A good restaurant experience isn’t always comfortable.
The first involved Skool’s squid-ink spaghettina. It seemed like the thing to order on our first visit to this new seafood restaurant in the old Anatolian Table space on K Street in midtown Sacramento. It’s a signature dish at Skool’s 6-year-old San Francisco mothership and at $19, indicative of the Sacramento restaurant’s pricing level, which sits right between casual and high-end.
Plus, squid ink seemed to fit the Sacramento restaurant’s twin design motifs of seafood (a large fish sculpture hanging from the ceiling) and classroom (notebook-style, lined-paper menus).
But we knew little beyond the dish’s name when we arrived at 5:30 on a scorching Friday evening. The kind of evening that sticks to you, even when you move inside and into air conditioning.
The spaghettina, it turns out, is souplike, with pasta, shrimp and squid rings held in a broth that represents a magnificent marriage of Japanese and Italian cuisines, with a bit of Thai thrown in. A deep-tasting, ramen-style dashi merges with bright tomato compote before finishing with red-curry heat.
And you’ll get to the finish, because none of the tender calamari rings, succulent shrimp or darkly colored and earthy-salty squid-ink noodles should be missed. At that finish, I noticed being overheated, from the hot broth, the curry, the day.
Skool’s pacu barbecued ribs, by contrast, inspired nervous sweats. Not when I ate these fish ribs – the tender flesh of which were covered by crispy fried skin in turn covered by the sweet sting of Iwai Japanese whiskey sauce – but days later, when I asked Skool co-owner Andy Mirabell about the pacu’s nature.
It’s a large Amazonian fish with humanlike teeth and a close kinship to the piranha, came Mirabell’s gross-out answer.
That this wasn’t some sort of exotic cod probably should have occurred to me when I saw ribs the size of turkey wishbones. Also, does knowing the nature of the pacu suddenly erase the sensation of finding it delicious two weeks earlier? No.
In other words, I would do it all again – and already did, with the spaghettina, which we ordered on another Skool visit so that a different companion could experience it. Because the spaghettina shares with the fish ribs the qualities of being scrumptious and unlike anything I have tried before.
Longtime restaurant manager Mirabell, a Jesuit High School graduate, worked with Skool chef Toshihiro “Moto” Nagano at the Bay Area’s Blowfish Sushi before breaking from sushi and rice with their own Japanese-leaning San Francisco fusion seafood place. Mirabell and his wife, Olia Kedik, have partnered with Nagano and his wife, Hiroko, in the Sacramento venture. (The San Francisco partnership is different).
Mirabell, like Craig Takehara of izakaya-style Binchoyaki, has returned to his hometown with an extensive résumé from elsewhere to open a restaurant, and in the process help Sacramentans consider Japanese food more innovative than the gloppy sushi rolls that rule the local scene.
Not that there’s anything wrong with those rolls. But new energy is always welcome, and Billy Ngo of Kru Contemporary Japanese Cuisine and Fish Face Poke Bar can’t be expected to shoulder the burden of local Japanese-food creativity forever.
Skool holds more traditional delights as well, including “daily pick” fresh oysters served with an excellent champagne-vinegar mignonette to which strips of kombu (kelp) add umami flavor. House-made cocktail sauce with tomato compote and fresh wasabi also provides a bracing complement to the salty oyster. These oysters are $3, but the price drops to $1 on Tuesday nights and at Saturday and Sunday brunch.
The grilled oysters with mozzarella and ravigote (a Spanish relish with bell peppers, cornichons and capers) meet the oysters-Rockefeller decadence quotient yet do not satisfy like Skool’s other grilled-oyster offering, with butter and soy. Those oysters taste of prime rib drippings – wonderfully meaty, salty, fatty.
The melted uni (sea urchin) butter served with Skool’s grilled King crab leg is as rich as liver and packed with flavor, the butter rounding out the uni’s strongly fishy taste. These meaty-tasting seafood offerings best the lone beef item on Skool’s menu, a Kobe burger that might shine on a menu with less-adventurous items but seems obligatory here.
Some of those more adventurous items also lacked sufficient spark, such as an amberjack crudo dish in which the fish pieces were nearly flavorless and so large that they were hard to navigate. The deviled eggs, with boquerones (anchovies) and yuzu tobiko, were interesting in concept but surprisingly bland in execution. The cornmeal-breaded mushroom “fries” tasted underseasoned, as did, to a lesser degree, a fried black-cod “bonbon” daily special and the ora king salmon tartare (with quail egg) from the regular menu.
The bonbon and salmon tartare were beautifully prepared but in need of extra kicks. Good thing we had not been able to part with the cocktail sauce and mignonette from our raw-oyster starter. The first did the trick for the cod, the second for the salmon.
In case the menu does not sufficiently make the point, Skool’s interior design lets you know this is a seafood restaurant. A large, fish-shaped sculpture hangs from the restaurant’s ceiling. On one wall hangs a portrait, framed to look like a window, of the Tower Bridge and surrounding water.
There are not many actual windows beyond the area facing the K Street sidewalk patio, lending the place the feel of a galley kitchen. But one where the young indentured deckhands get a few hours of classroom time each day, in chairs with metal bases and seats made from bleached-out wood that looks beachy, “modern rustic” and elementary-school-institutional all at once.
The wooden bench seating, behind tables and along the walls, is more suitable to a brig.
Yet on my second and third visits to Skool, when I also sat on a bench – I like to view the room – I barely noticed the hardness. That’s because I was happy about the food, and that we would be waited on again by Monica, our server for every visit.
Monica is friendly, highly knowledgeable and just about everything else you would want in a server. But she clearly had to cover a lot of tables, and Skool did not seem to have the staffing in place to always cover her, so there were some lags between courses.
But Monica’s presence was so delightful that her absence did not frustrate. Service, in this way, fit with the overall theme that emerged during our Skool visits – thank goodness and our high school English teacher we can recognize themes – of slight discomforts and inconveniences never diminishing overall enjoyment.
2319 K St., Sacramento. www.skoolonkstreet.com, 916-737-5767
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m, 5-9 p.m. Sunday; 5-9 p.m. Tuesday; 5-9:30 p.m Wednesday-Thursday; 5-10 p.m. Friday; 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Saturday. Closed Monday.
Beverage options: Imported and local beers on draft and in bottles. Limited wine selection. Sake and shochu by glass or bottle. Cocktails made with shochu or apertifs, including a knockout Lower Manhattan with Cocchi Americano. No liquor.
Vegetarian friendly: Not especially. More like “pescatarian” friendly.
Gluten-free options: Yes
Noise level: Moderate
Ambiance: Clean, modern design mixes with a sense of humor. A large fish sculpture that hangs just below the ceiling tells you immediately what kind of restaurant you’re in. The “school of fish” design also integrates a classroom motif, in a notebook-paper-style menu.
Chef Toshihiro “Moto” Nagano inventively merges Japanese with other cuisines, especially in the outstanding squid-ink spaghettina. His dishes taste original. The design and the restaurant’s staff both exhibit good humor, though we sometimes waited awhile between courses.
The squid-ink spaghettina, made with earthy-salty squid-ink noodles, is part cioppino, part ramen, and wholly satisfying. The grilled oyster with shoyu and butter, which somehow tastes of beef drippings, is divine. But a few of Skool’s offerings, though creative in concept, lacked sufficient spark. These include the amberjack crudo and deviled eggs.
There were some lag times between courses, but our server for all three visits, Monica, was so helpful and knowledgeable that she bumps up the rating here by half a star.
Most dishes run below $20, and although portions are not huge, they are substantial. Plus, oysters are $1 apiece (and come with Skool’s exceptional mignonette and cocktail sauces) on Tuesday, when happy hour is all night long.