Kazama Sushi is a small-ish Japanese restaurant located in the newly opened area of the Claremont Village (by the Cannery). Only recently opened, it is interesting to see how it will play out against long-standing restaurants like Kinya Sushi, which is right across the street, and has been around for much longer than this. I decided to go take a look at Kazama, and while I was pleasantly surprised by the food, I still have some reservations about the restaurant in general.
Kazama Sushi makes its grand opening in March of 2008, amidst a huge push by Claremont City Council to renovate the Village and make it a more attractive area to visit and shop. The store itself is located right off of Indian Hill Blvd., which is quite possibly the busiest street in all of Claremont. However, it is a rather small space, nestled in between Coldstone and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, both of which are rather large shops. Regardless, the sign is easily seen from the street, so figuring out where it is isn’t the problem. Parking is free in the Cannery Parking Lot, and there are plenty of spaces while Claremont works towards bettering its own image. From the parking lot to the restaurant is less than a five minute walk.
Upon walking in, I couldn’t help but notice the huge amount of traffic; clearly, everybody wanted to try the ‘new kid on the block’ Japanese restaurant, and everybody was willing to wait and see what the restaurant had to offer. I took a seat at the sushi bar and ordered some Japanese green tea, then looked at the menus, of which there are three types. The first is the drink menu, and I am impressed with offerings. Aside from the typical drink fare, Kazama is one of the few sushi joints around that offers both cold and hot sake, ranging from Nigori sake (the unfiltered ‘cloudy’ one, rather sweet), to some top of the line Junmai Ginjo (dry as heck…not my favorite, but hey, it’s offered). The restaurant also had some Soju and Plum Wines, which were interesting offerings; not many restaurants here have Plum Wine, and Soju doesn’t seem to match the American palate. Unfortunately, I was driving so I settled with the green tea.
The tea came out in the smallish cup typical of Japanese restaurants, but I’m not terribly happy about the tea, which was just hot water and a small bag of tea lying inside. I may be spoiled, but having been to so many Japanese restaurants Stateside, I expected the tea to be brewed already. Either that, or I would like a little canister of Matcha nearby. Seriously, I never see that in the US. Is letting the customer make their own tea too much to ask? But I digress..
It seems that Kazama is a mash of every type of Japanese restaurant I know – its food ranges from the sushi (the main attraction) to Izakaya (Japanese bar) – quality stuff, including gyoza (fried dumplings) and ikayaki (grilled squid with mayonnaise drizzled on top). I didn’t get a chance to look at the full menu, but looking around I saw some standard combination plates with salmon shioyaki and tempura, and a few tables had some Udon or Soba. There is definitely something for all tastes here.
Being a sushi-lover, I went ahead and tried the sushi. I ordered gyoza and one of each of the following: maguro (tuna), shiromaguro (albacore), hirame (halibut), salmon, tamago (egg), unagi (grilled eel). It’s the quality of the food in which Kazama really shines (with exception to maguro and shiromaguro…more on that in a bit). The salmon was top notch, and the cuts of fish were nice and thick. Very different than in Japan, but still just as good going down. The sushi even came on little plates that reminded me of kaiten sushi (conveyor belt sushi) back in Japan…The gyoza was a nice touch, in my opinion; the dumplings were small but flavorful, and gave a good sidekick to the uniform taste of sushi. All in all, I considered Kazama’s food to be vastly superior to many of the Japanese restaurants nearby, including Mora and Kinya (longtime staples of my diet here in Claremont).
I would like to mention that the sushi chefs are amazing. They are extremely friendly, and even while busy manage to find some time to strike up some small talk with the customers at the bar. Unexpectedly, the chef started to talk to me in Japanese; rather surprising really, I was tired and totally not ready to switch back into Japanese-mode. Still, after the initial shock, I lapsed into it fairly easily. The chefs are brutally honest. After asking if they had Negi-Toro (tuna and green onion, fairly cheap in Japan), he mentioned that it was a little…expensive there. Needless to say, I soon found out that EVERYTHING on the sushi menu is ridiculously expensive, with even the simplest (salmon sushi) at $4.70. Even though this is the United States, and sushi comes at a high premium, that’s still a bit high for my liking.
Another one of the amusing things about Kazama is their reckless approach to birthday parties. I watched and smiled as the sushi chef took a ladle full of sake, set it on fire, and gave it to the birthday recipient (a 50-year old) to drink. The lights were all turned out, and the environment was a drastic change from before. I was impressed by it, but at the same time, I wonder if I would ever want that to happen for my birthday..
My main gripe will probably be fixed with time, but the service other than the sushi chefs was downright terrible. The host made the mistake of sitting me in the middle of an empty section, and I had to move to accommodate more people midway through my meal. Also, it took upwards of five to ten minutes just to grab someone and get more water to brew my tea in. I’m sure, however, that these are just grand opening jitters, and will probably get better in the future. Another problem is the price for food at Kazama is nowhere near competitive with some joints farther away from the Village, but closer for HMC students, like Nogi Sushi. With offerings upwards of $15 for a roll, I don’t see myself (as a student) coming back as often as I’d like.
With that said, Kazama sushi is a good place to eat if you’re looking for some quality sushi in a small, cozy environment. It has its advantages and interesting things about it, and I’d certainly file it under ‘places to go for a date’. However, I’m afraid it would break the bank to go repeatedly. If they lower their price (hard to see, considering it IS the Village), I could see them going far down the road.