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A creative take on Japanese cuisine at Petaluma’s Sake 107

Japanese cuisine is more than simply tempura and sushi. Japan has a deep and diverse culinary heritage, yet its? cuisine can seem a bit mysterious, even to well-educated West Coaster.

Chef Eiji Ando of Sake 107 hopes to change this by introducing Petaluma to his home cuisine, not only through his treatment of items we have all heard of and tried, such as miso soup, tempura and sushi, but also through his care in preparation of a diverse set of menu items. These include everything from fish to steak, soups to salads, along with great sushi, sashimi, nigari and tempura. As an added bonus, Sake 107 offers roughly two dozen sakes to pair with the food.

I was skeptical when I first learned that another Japanese restaurant was going into the space formerly inhabited by Hiro’s at 107 Petaluma Boulevard North. Hiro’s used to be the best in town, but that was back before sushi joints were common place.

Over time, as fresh sushi fish became more accessible, Hiro’s high prices simply did not make up for its marginally better food. So, although many were excited about Sake 107’s impending opening, I reserved judgment until I heard from several readers. They informed me their experiences were one of kind and suggested we give Sake 107 a try.

On a recent Friday evening, my food crew and I took a couple tables along one wall, and settled in for our first Sake 107 adventure. What we would end up experiencing was a culinary tour that transcended sushi and tempura, giving us a much broader education on the diversity of Japanese cuisine.

Sake 107’s name pays homage to its address along Petaluma Boulevard, as well as its large array of sakes, so we started there. Our server, Josh Torres, did an excellent job of not only making us feel welcome, but also encouraged us to ask him anything, no matter how silly we might have felt once we realized just how little we knew about Japanese food and drink.

This education would start with the sake, Japanese wine made from fermented rice. Sake is stronger than beer or wine at around 18 to 20 percent alcohol.

This high alcohol content helps explain why many of the sakes one finds at American sushi joints have a harsh alcohol flavor and aroma. However, as Josh would explain, high quality sakes will not have this burn. We would learn shortly that good sake is actually quite drinkable, and that as we tasted through half a dozen sakes, different ones paired excellently with different dishes.

Chef Ando plans to put together a sake sampler, but for the time being, we created one for ourselves. The excellent wait staff will make sure you find a sake to your liking, even if that requires a few tasters.

Helping guide our decision, server Josh told us that the minus numbers on the sake menu indicated sweeter sakes, while the pluses would be drier. With everyone at the table interested in learning, we ordered six sakes, ranging from the sweet Miyasaka (-4) to the mild Denshu (+1.3) to the dry Otokoyama (+10.) I expected to dislike the dry sakes, being more of a fan of sweet wines, but found every sake to be pleasantly palatable, with a distinct lack of the harsh alcohol tones that have had me avoiding sake. We also enjoyed several glasses of Koshihikari, a crisp, light, malty Japanese beer that went great with everything.

After crunching through an order of freshly steamed edamame, the miso soup arrived, and this is when we realized Sake 107 is different. Chef Ando’s miso is unlike anything we had sipped before, and was the first stop on our culinary journey of the chef’s homeland.

Chef Ando grew up in the Aichi Prefecture, which sits on Japan’s east coast between Tokyo and Osaka, and has its own distinct culinary style.

As a child in Aichi, Ando would watch American TV and movies. He especially loved George Lucas’s classic American Graffiti, several scenes of which were filmed right outside the front door of Sake 107. He would eventually move to Tokyo at the age of 18 in order to immerse himself in the Americaphile culture that flourished in the big city.

“There was a great 1950s American scene there,” says Ando. “I loved the music, the vintage cars and motorcycles, and everything that had to do with America.”

Ando got his start in restaurants for the very simple reason that he was hungry. “As an 18-year-old, I was always hungry,” says Ando. “I figured out quickly that if I worked at a restaurant, I’d never be hungry.”

It is a wonder that Chef Ando is as slim as he is, because his menu is divine, and one I would devour in its entirety every night, if given the chance.

While in Tokyo, Ando worked as a waiter and bar back, as well as at a noodle place, before joining a friend in San Francisco in 1999, living out his childhood dream of visiting the United States.

In fact, Ando would meet his wife while working on motorcycles in his friend’s garage in San Francisco. Although he worked at various restaurants around the Bay Area, once the new family was expecting their first child, they decided to move north in order to be closer to his wife’s family, which hales from Santa Rosa.

This was when Chef Ando joined Hana Japanese Restaurant in Rohnert Park, where he would hone his skills from 2006 to 2011. Looking to expand his repartee, Chef Ando left Hana for the well-respected Sushi 69 in San Rafael. It was there that he would develop a strong mentorship under owner Hiro Makino.

“He encouraged my dream to open my own restaurant,” says Chef Ando. “I eventually moved into management at Sushi 69 and he always gave me great advice and taught me so much about the restaurant business. I am honored that he chose to help me open Sake 107.”

Chef Ando is now helping do the same for his employees, as we learned from our server Josh. “Chef Ando is the coolest boss,” says Josh. “I always carry a notebook because I’m constantly taking notes. What he does is simply incredible and he is a great teacher.”

Josh was a busser at another restaurant just a few months ago, but Chef Ando pegged him right away as having the potential to be a great server. In fact, Josh is even more than that, acting more like an educator and a tour guide than a mere server. Where Chef Ando elevated the dining experience through his culinary creations, Josh takes it to the next level, guiding us through the menu, and our meal, as if leading us on an edible trek like no other.

With a growing family, Chef Ando simultaneously spent a couple of his early years at Sushi 69 while also working behind the sushi bar at Petaluma’s Kabuki Japanese, which as luck would have it, is where our passion for miso was born.

And it just so happens, Chef Ando’s specialty is miso, specifically Hatcho miso, which is a distinct variant of miso created at one of only two miso factories in his home region of Aichi Prefecture.

Miso is a traditional Japanese seasoning created by fermenting soybeans, salt and koji fungus into a thick paste that is used as a sauce or spread, as well as for pickling meats and veggies. A staple through Japan, miso soup, which is technically called misoshiru, is rich in vitamins, minerals and protein, which is why it played such an important role in feudal times, and is as popular as ever in both modern and traditional cooking.

Most miso is fermented for anywhere between a couple weeks to a couple months, but Hatcho miso ferments for two years. Hatcho miso is much darker than what we normally see and comes from steamed soybeans, instead of boiled ones. Also unique to Hatcho miso is its maturation, which takes place in cedar barrels, under 6,000 pounds of river stones, which are carefully stacked on the lids of the barrels.

Simply put, Hatcho miso takes the flavor of miso and turns it up to 11. But Chef Ando then takes it one step further with his “Asari-hatcho,” which incorporates Manila clams into the Hatcho miso soup, creating a priceless flavor experience.

Chef Ando’s attention to detail is what sets Sake 107 apart from other Japanese restaurants. Many of his dishes, such as the “Holy Mackerel,” take more time and attention than most chefs are willing to dedicate to a single dish. The results gave us our first real peak into what mackerel can taste like when the fishy flavor has been removed, and was a definite crowd-pleaser. Going the extra mile, Chef Ando even repurposes the mackerel bones by frying them, returning deliciously crispy fish chips to our table for the dishes’ final round.

“Chef Ando respects sustainability,” says Josh. “You also won’t find things like Unagi or Bluefin tuna on the menu, because neither are sustainable fish.”

Also incorporating Hatcho miso, the Miso Katsu dish is an unbelievably palatial panko fried Kurobuta pork, which is the trademarked name of the Berkshire pigs bred at the far southern tip of Japan, in the Kagoshima Prefecture. This is mixed with thinly sliced cabbage and covered in Owari sauce.

Sake 107’s menu is clean, simple and easy to understand, but it did not matter what we were served, everything was incredible. We were treated to Omakase, which roughly translates to, “I’ll leave it up to you.” I wish all cultures had a similar word, because having the Chef order for us, picking things that he thought we would like, gave us a great tour of his menu and the flavors of his culture.

From the small plates menu, we had the “Dancing Calamari,” which is something everyone should experience for themselves. We also tried the Tuna Lily, which is seasoned fresh tuna tartar (poke) on puffy shrimp crackers. Chef Ando even made a special batch once he learned that one of our members was allergic to shellfish, using a sweet potato puff instead of the shrimp.

From the original plates menu, we were served the previously mentioned “Miso Katsu,” as well as the “Wagyu Tataki,” which is seared Japanese beef, with Japanese mustard green (mizuna), along with yuzu kosho garlic ponzu sauce. Wagyu is the same breed that are used to create the world-famous Kobe beef, but I cannot imagine it being any more succulent than what we were served.

From the sushi menu, Chef Ando created the “Holy Mackerel” as well as his two most popular rolls, the “107 Special” and the “Melt in Your Mouth.” Both were incredibly flavorful and smooth, in large part because they hold together on their own with no need for the sheets of seaweed (nori) we see wrapped around most of our American sushi.

“My specialty is sushi,” says Chef Ando. His rolls convey this, but he is clearly being modest because his menu is incredibly well balanced with flavors and textures that go beyond just great sushi.

We also had the “Omakase Sashimi,” which is the Chef’s choice of the day’s most interesting catches. Raw fish never tasted so good.

We finished out with two unique desserts that I would return for in a heartbeat. One was a mix between flan and crème brulee, while the other was a semi-dry, green tea whip of some sort. Both were excellent, and no matter how hard we tried, we could not decide on a winner and will likely order both to conclude all future Sake 107 dining experiences.

Chef Ando calls his restaurant style “izakaya,” which is a type of informal Japanese gastropub. Traditionally, they are casual after-work dining places, similar to an Irish pub or a tapas bar. Sake 107 is well suited for anything from sake and sushi tasting with friends at the bar, to a full-blown Omakase experience for that significant anniversary or special occasion.

Coming full circle, Chef Ando’s passion for all things American brought him to the U.S. to the exact town he watched on the big screen in American Graffiti. Yet, while sporting his 1950s slicked back hairdo and riding a Harley, he has reached back to his home culture to help introduce North Bay diners to the flavorful traditions of his native land.

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