Suddenly, it seems, downtown Los Altos became a mini-Japantown of restaurants, with Sumika at the head of the class.
Slightly below street level, the 48-seat restaurant is entered through the Central Plaza parking lot between Second and Third streets. A modest sign marks the spot, as if off an alley in Tokyo.
Since opening six years ago, the little yakitori place has done so well that owner Kuiko Osawa opened a second restaurant, Orenchi Ramen in Santa Clara. That one is all about noodles.
Sumika doesn't run the grill at lunch, but most of the rest of the menu is available. A great meal could be made of soup and salad or the fabulous fried tofu, or one of the rice and egg dishes.
At night, friends and families, colleagues and couples nestle in two cozy dining areas, all scruffy wood and tantalizing aromas. A huge vent draws smoke from the very hot central grill, where chefs deftly turn small bamboo skewers of meats and vegetables. It's fun to watch -- from the other side of a glass enclosure. If you're new to yakitori, ask for directions. Otherwise you can end up with a pile of skewers and a sleepy feeling of meat overload.
The night we visited, service could not have been better. It was crowded, we didn't have a reservation and weren't among the clearly recognized regulars. The server came by immediately with hot towels and advice: four or five small plates per person. He described a couple of the specials listed on a chalkboard and said, "You can order this for now, and if you're still hungry, order another dish." How refreshing in a world of overselling.
First came the beer, cold Sapporo ($5) or Kirin ($6) on draft. And then, happily, a couple of dishes at a time.
A cup of red miso soup ($4.50) with two juicy clams was full-flavored, almost sweet. I liked it; my companion didn't. If you prefer a more assertive miso, skip it.
On the other hand, the Sumika salad ($9.50) is a must, pretty to look at and a satisfying combination of all the food groups. Tender strips of chicken and crunchy wonton strips drape a mountain of tangy mizuna lettuce, cabbage, cherry tomatoes and cute little discs of baby corn. Peanut-sesame dressing brings it all together.
Sumika's karaage, fried chicken ($7) deserves its renown, with a crunchy crust hugging each of piece of juicy white meat and leaving no greasy fingers.
From the grill, we sampled other parts of Petaluma's finest, starting with five chicken hearts (hatsu, $3.50) of surprisingly different sizes. Just lightly salted, they pop open in your mouth. As with most of the grill items, they are gone in two bites. Boneless chunks of chicken thighs (momo, $3.30) were juicy, almost like pork belly.
Two grilled scallops (hotate, $4) had the same entrancing texture: crunchy on the outside, moist in the middle, but after the fried chicken, less flavor.
I preferred the meaty shiitake mushrooms ($2.80).
One of the specials, mozzarella miso ($6.50) sounded so unusual that we had to try it: three kinds of miso, fresh mozzarella, aged two weeks. In the end, it was dense and piquant, like an aged Asiago, so that dessert would have been overkill.
Dessert is where the chefs break into fanciful fusion. Recent choices included black sesame panna cotta, roasted tea creme brulee and purple yam pudding ($5.50 each) and yuzu cheesecake ($6). Next time.
236 Central Plaza, Los Altos
Hours: Lunch Tue.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner Tue.-Thur. 6-10 p.m., Fri. 5:30-11 p.m., Sat. 5:30-10 p.m., Sunday, 5-9 p.m.