The chef's chef is younger than you might imagine and works much harder than you'd think. He's a student of the culinary craft who knows he doesn't know it all. This chef, with trademark baseball cap and thick-rimmed glasses, is always working, constantly thinking, forever inventing.
Away from the restaurant, he devours books. He travels. He eats. He invests in his own enlightenment.
The chef's chef respects tradition but refuses to be bound by it. His food – the beauty, the flavors, the harmony – speaks loudest when he steps into the background.
The chef's chef considers his purveyors a key part of the equation for success.
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If you show up at Kru on a Sunday or Monday, you're apt to rub elbows with some of the finest chefs in town. They come to pay respect to Buu "Billy" Ngo, the 32-year-old, Chinese-born chef-owner who just happens to be doing the most interesting and dynamic Japanese food around.
These chefs watch this chef do his thing. On a recent weekday for lunch, I spotted chef Pajo Bruich of Enotria with Matthew Accarino, executive chef at the Michelin one-star Italian restaurant SPQR in San Francisco, and the latest participant in Enotria's guest-chef series. Also at Kru that day were Randall Selland and his wife, Nancy Zimmer (The Kitchen, Ella and Selland's Market-Cafe).
"I have a tremendous amount of respect for Billy and what he does there," Bruich told me later. "He's extremely passionate. He works very hard. He's really a craftsman. He's really a chef. He's always exploring. He's always pushing himself."
Noting that he never looks at a menu at Kru, Bruich added, "I want to eat his food the way he intends it to be eaten."
During several recent visits, I sought to experience Kru in various ways – seated at the sushi bar and dining omikase (Japanese for "I'll leave it to you"), eating dinner at one of the tables, enjoying salads and shared plates for lunch.
Though Ngo is rightly lauded for his sushi, I've concluded that Kru would still be an excellent restaurant without it.
The kurobuta pork belly with a slow-poached egg is a beautiful example. The pork is dry-rubbed with seasonings and cured overnight, and then pressed, seared and braised in teriyaki for three hours. The egg is poached in its shell at low temperature for 40 minutes, then cracked open and served in the braising liquid with the belly, along with Sichuan peppercorns and seasonal vegetables.
You may find yourself asking, as this richest of pork seems to melt on your tongue and then vanish, "Did that just happen?" The egg adds a second texture element that is rich and decadent, offset somewhat by the al dente vegetables.
Then there's the duck. During two of our visits, it was smoked with green tea. The duck was perfectly medium-rare and plated with style, the slices of meat fanned out slightly, the vegetables topped with large dollops of ponzu foam, giving the dish a mix of modernist, classical and ancient elements.
You wouldn't necessarily think of visiting a sushi restaurant for an heirloom tomato salad, but the seasonal one at Kru is so good it's a must-try dish, practically an art piece.
Ngo sets a foundation on the plate of miso-mustard sauce that balances sweetness and acidity. He adds chili powder sprinkled on the side, tempura beans and cilantro sprouts, and then finishes the tomatoes with a deft sprinkling of pink Hawaiian sea salt, which both teases out the flavor of the tomatoes and gives them a subtle crunch.
You should try the beef tongue dish, too. Squirm if you want to, but tongue, properly cooked, just might be the beefiest cut of beef going. That's what Ngo and other top chefs like about it. That's what devotees of "lengua" at the best taquerias appreciate.
Here, the tongue is braised twice – once in water for 40 minutes, then again in teriyaki for an hour. Served with shaved fennel, radish, cilantro sprouts and that subtle ponzu foam, you have a sophisticated, beautiful and delicious beef dish brimming with savory umami.
The same could be said of the spicy, tender and delicious lamb sweetbreads (apologies once again to the squeamish, but that's the thymus gland, or throat, of the animal).
One favorite non-sushi dish at Kru is one that many might overlook, the uni panna cotta, which takes a traditional dessert and makes it savory, replacing the sugar with dashi fish broth and topping this creamy concoction with sea urchin blended with gelatin. It's an amazing dish, practically mystical in that the flavors seem to build and evolve on the palate with each spoonful, aided by the crunch of minuscule lotus chips. By the end, I wondered, "Did that just happen?"
We've already eaten very well, and I've yet to tell you about the sushi. If you dine "omikase," you can settle on a price that suits you – $50, $75 or $100 (reservations at the sushi bar are only accepted for $100 per person, but there often are seats at off hours). Like a top chef, you sit back and let Ngo do his thing.
This is food that makes an impression. There's intensity, harmony, delineation. As you eat, you get a sense of a young chef who dreams. You get a sense of his enthusiasm, his joy.
The Sactown roll might be Ngo at his best, full of complexity with a super-clean citrus kick on the finish of each bite. There's a lot going on – and plenty to appreciate. Here's your chance to be a real foodie even if you're unsure about sea urchin and salmon eggs. Along with local organic rice, there's lemon, avocado, crab, rock shrimp, tempura beans, eel sauce, shaved nori, flower petals, sea salt and more of that ponzu foam. All those ingredients and the eating is so clean, the flavors so clear, the experience so irresistible.
For a touch of "omikase" away from the sushi bar, try something like the nigiri mix, 10 pieces of fish and rice, selected and seasoned by the chef. Ours featured a lineup that showed subtle variations in texture and taste as we tasted from left to right on the plate.
Though the food is superb and Kru rightly belongs in the top tier of regional restaurants, it is by no means perfect. The desserts could stand some retooling. As inventive as they are, they are too big and, arguably, lack the finesse to fit in with the rest of the menu. When I saw the cheesecake – rolled in flour tortillas and deep-friend – it was so large I wondered if this was the start of a Joey Chestnut eating contest.
Same with the deep-fried apple egg roll. It's overwhelming. Ngo tells me the tiny kitchen doesn't have room for a pastry chef; someday, he hopes to have more space and better desserts. He could start by dialing back the portions.
The service we encountered was mixed, ranging from superb to mediocre. There's no better waiter in town than William Tan. He does it all – the basics of table maintenance, the knowledge of food and attention to all the little details. Throw in his charisma and professionalism, and here you see a server whose work makes any meal better. For Kru to improve in this regard, the gap between him and others on the staff needs to be narrower.
That aside, the eating experience at Kru continues to impress at a very high level. Ngo, the Sacramento kid who is now 32, has established his restaurant as a major force on the culinary scene.
As a chef's chef, he will continue to reach for more, elevating his restaurant and inspiring others to work hard, study, create and embrace tradition without being bound by it.
2516 J St., Sacramento
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday; noon-11 p.m. Saturday; 5-9:30 p.m. Sunday
Beverage options: Wine and beer, including a nice variety of sake
Vegetarian friendly: Yes
Noise level: Moderate
Overall 4 stars (out of 4 stars)
Since opening Kru in 2005, Billy Ngo has evolved from a precocious talent to a seasoned craftsman who continues to innovate. Best known for his contemporary take on sushi, Ngo and crew also serve up an incredible array of both classic and inventive Japanese dishes from the kitchen. While the service can be uneven and the décor lacking, the overall dining experience puts Kru among the very best restaurants in the city.
Food 4 stars
This is the focal point of the Kru experience – the mix of tradition and innovation, the sure-handed technique, the beautifully clean flavors, the teamwork. Whether you sit at the sushi bar or order small-plate or main dishes from the kitchen, you'll encounter food brimming with creativity, finesse, artistry and flavor. Be sure to try the heirloom tomato salad while in season, the smoked duck breast, the pork belly entree with slow-poached egg, the tri-tip salad and the watermelon salad. Our favorite roll at the moment is the Sactown, but feel free to sit back and let Ngo and company create a sushi surprise. Desserts are fun and tasty, though their large portions can be overwhelming and the emphasis on deep-frying can eventually be a turn-off.
Service 3 stars
While our experiences with William Tan made us feel we were being served at a Michelin three-star restaurant, other times the service can be spotty – earnest, maybe, but a tad rough around the edges. Narrowing the gap from top to bottom will only enhance the already excellent experience.
Ambiance 2 1/2 stars
If a perfect restaurant is somehow able to match its décor with its food, Kru falls short. Beyond the cool logo, it's a little busy and pedestrian. A streamlined simplicity and elegance would elevate the look and feel of the room.
Value 4 stars
While you can dine "omikase" and have an ultimate experience for $50 to $100 per person, you're certainly not limited to that. The excellent beef tongue small plate is just $10 and probably contains $20 worth of technique alone. The pork belly entree is $18 and will leave you baffled (in a good way). The sushi rolls are fairly priced from $12 to $20. The sashimi tapas are an entertaining and affordable option at $21, as is the $24 nigiri sampler with a high-quality array of seafood with rice. Beyond that, Kru uses high-quality ingredients, from the seafood to the local organic rice.
Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @blarob.