Dorian Hargrove 8:30 p.m., Dec. 12
Celebrating its grand opening this weekend, Gaijin Noodle + Sake House is an example of the delicious things that can happen when a chef is given his way. For years, Antonio Friscia and his fellow chef friends have frequented Hillcrest’s Yakitori Yakyudori, calling it their “clubhouse.” And though he’s well known for the Italian-inspired cuisine he put out at Stingaree and, now, as the engine behind Campine Catering, when he’s at home, he primarily cooks Japanese sukiyaki or barbecue fare.
For years, he wanted to open his own combination yakitori-noodle house. So, when the restaurateur who took over the downtown space vacated by The Cheese Shop approached Friscia, asking him to consult on the concept he’d spent so much time dreaming about, the chef jumped like a limber ninja into the project. The result is an eatery that, despite being part of San Diego’s new noodle house boom, is completely unique.
The name says it all. In Japan, Gaijin is a term used by natives to describe outsiders. Friscia embraces his role as an alien admirer of the country’s cuisine. Part of his mission with Gaijin is to create a warm, friendly, and tasty place for other gaijins to come in and learn about traditional Japanese fare, while simultaneously putting something new on the plate that incorporates the staples and techniques from his own cultural and culinary roots.
A fragrant and delicious bowl of mussels at Gaijin Noodle + Sake House
When selecting a chef, Friscia had many applicants who came in and gave him exactly what one would expect—by-the-book Japanese grilled offerings, noodle dishes, etc. He was impressed with their proficiency, but it wasn’t until Komei Nishiyama (formerly of Raku in Hillcrest) came in and, without prompting, put together a tasting menu of reimagined, culturally augmented takes on Japanese food, that Friscia got excited enough to make an offer.
Chefs Komei Nishiyama (left) and Antonio Friscia
After sampling much of the menu, I can attest Friscia and Nishiyama’s collaboration is a tasty one. Every dish comes across with flavors far bolder than those typically associated with delicate, restrained Japanese fare thanks to the addition of house-made dried spice and veggie blends, condiments, and salty pig parts. Throw in a real live yakitori grill manned by a guy who knows what he’s doing and it’s no wonder every caramelized item that comes off it is skewer licking good.
Seven Samurai Yakitori Sampler
I checked out the Seven Samurai, a build-your-own sampler plate of seven skewers that’s nicely priced at $21. The skirt steak is well seasoned and cooked to tender perfection. Ditto for a chicken thigh, soft succulent meat that is anything but chewy. Chicken meatballs, which are all-too-often bland at other eateries, are enlivened by a sweet Teriyaki-esque glaze. All of these serve as examples of Gaijin’s ability to hang with the big boys of the yakitori sect, while interesting offerings like pork-wrapped, low-funk kimchi that comes across as earthy with browned food accents, and hollowed-out Japanese eggplant canoes lined with a soft salty filling, are examples of what they lend to the equation.
Crying Tiger Skirt Steak.
Before hitting the grill, make room for starters. They’re small enough to enjoy without getting too stuffed and offer a nice array of flavors. The Crying Tiger Beef is addictive. Each tender piece of skirt steak is coated in a chili paste that’s hotter than blazes, but so scrumptious it’s worth a little taste bud arson. The bao bao steamed buns are stuffed to capacity with tender pork, making for a nice meat-to-bun ratio that keeps things from getting to spongy. House-pickled shallots and cucumber, and a generous sprinkling of beet juice-dyed red sugar add sweet-and-sour notes and a nice multi-dimensional crunch.
Not all of Gaijin's dishes hail from the Land of the Rising Sun, however. Friscia’ included his own take on fried rice, one studded with meaty scraps from the fine proteins gracing the yakitori grill. Toothsome and zesty, it benefits from fresh mint, which cuts through its thick savory composition and lightens things up a bit. A papaya salad of Southeast Asian origin is fresh, vibrant, and unabashedly spicy; all that this dish is supposed to be. All too often, chefs dim down the chilies, ironically enough, for gaijins, but Friscia comes with the heat. A longtime fire-eater, the thought of pouring the salad’s tart, garlicky, fruity, fiery broth into a shot glass sounds like a killer (literally) cocktail idea. And I’d never turn down a shooter of Friscia’s spicy miso, dashi, and vegetarian broths, all lovingly made using premium ingredients like Durok pork, free-range chicken and smoked pork belly.
Gaijin Dirty Rice
Speaking of drinks, a line of kakigori cocktails developed by Lucien Conner of Snake Oil Cocktail Company help to drive home the venue’s thematic. They’re basically snow cones made using an imported ice shaving machine taking center stage on the restaurant’s bar. Each delicate mound of chill is fortified using spirits and house-made syrups in a range of flavors, including plum, green tea, and black sesame. Sakes and craft beers (including a few Japanese brews like Friscia’s longtime fave, Hitachino Nest White) round out Gaijin’s adult beverage options. Japanese whiskeys are on their way in as well.
Trendily cutting edge, the restaurant keeps from feeling stuck up. You don’t have to be cool to consume here. It’s comfy and, per Friscia’s objectives, they happily except all comers. The service staff is made up of Friscia’s long-time industry veterans who know what they’re doing. This gaijin has done right by the rest of us. Two chopsticks up! Gaijin is located at 627 Fourth Avenue.
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