Takashi might not, at first glance, appear to be a "special occasion" dining venue in the way that, say, La Caille, The New Yorker, Log Haven, Tuscany or The Roof Restaurant are. And yet, every time I go there, I see someone celebrating a birthday, anniversary, promotion, proposal or something special. Once I thought about it, I realized that I tend to celebrate at Takashi as well, most recently my wife's birthday. It's a place where I know I can count on consistency and quality for occasions when I'm not up for playing culinary Russian roulette.
Celebrating or not, I like to check in every now and then to discover what's new, and how the 13-year-old business is faring. It's hard to believe that I first wrote about Utah's foremost sushi restaurant way back in summer 2004. I had become a fan of Chef Takashi Gibo when I was treated to his talents at Shogun, where he worked before opening his namesake eatery. I can't speak for Gibo himself, but there seems to be an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mantra that runs through his restaurant. He doesn't have a website, for example—and doesn't need it. And re-reading my initial review of the restaurant, I found that many of the menu items I loved back then are still my favorites: ankimo (monkfish liver), the T&T roll and curried clams, for example. Why abandon tried-and-true customer faves simply for the sake of newness?
Website or not, people know about Takashi. From Monday through Saturday, a line forms on the sidewalk outside the restaurant prior to their 5:30 p.m. opening. I cannot think of another Utah eatery where customers line up before the doors open to claim a seat. And lunchtime is nearly as busy. Most in-demand are seats at the sushi counter, where guests can enjoy watching the chef and his superb staff of sushi experts wield razor-sharp hchs (sushi and sashimi knives) with skill and finesse. "The hch is the soul of the cook," according to a Japanese proverb.
If you can't be seated immediately, take solace—no, revel—in knowing that there's a terrific bar where you can whet your whistle while you wait. The beverage program run by General Manager Richard Romney is excellent, and you can't go wrong with signature cocktails such as the Kishu Kiss (Kissui Japanese rice vodka, umeboshi, lemon, umeshu liqueur and five-spice), or the "Ernest Goes to Japan" (Jougo black sugar, Sudachi Chu Japanese shch, Luxardo, yuzu, house grapefruit and shrub). Non-alcoholic drinks—like the "Shiso Sober" with cucumber, Japanese mint, yuzu, lime, simple sugar and soda—indicate that non-drinkers and designated drivers aren't ignored.
When seated at the sushi counter, the best bet is to put yourself into the capable hands of your sushi chef and eat omakase style, meaning he or she will choose what to feed you (with your input, of course; if you don't like oysters, you won't be forced to eat them). I like to mix and match, ordering some regular menu items and asking a sushi chef to also prepare something off the menu. During my wife's birthday dinner, we asked Gibo himself to hit us up with something off-menu, and he prepared plates of bite-sized noshes: Kumamoto oyster, ankimo with ponzu, lotus root and firefly squid (hotaru ika). The briny, crisp taste of the oyster led into the fatty lushness of the ankimo, which is like foie gras in taste and texture. Crunchy lotus root served as a mild palate cleanser before we enjoyed the tiny (a little more than an inch long) firefly squid.
In sushi restaurants, I like to work from lighter fare such as sashimi and nigiri up to heavier, richer rolls and cooked foods. Takashi always has a chalkboard full of nightly specials in addition to the staple menu. Bigeye tuna belly nigiri ($8) was deliciously tender, almost creamy; iwana ($5.95), aka Asian trout, was luxurious and tasted like delicate salmon. Even more stunning was kinmedai ($12), sometimes called golden eye snapper, a white-flesh fish with tender meat and a slightly sweet flavor.
Our exceptional server made sure empty dishes and plates were quickly removed, and water and wine glasses were filled. She also knew the extensive menu inside-out. She couldn't have been more helpful or professional. After enjoying some exquisite sashimi, we ordered fried trout ($12), which was the whole fish—gutted, scored, deep-fried and sprinkled with sea salt. The simplicity of the understated trout belied its fantastic flavor. Sometimes, less is more.
But even Takashi misses occasionally. For us, it was the wagyu nikumaki ($15): vegetables (asparagus, carrots and scallions in this case) rolled in thin-sliced beef and grilled. What should have been tender waygu beef came out overcooked, tough and lacking in flavor. On the other hand, steamed clams in a Thai-style coconut-curry broth with glass noodles ($12.50) remains one of the restaurant's most delectable dishes.
Thin-sliced jalapeños atop our "Avalanche" roll ($16) set my tongue ablaze, albeit in a good way. Perfectly cooked sushi rice encases raw salmon, shiso and tempura scallions, and the roll is topped with tender, raw bincho (albacore), jalapeño and yuzukosh aioli. Yuzukosh is a chef's secret weapon made from hot chilies fermented with salt, plus yuzu fruit and zest. It's a perfect marriage of spice and citrus flavors that can enhance almost anything.
Whether you come to celebrate or not, Takashi still manages to turn every meal into a special occasion.