Nami Nami is a remedy to this mindset. Though small in size, the 3-year-old restaurant has an extensive menu that specializes in unusual dishes and traditional Kyoto style tapas — small samplings presenting a wide range of flavors and cooking styles — including some that may make you wonder if Japan is the real inspiration behind the creation.
The setting is simple, with deeply textured ochre walls, twisty paper lanterns hanging from a high ceiling and unadorned tables, putting the spotlight right on the food. Presentations are uniformly beautiful: It's worth it to simply take a minute and admire the arrangements. Instead of a bento box, lunch specials come on a lacquered platter with a collection of mismatched ceramic plates and bowls. Sashimi is fanned out with meticulous care in a deeply textured arc on cobalt blue glass. A shrimp roll is positioned so the tails all point the same direction.
The menu is ambitious, with the tapas-like starters, salads, stews, porridges, rice balls, noodles, soups, fried foods, sashimi, grilled items and a separate list of the specials of the day. The section called chinmi (Japanese for "delicacy") lists dishes you do not normally see on Western menus — pickled sea urchin roe, salted sea cucumbers, monkfish liver, fermented squid and fish stomach.
Try to pick and choose so that you can sample a range of flavors. While much on the menu is suburb, there are some selections that simply do not work.
Definitely sample the fresh fish. We had the sashimi three kind ($20) — beautiful, glistening, generous slabs of pristine yellowtail, tuna and salmon dusted with roe. A starter of octopus and seaweed su-no-mono ($6) became exceptional with a sprinkle of dashi vinegar sauce and cucumbers sliced like tiny works of art. Black cod saikyo yaki ($11) consisted of two generous chunks of buttery, perfectly prepared fish shimmering with a glaze of sweet white miso.
Less successful were some of the fried selections suggested by various waitresses. The Nagoya Zen ($12), one of the regular lunch specials, was a lighted breaded pork cutlet with a side of too-sweet, too-thick sauce. Bland in appearance and in flavor, the parts did not add up to much of a whole. A luncheon appetizer of organic chicken karaage with yuzu lime pepper ($7), breaded and deep-fried nuggets of too-dry poultry, made me yearn for a spot at the sushi bar. A dinner appetizer suggestion, a special of three red crab croquettes ($15), was creamy and crunchy, but with exactly zero flavor.
Another lunch suggestion, the Setouchi Zen ($12) was more like it: an enormous portion of stewed mackerel with a delicate ginger miso sauce that blended well with the strongly flavored fish. And the beef tongue stew in miso sauce ($14), a dinner dish that pushed the boundaries of East-meets-West cuisine, was like sampling the essence of earthy flavor — an amazing, velvety, melt-in-your-mouth experience.
The restaurant features a thorough wine list, with a nice range of varietals, including pinot grigio, Syrah and Chateau Le Pape ($35-$60), and several sections by the glass. Premium sakis and Japanese vodkas are offered by the glass or bottle.
Desserts ($6-$7), not usually a strong point in Japanese restaurants, are complex and tantalizing, from the white coffee panna cotta to the yuzu pudding and the strawberry and red bean mochi.
Nami Nami prepares its food in the kappo style, which traditionally involves seating diners across a counter from the chef. In this case, however, the only chef visible is working the miniscule sushi bar, but the unusual ingredients and personal touches are evident as each dish is brought out from the kitchen. Try to sample a little from throughout the menu, starting with tapas and sashimi, and then share some of the heavier dishes. That way you're sure to have at least some selections that will amaze your palate, even if you do go wrong on some others.
240 Castro St., Mountain View.
Hours: Lunch Tues.-Sun. 11:30 am-2 pm
Dinner Tues.-Thurs. 6-10 pm; Fri.-Sat. 6-11 pm
Price Range: Lunch $10-$24
Credit cards: Yes
Parking: Street and nearby lots
Outdoor dining: No
Party facilities: No
Noise level: Average
Bathroom cleanliness: Excellent