Hachi Ju Hachi
14480 Big Basin Way
Saratoga, CA 95070
My trip to NorCal after Christmas a few weeks ago proved to be not as ambitious as I had initially hoped. For one, I was staying in Mountain View, and destination eats aren’t necessarily the South Bay’s forte. It’s not as if I wanted to make the trek up to San Francisco on a daily basis during the trip. Also, I had just spent a bunch of money on Christmas gifts for the family, and was trying to cut down on expenses (sans one big dinner, which was Benu – post forthcoming). So Lawrence and I scrambled to look for additional places to dine at around the area. He (obviously) suggested Manresa, which I wasn’t down for unless I had my bonus in hand. Scouring various “best of” lists, I found Hachi Ju Hachi on the Bib Gourmand list (“two courses and a glass of wine or dessert for $40 or less”) of the 2013 SF Michelin Guide.
Hachi Ju Hachi, located in the ghost town known as Saratoga (seriously – walking around Downtown Saratoga on a Saturday night is like being in a dark alley), is a traditional Japanese restaurant. They have sushi, but a) it’s not a sushi bar, and varieties are few, and b) they specialize in hako-zushi (box sushi – something I haven’t had before). This is probably the type of food you’d find in a Japanese home. There’s a kaiseki menu available with advance notice, but a more simple entry into the menu of the restaurant lies in the omakase option (starts at $50). Chef Suzuki will create a menu based on what’s available and good for the night, and continue until we cried mercy (like omakase for sushi restaurants). We have a restaurant in L.A. that takes a similar approach (Wakasan), but judging by the appearance and accolades, I expected better here with regards to ingredients and execution, which was proven correct.
We started with a nasu miso (eggplant marinated w/ miso) topped with yamaimo and dried wakame. It was nice and simple – a good way to pave the way for what was to come. Chef Suzuki then personally delivered the next item – ichiyaboshi, which was mackerel cured and air-dried, then grilled. When serving this dish, Chef was as giddy as a proud father bragging about how well his child did in school, and rightfully so. The flavors were intense, yet never overpowering, and the butterflied mackerel was oh-so-meaty. A matsutake chawanmushi was served around the same time as the fish, which proved to be a smart move. By itself, the chawanmushi was light, perhaps too light (although the matsutake, at the end of its season I think, was fragrant). But alternating between it and the fish, the salty flavor provided a nice accompanying brine.
Next up was a variation of buta kakuni (braised pork belly), where the pork was braised in black rice vinegar. I actually wanted a bit more fat in the pork here (the acidity from the vinegar would’ve gone better with a fattier cut), and slightly less well-done, but it brought back memories of my grandma’s hong shao rou (Chinese “red-cooked” pork). Went well with a bowl of rice, which ended up filling us up (I did sit through a tasting menu at Benu the night before). So we had to put an end to the omakase, to which Chef Suzuki concluded with his box sushi (we were told that it was the standard ending dish). As previously mentioned, it was my first time having box sushi, and to be honest, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the fish-to-rice ratio (probably supposed to be this way though). But I did enjoy it still: Chef’s rice was on the warmer side and more vinegary (think Nozawa-style), and that was actually the right vessel for the salmon/mackerel and the cured kelp. In all, this abbreviated omakase ended up being around $58/person before tax and tip. I feel like this was just the tip of the iceberg as to what Chef Suzuki can do, and I was already enjoying just the tip ;)
Located in Saratoga, I’m sure that most of Hachi Ju Hachi’s clientele are local regulars, and that is exactly the vibe you get from the restaurant. Servers and chefs are all very friendly and inviting, as if you’re entering their home. The patrons seems to be on very friendly terms with them as well, as there was a group of regular seated at the “chef’s table” (it really was so – basically a table next to the kitchen counter) who brought Christmas gifts for Chef’s young daughter, who has her own desk in the vicinity as well. There’s even a playpen of sorts in the restaurant, so that you don’t have to find a babysitter in order to go out for dinner. I don’t think this type of ambiance is achievable in a city like L.A. or S.F., hence Saratoga maybe being the ideal choice for a restaurant like this. But it is a welcoming sight to see for a city boy like myself, and I hope to have an extended dinner at Chef Suzuki’s home again someday.
Dewazakura Sake Flight ($15)
Nasu Miso w/ Yamaimo ($6)
Saba no ichiya-boshi Mackerel, seasoned, air-dried ($30)
Matsutake Chawanmushi ($10)
Buta-niku kuro-zu ni Pork belly, black rice ($15 – picture is of 2 orders)
Sake & Battera Hako Sushi ($12 + $12)