Weekly Dish, Diablo Magazine, April 13 2010

Fresh fish fans should mark Saturday down on their calendars: That’s the day Sasa opens its doors in Walnut Creek. Billed as the only Izakaya-style (Japanese small plates) restaurant in Contra Costa, Sasa comes comes with some foodie-cred: the executive chef is Philip Yang, the chef/owner of Lafayette’s Blue Gingko, while the 100-year-old former Lawrence Meat Market was restored and renovated by Brian Hirahara, the same developer behind the popular Va de Vi just down the street. Former Va de Vi chef Kelly Degala was also briefly on board as executive chef but was let go by Yang earlier this year (“one too many executive chefs in the kitchen,” according to Degala). As a sushi fan, I’m pretty excited to try out their fresh fish, which the restaurant says it will import daily from Japan’s renowned Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest fish market in the world. There’ll be a full bar too, including an extensive sake and Shochu list—check out their website for more details. Sasa opens this Saturday at 5 p.m. and will be open for lunch and dinner daily after that: Mon.–Sat., 11 a.m.–close, and Sun. 11 a.m.–8 p.m. Sasa, 1432 North Main Street, Walnut Creek, sasawc.com.

SASA – Japanese Inspired Restaurant gets set to open in early April

Walnut Creek, CA – January 26, 2010 – Sasa, the first Izakaya Restaurant in the Diablo  Valley will open its doors to the public in early April, 2010, in a beautifully restored 1910 brick storefront, in the heart of Downtown Walnut Creek.  The 100 year old building located at 1432 North Main Street once housed the Lawrence (Walnut Creek) Meat Market.  The restoration maintains traditional elements, while adding new and sophisticated architectural touches.  Stone, brick, fire, water and wood combine to create an elegant but casual atmosphere.

This new 100 seat restaurant features a full bar, stocked with an extensive selection of Sake, Shochu & Spirits.  Special tastings and flights will help guests through the Sake experience.  “Izakaya” restaurants have been around in Japan for many years.  Japan’s “pubs” are where people go after a hard days work to congregate and snack.  Izakaya dishes can begin with anything that is seasonal and finished with Japanese inspired flavors.  The menu will be an eclectic mix of sashimi, sushi, noodles, traditional dishes and perhaps the most complete variety of fish from the world famous Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo.

The building is being developed by Brian Hirahara of BH Development.  Jackson Santos and Barbara Best Santos have created the beautiful interior. Chef Philip Yang (proprietor and owner of Blue Ginko, Lafyette) will lead the crew that is dedicated to take good care of you.  Expect fun and a touch of playfulness when you step into Sasa.  Our staff will be ready to make you feel at home.  Come to unwind.  Stay for the unexpected…

Review: Sleek Sasa brings izakaya to Walnut Creek

By Jessica Yadegaran
Contra Costa Times

Posted: 09/07/2010 10:21:11 AM PDT

Updated: 09/07/2010 11:26:21 AM PDT

Dinners at Saza a Japanese restaurant on N. Main Street in Walnut… ( SUSAN TRIPP POLLARD )

There is something enticing about Sasa, the sleek Japanese restaurant housed in Walnut Creek’s oldest building.

From the moment you arrive on North Main Street, you are seduced. By a waterfall. By overgrown greenery that recalls a Tokyo garden. By tables inlaid with sliced agate gemstones.

A lot of people have been curious about this izakaya spot since it opened in April. The restaurant is just so attractive, some of us wondered if the food would measure up.

Izakaya refers to Japanese small plates, meant to be enjoyed with clean, food-friendly sake. For the most part, Sasa’s treatment is strong, with a commitment to freshness and bold flavors.

Culinary whimsy

Chef Philip Yang (owner of Blue Gingko in Lafayette) scores seafood from Toyko’s highbrow Tsukiji fish market and prepares Japanese-influenced dishes from around the world. At times, he gets whimsical.

Take the Chicken “Lollipops” ($9), juicy chicken drummettes doused in a sweet and spicy soy caramel sauce. It’s a lovely balance of flavors and the joy of ordering lollipops for dinner should appeal to everyone.

The Halibut Tempura Sticks ($12) — bacon-wrapped, lightly fried halibut with sweet onion ponzu — were just as delightful, but the bacon and its flavor weren’t as pronounced as one would expect.

The Sake-Shoyu Braised Beef Short Ribs ($14) were a home run: Dense, gorgeous ,  slices of beef

swimming in a sweet and savory broth with carrots and creamed potatoes. Sublime.

 

Sasa’s commitment to farm-to-table cuisine really came across in the veggie portion of the menu, under “Diablo Valley Farmer’s Market.”

From the seven options, we ordered the Fire Roasted Sweet Shisito Peppers ($6), small, blistered green peppers soaking in a sweet, soy-mirin dashi, or stock.

They arrived piping hot, so the delicate bonito flakes sprinkled on top of the peppers kept shape-shifting from the high temperature. It was fun to watch.

As for the level of heat, our server told us the peppers would be mild, but I found them spicy. And hard to resist. I soaked each one in the stock reduction, popped them into my mouth and washed them down with careful sips of Cabin in the Snow, a tropical cold sake with floral notes ($18 for a small carafe).

Sparkle, sushi

By this point in the meal, I leaned back in my bamboo chair, rested my hands on the glass-topped, hammered-copper table, and took in the ambience of the dining room. There was a lot to see.

And hear. We were seated at one of 10 tables in the back of the restaurant, where bass and drum music was playing at a level that allowed us to converse without screaming at each other. Always a plus.

The biggest mood setter for me was a little amber twinkle I noticed in the room’s linen curtains. Whenever a car’s headlights shined on the thick glass windows, threads in the curtains sparkled, like stars revealing themselves.

To me, it was an ingenious use of natural light. And very urban. Besides its hip menu and patient service, it was a small yet significant reminder that Sasa, like many Walnut Creek’s restaurants, rivals those in bigger cities.

But, few dining experiences are perfect. I was disappointed by dessert and should’ve known better than to order a dish containing salted caramel, a flavor trend that’s overstayed its welcome.

The Salted Caramel Chocolate Cake ($8) sounded appealing, with its frozen white mocha and Cypress black salt flakes. But the cake, while moist, packed no chocolate punch and I thought the salted caramel sauce wasn’t integrated well. Even the accompanying coffee granita shooter tasted like lukewarm iced coffee.

However, it was the only major miss in a sea of hits.

Particularly memorable was all the sushi, from the pillowy Japanese yellowtail nigiri ($8) to the All Season Roll ($15), crab, tuna, avocado and barbecue eel so fresh and perfectly proportional to its reel of rice that I almost wished Sasa would spend less time around the world and more in Japan.

Sasa

***

FOOD: ***
AMBIENCE: ***
SERVICE: ***
WHERE: 1432 North Main St., Walnut Creek
CONTACT: 925-210-0188; http://sasawc.com
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to close Mondays-Saturdays; noon-9 p.m. Sundays
CUISINE: Japanese
PRICES: $$
VEGETARIAN: Grilled eggplant, braised tofu and five more farm-to-table offerings
BEVERAGES: Extensive sake menu plus beer, wine and specialty cocktails
RESERVATIONS: Highly recommended
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
PARKING: Use the lot on North Main Street
KIDS: Fish, poultry, meat and vegetable skewers
PLUSES: Bold, flavorful izakaya (Japanese tapas), fresh fish, romantic interior
MINUSES: Dessert.
DATE OPENED: April 17, 2010

Izakaya: Japanese small plates pubs are suddenly hot

By Jackie Burrell
Bay Area News Group

Posted: 09/22/2010 12:00:00 AM PDT

Updated: 09/23/2010 05:03:16 PM PDT

 

 
Sasa chef Philip Yang holds a plate of Seared Albacore Tuna at his restaurant… ( SHERRY LAVARS )

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First came the tapas craze. Then Greek mezes. Now, the Bay Area’s love affair with small plate cuisine has a Japanese twist. Suddenly, izakayas — casual Japanese-style pubs — are popping up all over.

Izakayas are cozy places to hang out with friends, sip a little sake, and share small plates of sashimi, grilled skewers, deep-fried morsels and hiyayakko, a chilled, silken tofu with toppings.

Recently, at least four new, high-profile izakayas have opened nearby in recent months, including Walnut Creek’s Sasa, Berkeley’s Ippuku, Mountain View’s Bushido — and Sozai in San Francisco.

Some of them arise unexpectedly. Former Chez Panisse creative director Sylvan Mishima Brackett has taken to creating pop-up, one-night-only izakayas . Last weekend, his Peko-Peko izakaya took over the kitchens at Bar Jules in San Francisco.

“The food is obviously great, but it’s the whole experience of an izakaya,” says Brackett. As you might expect, there’s an izakaya in every neighborhood in Tokyo, their doors marked with red lanterns, and a chalkboard listing the evening’s offerings. “People’s houses (in Japan) are pretty small, so people tend to go out to these places together and eat and drink and talk. I love the feeling. It’s lighthearted and fun and intimate, loud and rowdy and totally different from most of the kinds of Japanese places I’ve seen in America. The food is pretty heavily seasoned and amazingly delicious — a folded omelet, which is a big izakaya thing, deep fried things, grilled chicken. I thought, ‘My God, why isn’t this a humongous thing in America?’”

Even raw fish-ophobes will be happy at an izakaya, where sashimi typically shares the menu with other marinated, grilled or pickled specialties. Certainly, the sheer number of izakayas suddenly blossoming on the food scene has not gone unnoticed.

Fans line up at Cupertino’s 3-year-old Gochi Japanese Fusion Tapas for chef Masa Takei’s take on casual, elegant small plates, including sashimi, tataki — briefly seared, marinated and sliced albacore, mackerel or bonito — and hiyayakko. And a bustling, capacity crowd descends on Oakland’s Ozumo and San Jose’s tiny Izakaya after work and on weekends.

Even in Japan, izakayas have changed dramatically over the last few decades. “When I moved to Japan as a teenager, izakayas were mom-and-pop kind of restaurants that seated six or 10 people,” says Philip Yang, who opened Sasa this summer. “It was a neighborhood place — and exactly the way my grandma cooked at home.”

It was during a more recent visit to Japan — after Yang had given up his career as a computer engineer, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and opened his own sushi restaurant, Blue Gingko, in Lafayette — that he discovered that izakaya had changed. They had become larger and more polished. The food, he says, was fresh, seasonal and elegant. And for the stressed-out Japanese, izakayas had become somewhere to “wind down a little bit,” says Yang, “You have a couple of small drinks, small plates and move to the next izakaya. I want something like that!”

Yang spent two months educating his new restaurant staff. Izakaya is about a state of mind, he says, as much as it is about small plates. But those small plates have signature flavors — fresh, simple, clean tastes. His favorite? Lightly seared ahi, sliced and served with a citrusy ponzu sauce and garnished with grape tomatoes, slivers of red onion and a drizzle of truffle oil.

Just, please, don’t call them tapas, he says with a laugh.

“Why don’t they call tapas a Spanish version of izakaya?”

Farther East ~ Diablo Magazine August 2010

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.”

AT A  GLANCE 

• What Makes it Special: Traditional prepared dishes inspired by Japanese pubs and the chef’s childhood culinary memories.

• The Space: A hipper-than-hip urban feel that would fit in any major city.

• When to Go: The bar is popular for lunch and after-dinner drinks. The restaurant will offer stiff competition to Va de Vi and Prima for fine dining and special occasions.

• Don’t Miss: The Riverstone steak: grilled flatiron steak served on a hot smooth rock balanced on chunks of raw taro root. Or, the empress rolls: deep-fried bananas set in a reservoir of thick chocolate sauce and vanilla gelato.

• Bonus: Many izakayas in Japan serve as second living rooms since homes are small. Sasa’s lounge pays homage to this, with cut agate coffee tables and comfy couches perfect for cocktails or dessert.

Contact: 1432 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 210-0188, sasawc.com.
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily.
Price: Small plates $5–$16, entrées $13–$20.
Alcohol: Full bar.