Friday was my first pay day in my new job, and Edmund and I wanted to celebrate. In fact, we’d had to reschedule several times and were overdue for a night of fine dining with our friends Steve and Dorene so we’d agreed to go out for sushi celebration. At the very last minute, though, we ended up changing location to avoid having to drive across one of the Bay Area bridges at rush hour in wretched weather. In a fit of inspiration, Dorene suggested Hanazen in Orinda, which Edmund and I could take a BART train to and Steve and Dorene could easily drive to.
I don’t often give 5 stars but Hanazen earned it. One of a kind, artisanal preparation of lovely fresh ingredients, creating complex, nuanced flavours. Eating there for the first time requires a certain dose of humility and appreciation for art. This was more upscale, smaller, and altogether refined than the place we were originally going to eat at. I’ve been in many nice, pleasant sushi places but it had been a long time since I had been in a top-notch place where everything is about creating art, not about delivering a product. I say “art” as a compliment, not sarcasm: the art of a perfect balance of flavours, aromas, colours, shapes, and textures.
I’d read the Yelp reviews, especially the negative ones (I always do) before trying this place. I “get” what the negative reviewers were unhappy with, but I think they missed the spirit and quality of this place. For context, understand that this place is owned by a husband and wife who are chef and host—Kenji and Coco Horikawa—with no other personnel, and could seat 17 people at a time if it was jammed packed with no room to move. You go there for an evening of slowly savouring little bites of heaven and good conversation, not to have a well-timed meal before going to the Shakespeare play or the movies.
Most of the condiments, pickles, sauces, infused salts, and garnishes used in preparing the dishes are made by the chef himself rather than store-bought. This means that every element is so good it can be savoured on its own, but together they build these lovely complex flavours that unfold slowly as you eat. The sake menu is also diverse and offers a range of flavours as wide as any sommelier’s choice of wines in a fine French restaurant.
Service: The service started out formal and I understand why it seemed distant to some Yelp commenters. But as soon as we showed that we were interested, not too vain to receive pointers on how to appreciate the food and drinks, and happy to learn about the preparation details, we felt our host and server, Coco Horikawa, warm up to us. The service was attentive and helpful throughout the meal.
Freshness and Choice: This is the very opposite experience of chain restaurants where you can find everything everywhere, but of mediocre quality and always the same; it’s the one-of-a-kind experience that will be a little different every time. So no long menu with dozens of wacky Americanized rolls, just a solid core list and a board with a generous list of the current delicacies. Coco Horikawa is a sake expert, and Chef Kenji Horikawa’s speciality is kaiseki, a method of cooking that marks the seasons in Japan. Let them guide you to what’s good and fresh today, and works well together.
Price: Just think why your run-of-the-mill sushi bar is cheaper: made faster, with cheaper, store-bought ingredients and using shortcuts like big piggish rolls instead of nigiri pieces. Let’s not mince words, Hanazen is expensive for regular people on regular salaries—the kind of place we can only eat at for a special celebration. But it’s priced correctly for the value, quality, care, and work involved.
Reservations: It’s clear that every spot is marked “reserved” all the time. I believe the owners prefer to work by reservation only so they can pace the work and plan the ingredients accordingly. If you want to sit at the counter, mention that when you make your reservation.
Wheelchair access: Although Yelp says there is no wheelchair access, they actually put down a ramp in advance if you mention this in your reservation. However, don’t expect that anyone will have time to stop preparing or serving food to take care of this if you don’t mention it ahead of time.
What We Tried
We ordered “family style,” sharing all the dishes. We abandoned ourselves to the good judgement of the chef by ordering the Chef’s Choice for one plate of sushi, one of chirashi, and one of sashimi. We also tried some rolls (Dragon roll, tempura roll, and one maki with the chef’s own home-pickled kampyo.) Among the “small plates” listed on the board, we tried the grilled pike and the miso cod, sunomono, and probably something else I’m forgetting right now.
We also tried the saké sampler, with three very different drinks: if memory serves, a “manly,” sober Junmai; a complex Junmai Ginjo evoking aromas of melon, and a fruity, cheerful, complex and over-the-top Junmai Daiginjo (I hope I’m remembering them right, I should have taken notes.)
Something memorable for me: I usually find ikura (big pearly fish roe) completely uninteresting, but Chef Kenji marinates the ikura and gives it a superb, citrus-y flavour. Heck, a benchmark for Japanese restaurants: even the rice itself was lovely.
Photo taken from Foodio54 because we forgot to photograph most of our dishes, we just dove in. Used without permission, no copyright challenge intended.