October 11-17, 2006

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First Bite


By Brett Ascarelli

Biting into a shiso leaf, also called perilla or Japanese basil, is tantamount to tasting what a forest smells like: woodsy, invigorating and damply mossy. Served alongside a slippery cut of sashimi, with its almost peach-fuzz texture, the shiso leaf is the ultimate garnish. But the delicate flavor of shiso has been unfortunately absent from these parts. Until now.

This spring, a new sushi restaurant, Shiso, opened in Sonoma to fill the gap. On a recent weeknight, my trusty foodie partner and I wandered in hoping at long last to get some quality Japanese food in wine country. Although startlingly pricey, the menu is impressive, offering a range of traditional fare--sushi, nigiri, sashimi, hand rolls--as well as shared plates of cooked food for those who are squeamish about eating raw fish. They also offer omakase, where the chef surprises diners with a variety of dishes off the menu.

While deliberating over our choices, we drank the Otokoyama sake ($18 for a carafe) from an extensive list of some 14 sakes and 22 wines. We were pleasantly surprised by the dry, crisp rice wine despite our server's diplomatic warning that it wasn't her favorite.

Eventually, we made our food decisions. First came three seared Hokkaido scallops ($14) with heirloom tomato salad, avocado mousse and shiso oil, a masterful combination of delicate, California-inspired textures and subtle flavors. Next came the summer sashimi deluxe ($31), 15 pieces of jaw-droppingly delicious fish, including North Coast albacore, salmon, maguro tuna and toro. The toro was a genuinely transporting experience, buttery and rich, everything that toro should be but rarely is. When only one piece remained, my partner began negotiations. "OK, let's talk about how we want to do this."

We were still hungry, so we ordered a special roll, the Shiso Hawaiian ($15): spicy albacore, avocado and cucumber wrapped in a colorful combination of seaweed, mango and maguro tuna. Again Ed Metcalfe, the 39-year-old chef-owner, wowed us with an unpredictable combination. The sweet, slippery mango played delectably against the texture of the fish. Now merely greedy, we ordered melt-in-your-mouth anikmo, a monkfish liver topped with a classical Japanese garnish of grated daikon radish mixed with chili ($9) and a very good freshwater unagi ($4).

My only minute complaint was that a restaurant of this quality shouldn't have linoleum tables. And if the lights had been dimmer, it would have been more romantic. But it doesn't matter--I am already in love with Shiso.

Shiso Modern Asian & Sushi Bar is open for dinner Tuesday-Sunday; last seating around 9pm. Happy hour, 4:30-6pm. 522 Broadway, Sonoma. 707.933.9331.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.