Akemi aims to be the kind of Japanese restaurant that has something for everyone.
That isn't to say that the Solano Avenue restaurant is the kind of blandly mediocre "all-purpose" Japanese eatery that you'll find in strip malls across America — though it does have a similar breadth of menu options. In Japan, you might not encounter too many restaurants that offer teriyaki set meals, a full sushi menu, a variety of fried and grilled meats, and three or four different kinds of ramen. Here in the United States, that's practically the norm for a Japanese restaurant, but the amount of variety often exists in inverse proportion to the actual quality of the food.
But even a cursory glance at Akemi's menu will tell you that it's at least striving to be a better, more ambitious restaurant than that. There's the all-Italian wine list and the flights of sake, for instance. And while I wouldn't call Akemi a farm-to-table restaurant exactly, it does serve organic chicken and organic eggs, and Carol Tan, the general manager, told me that at least some of the produce is delivered from a farm in San Rafael.
Most importantly, while the food runs the gamut from giant sushi rolls to fusion-y small plates, much of what I tried wound up exceeding my expectations.
The restaurant is the new incarnation of Miyuki, a longstanding member of Solano Avenue's low-key, family-friendly restaurant row. Early in 2015, owner Jian Dong rebranded the restaurant as Akemi and did a big renovation that gave the space a decidedly more upscale feel — dim recessed lighting, tasteful flower arrangements, and lots of dark, repurposed wood. It's an aesthetic I'd describe as "modern Zen chic."
But the biggest changes had to do with the food itself. According to Tan, Miyuki was strictly a traditional sushi restaurant that hadn't changed its menu for years. Akemi has kept the sushi component, but its biggest focus now — and what constitutes about 90 percent of the menu, Tan estimates — is modern Japanese fusion cuisine.
Most of the time when restauranteurs talk about fusion cuisine, what they're talking about is some kind of amalgamation of East and West. But what's most appealing about Akemi's menu is the way chef Eddy Situ brings in non-Japanese Asian flavors — as well as elements from other food traditions that you wouldn't expect to find at a Japanese restaurant.
The best and most interesting example of this approach was the first dish I tried — a hamachi (yellowfin tuna) appetizer that consisted of thin slices of raw fish that were topped with mashed avocado (guacamole, basically) and jalapeno slices, and had been drizzled with ponzu and red chili oil — like the kind of sauce you'd dip a potsticker in. Japan meets Mexico, with echoes of Sichuan. Despite how much there was going on, the flavors were balanced and restrained, and I especially loved the prickle of heat from the jalapeno.
I have a post on the online food discussion forum Hungry Onion to thank for turning me onto Akemi's okonomiyaki — a singular version of Japan's most famous savory pancake. Most of the okonomiyaki I've eaten consisted of something like 80 percent shredded cabbage — a veritable mountain of the stuff held together by a thin, crepe-like batter, so the finished dish resembles an overstuffed omelet more than it does a pancake. I like that style of okonomiyaki, but I liked Akemi's interpretation of the dish even better. It was basically a cross between the traditional version and Korean haemul pajeon, or seafood pancake — you probably know the kind, studded with scallions and plump shrimp. The pancake was chewy with a crisp exterior and just a modest amount of cabbage to provide an element of vegetal crunch. On top, the usual okonomiyaki toppings — sweet mayonnaise, tangy tonkatsu sauce, and umami-laden bonito flakes waving to and fro — provided just the right balance of flavors.
Meanwhile, the "warm kale salad" wasn't your uncle's vegan co-op's kale salad; in fact, it was more of a soup than a salad — the dark greens cooked al dente and served in a miso broth loaded with thick slices of garlic and a surprising dried-chili kick. Despite the soup's miso base, the dish seemed less like a Japanese dish than the kind of boiled kale dish every good Californian home cook knows to make on a cold winter's night, piling the greens over toasted sourdough. Regardless, it was delicious.
The grilled and fried meat dishes tended to be a little bit more conventional. I liked Akemi's fairly straightforward, skin-on version of chicken karaage (Japanese fried chicken), though it would have been more satisfying if the pieces of chicken weren't cut so small. Better was the grilled pork belly — big, wobbly, luxurious cubes of it served with Chinese hot mustard for dipping. It's a dish that begs for white rice.
My favorite meat dish was Akemi's version of beef tataki — thin slices of American-style wagyu beef that were rare in the center but had a crunchy, well-seasoned crust. The best part: a garnish of sweet fried garlic seasoned with ponzu and chili oil.
Given its new emphasis on fusion dishes, the bolder step might have been for Akemi to do away with its sushi program entirely and instead fashion itself as a kind of modern, California-inflected izakaya. But it is to Akemi's credit that the restaurant remains a place where you can grab a seat at the sushi bar and have a better-than-average raw fish meal.
Here, too, the traditional and the less-than-traditional coexist: As I settled in at the bar one evening, the sushi chef wielded a blowtorch to sear the outside of an oversized, elaborately constructed "Baked Scallop" roll — the kind of sauce-laden thing at which sushi purists roll their eyes. On the other hand, I ordered exclusively from the restaurant's (fairly standard) selection of simple nigiri, and most of what I was served was very good. My favorites were the toro, the fattiest and most buttery cut of tuna; and the amaebi: intensely sweet shrimp served raw and topped with tiny orange dots of flying-fish roe. The latter came with an unexpected bonus: two big shrimp heads, deep-fried so that you eat every last bit — the crunchy little beady eyes, funky orange guts, and all. Even the accompanying pickled ginger seemed fresher and crunchier than usual.
Seasoned sushi eaters (or anyone who has seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi) know to judge a sushi restaurant by its tamago (rolled egg omelet) nigiri — one of the most difficult dishes for a sushi chef to master. In that regard, Akemi didn't disappoint: The tamago was juicy, tender, and only mildly sweet — not the sugar bomb you get at lesser Japanese restaurants. Still, save the tamago to eat last, and there won't be any need to order dessert — though Akemi's smooth, yuzu-infused panna cotta is worth trying at least once.
Where Akemi fell short for me was with its ramen — at least when it came to the bowl of lobster ramen I ordered, which, despite its $19 price tag, featured a fairly generic-tasting pork broth and a soft-boiled egg that hadn't been marinated or seasoned at all. The main contribution of the lobster component — about half an overcooked tail's worth — was the vaguely fishy flavor that the shell added to the broth.
I can't speak to the quality of the chicken-based spicy miso ramen or the tonkotsu ramen, with its characteristic milky-rich pork broth. Then again, there are plenty of ramen-specific restaurants I'd rather revisit the next time I'm in the mood for noodles. I'm reminded, then, of how specialized each subgenre of Japanese cuisine is, and how difficult it is for any given restaurant to master even one. How many Japanese restaurants in the East Bay do everything well? The fact that Akemi is already a double or triple threat makes it a notable addition.