsamic's sticky sweetness bulldozes the tuna, which begins to taste like an outré dessert with the nuts thrown in.
It is the first of too many creations whose disparate flavors never quite harmonize.
Which genuinely bums me out. The restaurant is one of those strivers lodged in a ubiquitous shopping mall where you hope to discover unpredicted alchemy at work. Chef Tomo "Tom" Naito has obvious ambition. His resume includes three years spent at the Las Vegas outpost of Nobu Matsuhisa, perhaps the country's most renowned practitioner of avant-garde Japanese cuisine.
Clearly, Naito has learned the precept for this style of food: The ingredients must be unimpeachably pristine. Of the dozen or so types of sea creatures I sample in various cooked or uncooked states, most resound with inviting freshness. Each fish's texture and benign flavor remain distinct. The only piercing disappointment in quality I encounter is an oddly waterlogged taste of o-toro, the prized fatty tuna to which sashimi lovers flock.
How these fine ingredients are treated is where things get wonky. A permanent menu offers the sushi selection and a succinct list of starters, salads and entrees. But each person at the table also gets a copy of the multi-page list of daily specials. It's entertaining to peruse this list both for the exotic concoctions and the quirky commentary under many of the dishes.
An appetizer of bonito, or skip jack tuna, is lightly seared tataki-style in a garlic-ponzu. The description tells you it was flown in from Japan this morning, and, lest you question its character, it ends, "YES, IT'S FATTY." Geez, don't shout, I was just asking ...
I tackle quite a few of the specials. Some are sublime, many are puzzling.
Bite-size pieces of tempura-battered flounder couldn't be simpler or more delicate. All each morsel needs is a quick splash in citrusy ponzu. Grilled rings of squid yield elusive smokiness without being too chewy. An avocado salad features supple, just ripe slices of the glossy fruit. The supposed "shrimp and miso" dressing tastes heavily of sesame, but that's all right by me.
Sometimes a little guidance is called for. Service here varies remarkably from person to person. One server might flinch or stare at you vacuously each time you ask a question; another will blatantly ask to borrow your set of chopsticks so she can scrape daikon and scallions into a dipping sauce.
I wish our timid server one night had told us the secret to the usuzukuri appetizer. Gorgeous, whispery slices of fluke sashimi are arranged concentrically and each topped with a dot of sriracha chile paste and a single leaf of cilantro. We're told to plop a blob of ponzu jelly in the center of each slice and roll it up slightly before we pop it in our mouths. Better advice would have been to add but a tiny globule from the quivering mound of jelly. Too much of the stuff eviscerated the other flavors.
Stick to seafood. An entree special of grilled Scottish salmon marinated in sake lees flakes delicately and hums with that sweet and soy tang so characteristic to Japanese cooking. But a beef special? Clumsy chunks that need to be gnawed and gnawed and gnawed some more.
Speaking of gnawing issues, the sushi rolls here are so large as to be unwieldy. One slice of the soft shell crab roll cannot fit into my mouth -- and I've got a big trap, y'all. My friend and I attempt to take half bites and our slices fragment into a mess on our plates. This is not sushi meant for polite company.
Then there's the roll served in a gorgonzola sauce with roasted red peppers in the filling. It tastes more like risotto than sushi, and it crosses my personal fusion comfort line.
And I suppose I should mention this: On my second visit my table orders about 15 dishes and racks up a food bill around $175 before tip. Problem is, one chum and I are still hungry. Like, hungry enough to drop off our two other friends and go eat another entire meal at a nearby Italian restaurant. I may be known for my prodigious hankerings, but it's the first time in my career (and having eaten at scores of other Japanese restaurants) that I've had to pull a double from hunger pangs.
I wonder if it wasn't a kind of existential hunger that struck. You can taste Naito's appetite to succeed in each dish. He's got the foundation down, but to ensure his dream truly blossoms, he needs to keep working to translate his educated palate into flavors that synthesize and ultimately satisfy.