In the May 21 issue of City Weekly, I wrote about a couple of terrific Park City restaurants specializing in sushi: Shabu and Shoyu ["Shabu, Shoyu Sushi House & Japanese Kitchen"]. This week, I turn my attention to Salt Lake City sushi.
Kobe Japanese Restaurant is, frankly, a place I'd been avoiding over the years. I'd heard nothing but mediocre reviews at best. But then, about a year ago, those negative critiques turned into raves. Chef/owner Mike Fukumitsu, formerly of Kyoto restaurant, had taken over Kobe. And although he says that his restaurant is still "a work in progress"—he plans to add artwork, upgrade the restrooms, etc.—physical improvements have already been made. The eatery expanded to about twice its original size, adding additional tables and tatami rooms, and the décor has been given a facelift as well.
Still, I was skeptical. I've heard about too many "great new sushi restaurants" that ended up being utter disappointments to get my hopes too high.
Well, shame on me for not visiting Kobe sooner, because once I did, Fukumitsu's restaurant joined a very short list of my favorite Utah Japanese restaurants. I totally get why, on any given night, more than half of the customers at this seemingly always-full restaurant are regulars, and Fukumitsu and others of his sushi staff appear to know all those repeat customers' names. My wife, Faith, and I are happy to be counted among them.
Mike Fukumitsu is the epicenter of his eatery. Having undergone a sushi apprenticeship in Japan—where he also learned to make ramen—he is extremely knowledgeable and outgoing, and he enjoys sharing the art and secrets of sushi-making with both customers and staff. For example, when I asked him the proper etiquette for eating sushi rolls and nigiri, he said that traditional rolls and nigiri should be eaten by hand. His Japanese sushi master had chided him for using chopsticks.
"And the correct way to eat nigiri," said Fukumitsu, "is to turn it upside down and dip the fish into soy sauce; otherwise the rice gets soggy and falls apart." This was news to me, although it makes perfect sense. "You'd use chopsticks for more modern rolls topped with sauces, tobiko and such, since they're messy," recommended Fukumitsu.
Having lived in Japan myself, I'm pretty picky about ramen. That said, the tonkotsu ramen ($8.95/regular; $10.95/large) is as good as any I've ever eaten. As with Vietnamese pho, ramen is as much or more about the broth as the noodles and other ingredients. And this is bodacious broth! Fukumitsu cooks down pork pieces and bones for a minimum of 24 hours, which results in a deliciously creamy broth. My initial guess was that the glistening, creamy texture of the broth came from corn or potato starch or some other type of "cheat." Nope: Fukumitsu explained that long cooking using rapidly boiling temperatures results in the breakdown of the pork's collagen (fat, to you and me), and that's what imparts that silky creaminess to the Kobe ramen broth.
Off to an already good start, thanks to that broth, the tonkotsu comes with nicely crisped pork belly batons; a gorgeous, slightly runny hard-cooked egg; chiffonade of scallion; crunchy bean sprouts; narutomaki; and perfectly cooked ramen noodles sourced from California (I suspect from L.A.'s Sun Noodle Company). I had to laugh when a customer asked a non-native English-speaking server what the white discs with pink swirls in his ramen were; "fake fish" was the response. In fact, narutomaki is a type of cured and pressed whitefish product (surimi) made with swirls to resemble the famous whirlpools in the Naruto Strait.
There's nothing fake about the fish and seafood used for sushi and sashimi at Kobe. Twice a week—on Tuesdays and Fridays—Fukumitsu gets a delivery of fresh fish from central Tokyo's renown Tsukiji wholesale fish market. "I never know exactly what I'm going to get," he says. "It's always a surprise package!"
That keeps things interesting and fresh at Kobe, where those in-the-know show up early on Wednesdays and Saturdays to get their lips around that fresh fish. For example, during one recent visit, we enjoyed a Tsukiji sashimi platter ($31.95) featuring an 18-piece assortment of five different raw fish. It was a revelation to me, but I prefer raw diver scallops to cooked ones; they're much milder. There was a zebra-striped fish (before being skinned) called ishidai that was tender and lovely, along with firmer-textured kochi. Rounding out the sashimi platter was a salmon lookalike—ocean trout (aka char)—and one of the best-kept sushi bar secrets around: delectable aji, otherwise not-so-appetizingly called horse mackerel.
During visits to Kobe, we've also enjoyed melt-in-the-mouth hamachi belly nigiri ($6.45), tai (sea bream, $5.50), walu (escolar, $5.50), a terrific serving of baked yellowtail cheek called hamachi kama ($9.95) and a superb salad of mixed greens, tangerine wedges and fragrant citrus-ginger dressing topped with a flash-fried soft shell crab ($7.95). If these prices seem low to you, they did to me, too. Wine markups are extremely reasonable as well; you can enjoy, for example, a bottle of Con Class Rueda from Spain for a mere $24.
Among the must-try specialty rolls are Kobe's most popular: the Summer Breeze ($13.50)—a specialty of Chef Josh. It's a huge roll with yellowtail, jalapeño, mango, cilantro, avocado and spicy sauce, all topped with salmon, lemon, honey, habanero powder and tobiko.
However, don't just take it from me, sushi- and ramen-lovers. Pay a visit yourself to Kobe to form your own opinions about this very special restaurant. Prediction: You're gonna love it.