Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Fish Was Never Like This: Salmon carpaccio is one of Gochi's unusual and provocative offerings.
Psst! Eat At Gochi
The owners may prefer to keep it under wraps, but you won't find anything quite like it
By Stett Holbrook
Gochi is one of the most exciting and delicious restaurants to open in Silicon Valley this year. But the management would rather you didn't know about it. The 2-month-old restaurant doesn't advertise, and the manager said she didn't want me to write a review.
"We prefer to keep it private," she said.
I told her I was writing one anyway because the food was very good and I wanted to tell people about it. When I asked for a copy of the menu, she said she doesn't "let them out," as if it were a classified document that might fall into the wrong hands.
Why would a new restaurant shun publicity? It wasn't until I spoke with chef/owner Masahiko Takei that I understood.
Silicon Valley chefs don't have the name recognition of their counterparts in San Francisco, but if you were to draw up a short list of South Bay culinary talent, Masa, as he's known to friends and fans, would be near the top. Masa, a native of Japan who emigrated to the United States via Singapore, pairs classic Japanese technique and impeccable ingredients with a creative, globe-hopping style. Gochi is his first restaurant, but he developed a following during stints at Blowfish Sushi in San Francisco, Tanto in Santa Clara and the late, great Le Poisson Japonais in Palo Alto.
Like any chef, Masa wants his customers to enjoy his food. But the food he cooks at Gochi is different than what most Silicon Valley residents are used to when they think of Japanese food, and he doesn't want to disappoint diners who come looking for California rolls and shrimp tempura. Hence his reticence to welcome the masses.
"In America, everybody thinks Japanese food is sushi, tempura and teriyaki," says the quiet-spoken Masa. "That's not true."
Gochi, Japanese slang for "good food," is a globally inspired izakaya restaurant. Izakaya restaurants serve small, elegant plates of grilled and fried food perfect for downing large quantities of sake, beer and soju (a wallop-packing liquor distilled from potatoes, rice or tapioca). There are a few izakaya restaurants in the Bay Area (see my Sept. 21 review of Saizo in Sunnyvale), but they're relatively unknown here in spite of their popularity in Japan.
Masa calls Gochi "Japanese fusion tapas." Most of the food is straight-up Japanese fare, but Masa throws in a few American, French and Korean twists. Although it's only been open for a little while, Gochi already has an appreciative, word-of-mouth following. The restaurant is particularly popular among Japanese businessmen who crowd the place for lunch and dinner.
The restaurant, which occupies a generic-looking strip mall on Homestead Road, is simple but beautiful inside. The majority of the dining room is given over to a raised platform where patrons sit shoeless in tatami-style seating. For the less flexible, booth and table seating are available as well.
To appreciate Masa's cooking, you have to do so on his terms. But that's not hard because the food is so good. What is hard is deciding what to order. The menu is voluminous. Gochi's menu goes beyond traditional fried and grilled izakaya offerings to include salads, stews, rice dishes, soups, carpaccio, soups, clay pot dishes and more. With a menu more than 100 items long, I barely dented it after two visits. It helps to go with a big group so you can divide and attempt to conquer the menu. Our group's strategy was to order a few dishes from as many categories we could.
We started off with a few lighter dishes. Kampachi (amberjack) carpaccio ($16.50) showcases Masa's culinary fusion.
Thinner than sashimi, these dishes pair poppingly fresh slices of fish with inventive oil infusions, herbs and fruit decoctions. The amberjack was matched with a delicious yuzu (a Japanese citrus), pepper, plum wine sauce and sprinkled with chopped chives. The plate of shimmering, translucent fish didn't last 30 seconds at our table.
The most popular dish of the night may have been the tako (octopus) salad ($9.50). Chunks of tender and flavorful octopus were tossed in a haystack of fresh greens and anointed in a light, refreshing plum paste dressing I could eat by the spoonful. If more restaurants served octopus like this, it would be as popular as calamari.
Aigamo tataki ($10.50) combined meaty slices of marinated and seared duck breast with a dab of sinus-clearing karashi mustard. The only thing I'd change is the temperature of the meat; it was too cold and muted the flavor.
Although I wouldn't have ordered it on my own, our waitress suggested we try one of the "fusion pizzas." It sounds hokey, but it's really good. The ethereal, blistered crust is made from rice paper and is wonderfully light and crunchy. We tried the mentai kinoki ($10.50), a rich, far-better-than-it-sounds combination of spicy cod roe, snow crab meat, wild mushrooms, bacon and cheese. The roe floated in a rich mayonnaise that formed the pizza's "sauce." It was one of the most singularly delicious dishes I've had in months.
On and on it went. Needing something clean and simple to break up some of the richer dishes, I found just the thing with the tomyo itame ($6.50)emerald green pea sprouts stir-fried in a sweet garlic sauce. Not everything was a success. While tender and flavorful, the Angus short ribs ($14.50) were a bit of yawn compared to some of the other dishes I tried. Renon hasami age ($7.50), a loglike roll of fried shrimp and lotus root, was bland and heavy. And desserts aren't great, either. But collectively, the succession of plates set before us was evidence of Masa's skill and imagination. You won't find food like this anywhere else.
While the dinner menu makes one feel like a castaway on an exotic island in a sea of mediocrity, the lunch menu is more straightforward and recognizable. There are a number of udon noodle dishes, rice dishes and even tempura and California rolls. That doesn't mean it's lackluster, though. Mabo don (braised pork and tofu in a mildly spicy sauce over rice) ($7.50 with salad and excellent miso soup) felt nourishing and warming on a cool afternoon. The delicately poached egg quivering on top added a layer of comforting richness.
You don't need a password or secret handshake to get into Gochi, although being Japanese might help you blend in bit better. In spite of my non-Japanese status, the waitstaff was unfailingly warm and welcoming and willing to help negotiate the sprawling menu. Come with an open mind and a big appetite and you'll be fine. Just don't ask to see the sushi menu.
Address: 19980 Homestead Road, Cupertino.
Hours: 11:30am-1:30pm and 6-10:30pm Mon-Fri, 5:30-9:30pm Sat.
Price Range: $4.50-$32.50. Cash only at lunch.