First Impressions visits dining spots in the region that are new or have undergone recent transitions. Have a candidate for First Impressions? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The new Skool restaurant offers a nice change-up from the usual intricate lists of sushi, sashimi, nigiri and rolls that dominate the menus of most Japanese-centric restaurants. It describes its fare as “seafood with Japanese flair” and limits its “raw and cured” offerings to four items.
Speaking to that: “One of chef (Toshihiro) Moto’s strong suits is in sashimi preparation and curing fish,” said co-owner Andy Mirabell, partnered with his wife, Olia Kedik, chef Moto and his wife, Hiroko Moto. “You can build the namero (salmon tartar) into a hand roll, so that would be the most sushi-like item we have. The ooburi (amberjack crudo) is a true sashimi cut, with a lot of accompanying ingredients.”
The Skool mothership is in San Francisco, and its expansion into Sacramento in February was something of a homecoming for Mirabell, a Jesuit High School alumnus. “We’re settling into the city a lot quicker than we anticipated,” he said.
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The restaurant occupies the Midtown Sacramento space vacated by Anatolian Table, which still operates in Rocklin.
Helping explain the Skool name is a note on the website: “The word ‘school’ defines a social group of fish that swim in a coordinated manner to increase their families’ overall defense, efficiency and success. We too thrive on the same principles.”
In another definition of the word, the “school” theme is found in the menus, printed on grade school-invoking lined writing paper attached to clipboards (with unsharpened yellow wood pencils), and in a happy hour designated Detention Hall.
Menu: It’s spiced with surprises, discoveries and a sense of fun, with expertly prepared offerings reflecting Japanese-California fusion seafood with a few Mediterranean influences.
Nine “bites” include fresh sardine-topped deviled eggs, and salmon “chips,” strips of fried salmon skin. Joining those are baby king-oyster mushroom “fries,” the hefty ’shrooms coated in cornmeal and fried to a golden crisp, served with spicy white-miso aioli. From the char-griller come squid, oysters and hearts of Romaine lettuce with shrimp and radicchio.
One novelty is the surprisingly large and meaty ribs from the freshwater paku fish (a cousin of the piranha), fried and “hand-painted” with Japanese barbecue sauce.
Price point: Balanced, given the quality and freshness of ingredients and the carefully styled presentations. Items range from $8 to $15, topping out at $25 for pan-roasted trout with sunchoke, broccolini, chimichurri sauce and grilled lemon. We can’t recall ever seeing a grilled king crab leg ($18 or market price) or the house specialty, squid ink spaghettina with squid and shrimp ($19).
Ambience: Mirabell and company transformed a tired, dated space into a bright and welcoming urban-rustic retreat. Walls are decorated with photos of sushi chefs wielding their blades, and a wall of taxidermied sea urchins seem to be marching to the sea. Dominating the ceiling over the kitchen-bar area is a diagram of a giant tuna, the different cuts outlined by dotted lines. Blond-wood tables and banquette, a six-stool bar (with octopus purse-hangers) and a dockside feel complete the vibe.
Drinks: An overflow of imagination went into the list, with tasty “cocktails” based on sake, shochu (stronger than saki), vermouth, wine and beer. Plus 10 bottled and canned beers, three brews on tap and several California wines. Basil-accented lemonade and ginger-lemon shandy were ideal refresher courses.
Service: Servers were professional, informative and just plain nice.
First impressions: In a word, outstanding. One nightly special, a delicate, panko-crisped cod cake seasoned with Japanese seven-spice blend, was served on a bed of kale-cabbage slaw with apple-cider vinegar. Macaroni brandade is a twist on an old-school French dish, with the pasta joining baked black cod (fresh fish, not the traditional salt cod), creamed potatoes, mozzarella and Parmesan in a heat-bubbling ramekin garnished with two big caper berries. Comfort food made cozy.
Succulent grilled Pacific oysters came two ways – one in a sauce of soy and butter, another in a Spanish ravigote (relish) of bell pepper, onion, garlic and oil, topped with melted mozzarella. Soy sauce-marinated fried chicken wings were a revelation – light and juicy-crispy, with fine texture free of any breading.
The star of our table was a massive grilled king crab leg, a long strip of the shell removed for easy fork access. With it was uni (sea urchin)-spiked butter for dipping. Uni is trending at high-end restaurants in San Francisco and New York City, showing up as mayo, aioli and custard, and lending its salty, rich flavor to pasta and seafood. Some call it the “foi gras of the sea.” We call it an acquired taste.
Try it if: You like seafood and/or Japanese cuisine, or if you’re simply a daring diner on the lookout for anything new and different.
Forget it if: You think oysters on the half-shell are terrifying.
Where: 2319 K St., Sacramento
Hours: 5-9 p.m. Sundays-Tuesdays; 5-9:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 5-9 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Brunch is 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m. weekends. Happy hour is 5-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, and 4-6 p.m. weekends.
Information: 916-737-5767, www.skoolonkstreet.com