Yao-Kiku, Hole in the Wall

Yao-Kiku is what most people would call a hole in the wall. It’s small, it isn’t well-known even in its hometown of Santa Rosa, but it’s been there for years — tucked away in an obscure shopping center — serving straightforward sushi, tempura, and other Japanese/American staples.

Other than those few facts, I wasn’t sure what to expect on my first visit there. Yelp reviews were typically bi-polar and unhelpful; as always, more interesting for their revelation of people’s quirks and prejudices than any reliable description of the food. But Yao-Kiku has recently begun featuring organic meat and produce on their menu, and they carry our Megumi Natto, so I figured I’d give it a try.

Sam Ogura, the chef and owner, is a surly fellow. Or maybe he’s just shy? Anyway, he’s an imposing presence behind the sushi counter. And for me especially: he was suspicious of my motives with the camera, he had never heard of me before, and he didn’t want to answer any questions. Despite my repeated explanation that I work with Megumi Natto he persisted in thinking (or saying) that I was with a local newspaper or magazine, and he didn’t want to be featured in any stories. His English isn’t too strong, so maybe it can all be chalked up to a language barrier…but I doubt it. Anyhow, he eventually agreed to let me write something online.

I’m too young to remember the days when rude waiters were in vogue, but I suspect the experience was something like what Yao-Kiku has to offer. (Not that the wait staff here is rude — they were actually quite friendly and accommodating — but their presence is basically negligible compared to Sam’s.

Frankly, I was charmed. With so many people talking about food, being curious or informative or otherwise obsessed — blogging, writing, reading, eating — competing subtly (or not) to prove their worth according to some vague gastronomical standards, it’s refreshing to encounter someone — a chef, no less — who just doesn’t want to be bothered. I don’t think I realized how frustrating all that self-indulgence and self-promotion can be, until spending a bit of time with someone so clearly uninterested in participating.

Sam gave me samples and let me take pictures, but he clearly didn’t want to exert any effort to leave a good impression. Despite the fact that there was only one table occupied, and they were already eating when I got there, he cut our meeting after about 7 minutes because he was “too busy to talk.”

He serves Megumi Natto simply, but with care: you get three bites, each one balanced with scallions and soy sauce, and that’s it. “It’s natto,” he said, in a tone that further implied “what more do you want?” I asked him about other recipes, other modes of preparation. “There are lots of people doing crazy things with natto,” he said. “You look on the internet for ideas. That’s not for me.” The tempura, the sushi, even the decor in the restaurant seemed to emanate the same message: this is simple, decent Japanese food; nothing more, nothing less.

“I’m trying to come up with ways to make natto more appealing to Americans,” I told him; “different flavor combinations, different techniques.”

“I don’t know what you Americans want,” he said. “For me, natto like this is just right. I don’t want it any other way.” And really I can’t argue with him — it tasted great.

So maybe he does know what some Americans want, after all; anyway, I know I’ll be back for more.

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