The Old Pueblo can be a bit a slow when it comes to dining trends, but when we do finally catch on, we embrace new foods with gusto. And so we should with izakaya dining.
Ginza claims to be the city's first izakaya restaurant. Comparing this dining style to tapas, the menu says: "In Japan, izakaya restaurants are popular places for friends and family (to) come together and relax over a sampling of small plates and plenty of good sake and beer." The small plates offered that we tried were all pretty darn good, and even though it was just the two of us, we enjoyed a number of dishes ranging from chicken to fish to seafood. No sake, though--but definitely some beer.
Ginza is tucked into a corner at Ventana Plaza near Sunrise Drive and Kolb Road. It replaced another Japanese restaurant, so I'm not sure if there was much redecorating done, but the room includes clean lines, cool stonework and simple colors that carry all the way into the restrooms. There's a sushi bar in front, about 10 tables in the main dining area and a full bar in back, although nobody was sitting at that bar during either visit.
We ordered chicken karaage ($6.95), soft-shell crab ($6.95) and shishamo, or smelt tempura ($7.95) to start, and a little while later, ordered ika shiokara (salted squid, $5.95) and teppan jumbo gyoza ($6.95). Two large Sapporo ($6 each) beers were the perfect accompaniment.
The plates were brought to the table one or two at a time, which meant we always had something in front of us and had time to enjoy each dish.
The chicken, which was described as Japanese fried chicken, came first. The eight or so pieces of dark-meat chicken had a crumbly coating and came with a slightly spiced mayo dipping sauce. Next came the crab and the smelt. The crab was in a tempura batter, so there was a nice crunch to the tender, sweet little crabs. The smelt were unlike any I'd ever had (and I grew up on Lake Michigan, where the smelt-run season was eagerly awaited each year). The smelt back home are pan-fried and so small that you eat them in one or two bites, head and all; these guys were monsters and had plenty of meat on them. The tempura style offered a nice change from what I've enjoyed in the past. By this time, there was ponzu on the table, and with a dip here and a dip there, everything disappeared quickly.
We'd never had ika shiokara before. John wasn't a fan, but I found the dish intriguing. Small strips of squid were in a marinade of their own innards and soy sauce. The flavor was deeply elemental, very organic and got better with each bite. The gyoza were truly jumbo and thoroughly satisfying.
It was all sushi on the next visit with Karyn Zoldan. We ordered a makimono boat ($38) which consisted of a spicy tuna roll, a rainbow roll, a California roll, a Vegas roll and a Fujiyama roll. You save about $2 this way--plus the presentation is more dramatic. For spirits, Karyn ordered a plum chuhai ($6.50), and I had a Sapporo light ($4.50). The chuhai was served in a small hurricane glass. The visual was impressive and the taste unique: a refreshingly chilly, icy clear liquid with an undertone of gin and tonic, it was the kind of drink that goes down easy on a hot, summer night.
Karyn and I caught up while we waited for our food. The boat arrived, and we dug in. All the rolls were of a good size. The spicy tuna, rainbow and California rolls were great, but we were totally impressed with both the Fujiyama roll and the Vegas roll. The Vegas roll was encased in a tempura batter and deep-fried, which made the cream cheese inside melt all over the rice, nori, salmon, avocado and imitation crab.
The Fujiyama roll was topped with seafood dynamite, which was warm and contrasted nicely with the roll itself (cucumber, imitation crab and avocado). Seafood dynamite is a seafood casserole packed with shrimp, yellowtail, scallops, salmon and more, all in a mayonnaise-based sauce. It appears as a stand-alone item on the izakaya side of the menu ($7.95) as well.
The makimono boat would've easily fed one or maybe two more people; several other boats are available, ranging in price from $38 to $65. Lunch, featuring bento boxes and teppan plates, is served Monday through Saturday.
Service was outstandingly and attentive, and you got the feeling that everyone working there really wanted you to have a good time.
The goods found at Ginza are some of the best I've tasted--so I'll visit again for more sushi and all those little plates of izakaya.