Akaoni Japanese Restaurant, Carmel

(Monterey County Herald, 04/04/2002, Truly authentic Japanese, Posted on Thu, Apr. 04, 2002)

For the area's most authentic Japanese cuisine, it's hard to beat Akaoni. Of course, that doesn't mean that everyone will necessarily like the food. Some of the dishes are a bit of a stretch for the typical Western palate. For example, have you ever tried chawan mushi ($4.80)? The dish doesn't fit the tempura/teriyaki/sushi stereotype many Americans have of Japanese food, but I'm told (by someone who should know) that chawan mushi is a traditional menu item in Japan.

The creation comes in a ceramic cup, topped with a ceramic lid. When uncovered, an elusive bouquet meets the diner's nose, generated by Japanese-style orange peel combined with warm custard - which is itself a mixture of egg and bonito flakes. The custard has a pleasing, delicate flavor and is complemented by a single cooked tiger prawn, a clam and a slice of octopus. The dish was utterly intriguing, quite seductive - and I'm pretty sure I liked it.

Another uncommon dish is the seafood natto ($6). Here, some soy beans are mixed with a bit of soy sauce and, I think, a touch of oil - plus an elusive aroma that comes from an oba leaf. These are combined with chunks of various seafood - tuna, salmon, octopus, squid - and some shredded radish. The result was both a bit strange, intense and definitely worth tasting.

I can't do justice to all the dishes, because the menu is quite lengthy - especially in the appetizer department - and a number of the dishes are not commonly found on local menus. Not surprisingly, a substantial portion of the clientele appeared to be Japanese. By the time we left, both dining rooms were filled, with most of the tables and tatami rooms crowded with Asians.

Akaoni - which means "Red Demon" - doesn't exactly jump out at prospective customers. There's no sign - just a large, white, Japanese lantern with Japanese print on it - and the restaurant is basically invisible down a flight of stairs, in the basement, under a gallery near the comer opposite Friar Tuck's.

Other appetizers from the list of 29 offered include fried squid ($7.40), sweet yam tempura ($3.80), soft shell crab with ponzu sauce ($6.80), broiled beef tongue with salt ($4.60), beef-asparagus roll ($8.80), spicy tofu ($4.60), sliced yam with plum paste ($4.40), steamed dumplings ($3.80), and clams with garlic butter sauce ($6.80). Special offerings vary nightly. Some examples include fried oysters ($8.80), pork kimchi ($6), special seaweed with vinegar ($3) and poached fish cake in bonito broth ($6).

The sushi selection is sensational - very fresh, top quality and generously cut. Examples include tuna ($4), yellow tail ($4), eel ($3.80), uni ($7) and toro ($7). There is also a wide selection of hand rolls ($3.20-$12) and sushi combos ($12.80-$25), as well as chirashi ($14.80 - $25) and sashimi ($11.80-$30).

The high-end sashimi plate - called tokujou - had plentiful slices of halibut, toro, maguro, salmon and yellow tail, plus octopus, clam and a raw prawn. The head of the prawn is fried separately until crisp and presented later. I admit to not tasting it. My wife said it was excellent.

People who truly love fish will want to try both the broiled mackerel with salt ($6) and the hamachi kama with salt ($10.80). Both were made from superb quality ingredients and cooked perfectly. The latter is the cheek of a yellow tail tuna, the most tender and succulent part, broiled until the surface is crisp and the interior meltingly soft and juicy. We tried several versions of tempura ($3.80-$12.80) and found them uniformly lightly battered and expertly cooked.

Among the various noodle dishes ($6.50-$9), my wife finished with nabeyaki udon ($9) - a generous bowl of thick, flat noodles, served in a cast iron pot, with plenty of hot broth, with a poached egg and other goodies. I, in turn, had the yosenabe hot pot ($14) - broth filled with clear noodles, veggies, chicken, tofu, big oyster mushrooms, shiitake and a generous assortment of seafood - like oyster, clams and yellow tail.

In addition to all the above, there's a whole page of entrées, each of which comes with rice, miso soup and a fresh salad. Some such choices include chicken teriyaki ($9.80), pork cutlet ($11), chicken cutlet ($11), beef teriyaki ($12.80), beef cutlet ($12.80), salmon cutlet ($12.80), salmon teriyaki ($12.80), and mixed shrimp and veggie tempura ($12.80). Combination dinners ($14.80) allow the choice of any two of the following: salmon teriyaki, broiled mackerel, chicken teriyaki, mixed tempura, pork cutlet, chicken cutlet and assorted sashimi. Desserts include various ice creams ($1.50 each) - green tea, ginger and mochi.

There's an excellent selection of sake (from $3.50 for a small cup to $150 for a bottle), plus a few Japanese beers ($3-$6), and a scattering of wines ($19-$65).

Martin Meursault, a pen name, is a local dining enthusiast. He invites your comments and suggestions, in care of Table Talk, Go! , The Herald, P.O. Box 271, Monterey 93942.GO!