By Jessica YadegaranContra 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