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By Anita Felicelli

Early Impressions of Gochi Japanese Fusion Tapas

Uploaded: Nov 16, 2013

Gochi Japanese Fusion Tapas is an upscale restaurant or izakaya located at 1036 Castro Street, the second location of a very popular establishment in Cupertino of the same name. It opened at the tail end of summer. An izakaya is a Japanese drinking establishment that also serves food ?typically, drinking is primary, food is secondary. All the food is supposed to be shared, so someone who enjoys eating out alone like I often do might not be doing it quite right. However, the creative and sometimes odd culinary hybridization that characterizes the kitchens of many of these establishments is right up my alley.

The first thing I notice about Gochi in Mountain View is the elegant atmosphere. The room is divided by tall bamboo lacquered in red, black and other colors. The furniture is austere, made of dark wood. Patrons on either side of the room's divider can sit at a traditional long bench. A bunch of sunflowers grace the window. At one meal I ate there, Ella Fitzgerald was crooning "That's Why the Lady is a Tramp" in the background. Although the space was intimate, there are private eating areas for small groups.

The second thing I notice is how extensive the menu is. This is common to izakaya, but it can also make choosing anything an overwhelming experience for the indecisive diner: starters, grilled and pan-sauteed meats, salads, cold and hot udon, clay pot rice dishes, sashimi, desserts and daily specials. There are miyagi oysters and pickles. There are also two additional menus: vegetarian and gluten-free. And luckily the servers are for the most part extremely polite and affable. They are willing to explain the dishes and offer good suggestions.

My favorite dish so far is the shimeji mushroom tempura ($6.50) served with both green tea salt and dashi in a brown, glazed ceramic bowl. (If you are strictly vegetarian, opt out of the dashi, as it's fish broth). A whit radish puree and wasabi accompanies the tempura. I've bought shemeji mushrooms before, but have never been impressed with them ? I see now I was cooking them wrong. In tempura, they're perfect, soft and succulent. The green tea salt is one of the delectable salts I've tasted, both saltier and brighter tasting than many other salts.

I try the daikon radish salad ($4.50 for a small). It is a light and refreshing composition of shredded daikon in a ponzu dressing with garlic oil. It is heaped with kaiware (sprouted daikon seed) and topped with thin iridescent slivers of seaweed. Cherry tomato halves served as garnish. The kaiware and seaweed gave it a slightly bitter quality that was delicious, the way coffee can be delicious. Although the flavors and presentation are delicate as are many of the dishes I tried at Gochi, the salad feels surprisingly substantial. It is also available for a few extra dollars as a medium salad.

At another meal, a waiter suggests the ebi daikon, a lovely little starter in which pickled daikon is sliced thin and used as a pale encasement for fresh shrimp, mango, and other veggies flavored with a sweet vinaigrette. The pickled daikon proves to be mild and moist and not briney at all. The three rolls have a slight crunch, as well as a pleasing softness and give.

I also recommend the pan-sauteed rib eye steak, cooked in a soy-garlic brandy with scallions and garlic chips. The rib eye is served in medium rare pieces. It is exceptionally flavorful and luxurious, topped with shaved green onion curls that nicely balanced the buttery quality of the meat.

The waiter tells me that the green tea creme brulee is popular for dessert and once I try it, I could see why. The pudding beneath the hard burnt sugar top is particularly velvety. It is garnished with a raspberry and a mint leaf. Sometimes the subtlety of green tea flavor can keep a dessert at arms-length for me. Even at upscale restaurants, they can sometimes feel like desserts I admire, rather than ones I love. But this is a dessert I would come back for.

The only disappointing item I try to eat is the vegetarian Miso Pizza ($12.50). The pizzas are thin-crust and you can tell that they are supposed to be both buttery and flaky. The toppings are reasonably okay ? not wonderful, but adequate to the task. There are big meaty mushrooms, slices of eggplant, mozzarella (or something like it) and a sweet, slightly bland miso sauce. But the oily crust is tougher than cardboard. My teeth can make no headway with it. Neither can the two butter knives that my affable servers bring me.

When I ask the manager about it, she says brusquely it is supposed to be like that and offers me a steak knife. I still can't cut or eat patches of crust. The manager explains that the chef had told her mine was the only complaint and they had switched brands of pizza dough, so this was just a one-off problem. She dashes off to serve another customer and does not remedy the issue. Her non-response to a mostly inedible pizza at that price is troubling.

Despite the manager's response to that issue, however, I like the experience of Gochi. Both the lychee shochu drink and the fresh grapefruit shochu drink are wonderful. The waitress who brings me the fresh grapefruit shochu brought out a half grapefruit and a juicer for me to juice it myself. She tells me that in Japan, people playfully fight over who gets to juice the grapefruit. Gochi also carries Calpico, a yogurt drink that is popular in Japan.

I'm curious to see whether Gochi will do well in that spot, slightly off the main Castro Street downtown area. Diners with sophisticated palates will find much to love about this restaurant. But you should be aware that a single meal with a drink can set you back on the order of $30.

Have you tried Gochi yet? What items on the extensive menu do you recommend?