Tanto — restaurant review — California
Posted on March 26, 2008 by Kris Nelson
I was pretty much jazzed about any plate of raw fish set in front of me until I moved to the Bay Area, where sushi is prevalent, but good sushi is rare (so you know if I, the human garbage disposal, am saying that, then there must be something amiss). Even some yummy stand-bys have been terrifyingly inconsistent at present, bordering on downright “bring in the health inspector” carelessness (I’m talking to you Yakko with the haphazard chirashi that one night I didn’t bring my camera, bouncing back to top grade on the night that I did).
Not up to rolling the dice for hit-or-miss sushi, I’ve been eager to revisit and try all the izakaya (pupus, tapas, hors d’œuvres, small plates to go with alcohol) restaurants we can claw our way into without making reservations. We’d been to Tanto a couple of times before the renovation and I’m glad to report they’ve rid themselves of those flimsy chairs. Unfortunately, I notice they still have that one awkward table with the load-bearing stud just hanging out in the middle of the booth. That just means you can get snuggly with your partner and share one bench, right? Dining alone? Instant partner. The tatami area in the front has now been converted to Western-style seating, with some private tatami settings in the “back” past the cool “wall of sake”, rebar abstract, and the irritable hostess. The place still resembles a village prison (teeny windows with bamboo “bars”), yet retains an odd coziness, as if you’ve accidentally wandered into someone’s hut in an old samurai movie. The extremely gracious waitstaff help this illusion a bit, scurrying around to make sure your water glass is filled, empty plates are removed, tea cup refreshed. There were five different people attending to us, including the stern hostess with her shellacked pout, militant as usual. At least the words coming out of her mouth were kind, dulling her laserbeam stink-eye.
Anything with unagi is pretty good here: unadon for lunch is huge, with a generous sprinkling of ikura (my fave!) on top. Unagi Yaki Meshi (crispy rice mixed with eggs and eels, served in the heavy stone pot that made the rice crispy.. also more ikura –yay!) for dinner. The Yama Imo Okonomiyaki (with lots of ebi) and the Scallops and Uni sizzlerplate dish are only so-so, tasting a bit more like rubber than food, smelling even worse. The latter is pretty cheap considering they pile on the sea urchin.
The Yaki Onigiri is amaaazing, stuffed with mentaiko (spicy marinated cod roe) imparting a kissy pink hue, topped with scallion ringlets, chirimenjako (teeny tiny dried sardines) and ikura that actually melts with the warmth. I’m surprised they are so generous with the pricey ikura here! I know you think it’s just roasted rice, but the wonderful mixture of flavors and textures: crunchy toasty nutty rice, creamy mentaiko filling, semi-salty gelatinous ikura, are just heaven together. Too bad there are only two for ~$6.50.
Another favorite of ours is something that seems rather disgusting when described: mushy eggplant flavored with mushy miso (salty soybean paste), topped with mushy melty cheese. I forget the name, but it is the only eggplant item on the menu I believe. I must warn you that the cheese is suspiciously of the “supermarket shred” variety, but I could be wrong. At any rate, they give a LOT. Our plates get so greasy afterwards that they replace them with clean ones. Owch, my arteries.
I must also warn you picky palates out there that the chocolate syrup on their mammoth desserts is probably ghetto Hershey’s. I guess this gourmet faux pas could be ignored when presented with an unabashed mountain of vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and either a banana that’s been baked in it’s skin, or puffed pastry, apples and caramel sauce, depending on which dessert you order. The other desserts are more Japanese-y, including green tea ice cream with azuki bean and mochi. Perfect endings to a surreal culinary experience*.
The phonetic equivalent of tanto (tonto) means foolish in Spanish (samurai dagger in Japanese), and you’ll be foolish to pass Tanto Restaurant up.
*Bonus: sometimes you get to hear the musak versions of Southern All Stars and there’s an adjacent bikini bar. Sounds like the average Japanese businessmen lunch trip.
1063 E El Camino Real – Sunnyvale, CA – (408) 244-7311
1306 Saratoga Avenue – San Jose, CA – (408) 249-6020
HOURS (Sunnyvale): T-F: 11:30am-1:30pm, 6pm-11pm, Sat-Sun: 6pm-9pm
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