Sasa brings a different brand of Japanese food to Walnut Creek. By April Demboksy
Photography by Jennifer Martine
Sometimes, chef Philip Yang has to disappoint before he can please. In the first month after he opened Sasa in Walnut Creek, he had to tell many diners that he doesn’t serve seaweed salad. Or fried California rolls. Ramen? Try again.
Yang dismisses the local restaurants that feature these staples as California Japanese. Sasa, rather, is modeled after a traditional izakaya, a country pub that serves sake and small plates, with an emphasis on cooked dishes, instead of sushi and noodles. On Yang’s menu, cooked seafood, grilled meats, and dishes inspired by his grandmother’s cooking upstage the raw fish by design.
The izakaya concept is a huge hit at Ozumo in San Francisco and Oakland, and it was developer Brian Hirahara, the man who brought the hugely successful Va de Vi to Walnut Creek, who convinced Yang to launch a version east of the Caldecott.
When they go out to eat, “People don’t want to feel like they’re in Walnut Creek,” Hirahara says. “They want to feel like they’re in Europe or San Francisco. I think these places fill that void.”
To re-create that feel at Sasa, Hirahara oversaw an expensive, painstaking remodel that stripped away any signs of the Crepes-a-Go-Go it was last and restored the 100-year-old building to recall the old Walnut Creek Meat Company. The brick walls, exposed trusses in the ceiling, and arch doorways are all original features of the building, while a long, sleek copper bar accentuates the contemporary feel. Add in the flowing water sculpture and marble tables lit from within in the front of the restaurant, and you have a dining room that feels like a see-and-be-seen spot on the Lower East Side. If urban chic isn’t your thing, the patio, decorated with Japanese maples and a lily pad fountain, offers an Asian garden vibe.
The food is as trendy as the space, and servers are ambassadors of the izakaya concept, escorting diners through the thick sake list and each section of the menu, which is organized by food source: Diablo Valley Farmers Market, Tsujiki Fish Market in Tokyo, and Lawrence’s Walnut Creek Meat Company. Sushi and sashimi are relegated to the back page.
Our server, Vincent Chooi, guided us through the menu, instructing us to work from top to bottom, saving the strongest flavors for last and pairing complementary dishes. We started with familiar Japanese ingredients in unfamiliar forms: mild edamame hummus pureed with garlic and olive oil, and served with toasted pita bread; fried root vegetable chips, made of wafer thin slices of lotus, taro, and burdock.
The spicy ahi parfait, a molded round of raw tuna, avocado, and tobiko atop a baked mochi rice cake, arrived alone, but Chooi brought the rest of our dishes in harmonious pairs. The asari sakamushi, manila clams steamed in butter-sake broth, were a smooth match for the grilled pork belly skewers—thick, meaty chunks of pork with a rich line of fat through the middle that landed somewhere between tenderloin and bacon on the flavor scale.
We followed that with the asparagus goma-ae, light crunchy spears topped with sesame seed soy sauce, and the grand finale, the yellowtail collar. The fish neck arrived looking, indeed, like a crooked shirt collar, with ponzu sauce and a dollop of shaved daikon radish. Chooi guided us through his personal ritual: We mixed the daikon into the sauce, separated the fish meat from the skin, then took a bite with a chopstick-full of ponzu-infused daikon. Savor and swallow, then take a bite of the oily fish skin. Repeat.
Chooi’s performance is a relief for chef Yang, who counted construction delays as an unintended blessing, allowing him more time to drill his staff on the intricacies of his new dining concept.
After all, says Yang, with a smile, “They’re the ones who have to explain to people what kind of restaurant this is.”