Carla Meyer

Dining review: Eclectic Japanese bistro Aji still developing its voice

Aji Japanese Bistro, a new El Dorado Hills restaurant, is brought to you by two partners with impressive, if not impeccable, credentials.

Nick Dedier, who oversees the front of the house, is something of a restaurant prodigy. At 34, he’s already enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks, recently serving as general manager of Ad Hoc in Yountville, the family-style restaurant owned by the Thomas Keller Group (best known for its world-class dining establishments the French Laundry and Per Se). Dedier has also done stints at Restaurant Gary Danko and Bouchon Bistro, among other vaunted spots.

Partner Russell Okubo’s background includes executive chef roles at Fat’s Family Restaurants and The Firehouse, for years one of Sacramento’s best high-end restaurants. Okubo and Dedier knew each other from years back when Dedier was a high school student in Elk Grove and started working as a server at Sumo Sushi, where Okubo was the owner-chef.

This time, they came together to create an upscale but casual fine-dining experience that combines a potentially delightful high-low melding of Japanese cuisine, including full entrees, sushi, ramen, don and a selection of small plates they call “street food” (think short-rib-and-kimchee tacos and spicy onion pork buns). Given this concept and two owners’ backgrounds, we had high expectations for Aji and even wondered if this could be one of the area’s next great restaurants.

This restaurant is built for people to have a good time, digging as deeply as they desire into the cuisine and excellent selection of mixed drinks, craft beer, wine and sake. The ambiance has an air of low-key elegance, with an attractive bar toward the front of the large dining room, several plush booths along the perimeter, well-spaced tables in the middle and seating in back at the sushi bar.

Customer experience is clearly Dedier’s focus, as he has dedicated much of his working life to providing service at the highest level. A recent profile of Dedier in The Bee revealed his finely honed powers of observation and attention to detail, including how body language might suggest a customer’s mood, how a cellphone nesting on the table indicates someone’s in a hurry, how the clanging of utensils when a table is cleared is verboten – all the little things that elevate the dining experience. In the kitchen, we learned, there is a sign – “A Sense of Urgency” – that echoes Keller’s widely heralded mantra for achieving greatness.

And yet our experiences so far suggest all that focus on nuance might be best reserved for later. Right now, Aji could use greater emphasis on its cooking – how it can take its eclectic and often inspiring words on paper and make them come together for a more consistent, dynamic and entertaining eating experience.

While the restaurant already exhibits a sense of sophistication when it comes to the ambiance and service, there were simply too many missteps from the kitchen. The seasoning of the food, the use of ingredients, the composition of the dishes – much of it seemed random, if not clunky.

Despite its rather uncommon concept, Aji finds itself in the most competitive restaurant category in the region. Casual upscale dining, in fact, is the direction fine dining is going throughout the country. It’s less formal and often more fun. But to distinguish itself, a restaurant has to make the food really sing and dial in the value.

Some of that was noticeably off key at Aji. A serving of shishito peppers was undercooked and bitter. An order of pork belly was overcooked and off-tasting. A handsome steak was perfectly grilled but under-seasoned (if it was seasoned at all). This 12-ounce rib eye was plated without a hint of aesthetic inspiration – with three deep-fried croquettes and nothing else.

The tontaksu pork chop, heavily breaded and fried, had a crust that lacked crispness and cohesion. The breading fell away from the meat the moment a knife hit it. Beyond that, the crust and meat were practically mute when it came to flavor.

The short rib and sea entrees were the best of the bunch, but not accomplished enough to call stellar. The beef was almost stewlike, with the meat broken up so much it seemed nearly shredded, though the dark and deep flavor of the enoki-shiitake demi-glace made the dish memorably delicious. Nevertheless, we had a short rib dish the next night at a restaurant in Auburn that was significantly better and showed greater command of technique.

The misoyaki-style sea bass was accurately cooked and had a pleasing combination of salty and sweet from the miso marinade. It was a simple, tasty and overall pleasing entree.

The bibimbap, a working-class kind of dish I have enjoyed at many Korean restaurants, showed potential but it didn’t quite come together. Think of bibimbap as a hodgepodge of ingredients thrown together into a bowl, often with marvelous results. An oozing egg yolk coats fermented vegetables, meat, rice and greenery to create a luxurious mouth-feel. At Aji, most individual ingredients were solid, including a tender, and this time, nicely seasoned beef. But the egg was overcooked, so the yolk had no functional purpose.

What’s going on at Aji? Is it too new to show its true personality? Is it trying to do too much too soon? Is the kitchen focused enough to create the kind of balanced flavors and exactitude that are the hallmarks of superb Japanese cuisine?

Though we were sometimes bewildered by the larger dishes, we found more to like with those small plates Aji labeled street food, even if that term might elicit a chuckle, as we’re talking about items served not from a humble food stall but in an upscale suburban shopping center, complete with 750,000 square feet of retail space, a faux-European design aesthetic, a multiplex movie theater and a man-made lake.

While the crispy pork belly lacked an expected buttery tenderness, veering instead into tough-and-chewy territory, the calamari was some of the best we’ve had. It was battered and cooked to a lovely crispness, enveloping tender and appropriately pliant squid, and served with a wasabi yuzu ketchup.

The hamachi, a sashimi dish with jalapeño chili, was first-rate – nicely presented on a long rectangular plate, very fresh and with a pleasing punch from the jalapeños. The Bistro Maki, one of the sushi rolls available, was also a winner, with tempura shrimp and nicely cooked rice making for a pleasing textural bite.

A fried chicken dish called karaage was a wonderful display of cooking and did precisely what we had hoped for with the pork belly. The boneless chicken thighs were crunchy on the outside, smooth, light and tender on the inside. Smothered in teriyaki, this showed how good Aji could be if it could get several of its other menu items up to this level.

But wait, there’s more. Even for a Japanese bistro with eclectic inclinations, it might be odd to declare its sliders – an American pub staple that may have jumped the shark three years ago – the absolute highlight of the menu. And yet, these mini burgers may be some of the best we’ve ever tasted. Instead of miniature buns, these sliders were served on delicious “Japanese toast,” and the accompanying fries were near-perfect – deep brown and crisp and flavorful.

Aji may have some hits on the menu, but this is a big restaurant with big ambitions, and the food program doesn’t seem to know when to say when. Though two people could eat well for $50, they could also focus on high-end menu items and, with drinks, easily spend $100. For a new customer, it may be difficult to navigate the menu and the style of dining that works best. Aji could either sharpen the focus of what’s offered or ensure that the quality gaps aren’t so apparent.

Despite the small-plate positives, halfway through my first meal, I must have been giving off all kinds of subtle signs to Dedier’s ever-observant staff. Yes, my phone was sitting on the table. And yes, my shoulders were probably slumped. If Dedier had sized up our table, he might have concluded we were too often underwhelmed by the larger plates, those off-notes jarring us out of our desired dream state. Then there were the less-subtle signs – like when our server asked if we wanted to box up our half-eaten entree and we said no. But if we were giving off signals, no one seemed to be picking up what we were putting down.

The desserts didn’t necessarily save the day. The mochi chocolate cake didn’t do enough to stand apart from typical chocolate cake. Even with its dense, chewy consistency, it just wasn’t very tasty or exciting. The cheesecake was on the dry side and its flavor was underwhelming, if not bland. The most distinctive dessert was the large serving of green tea crème brûlée, which took a classic dish and, with a creative flourish, made it something special.

That’s the kind of thing we’d like to see more of at Aji, a young restaurant still finding its voice, with an assortment of ideas that need to be perfected, reworked or jettisoned. With such knowledgeable owners, Aji could very well realize its potential for greatness and shore up its weaknesses. It will take a willingness to change and, as the sign suggests, a sense of urgency.

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