A (Fresh) Fish Tale
An all-star restaurant team launches a sushi-focused Japanese bistro in El Dorado Hills that keeps things pure and simple.
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The concept that they decided on was an upscale, yet fun, family-style bistro—five-star food with great service but no fuss. While sushi is the anchor of that angle, Dedier and Okubo are adamant that Aji isn’t your typical crazy roll place, where the maki can come out looking like a freeway accident of 15 kinds of fish, doused in a bloodbath of pink mayo. “It’s clean, simple, affordable and fresh,” says Okubo.
Aji (pronounced ah-jee), a Japanese term that translates loosely to both taste (the kind that lingers and teases) and potential, delivers on that vision. The food is all about clarity and restraint—fish and excellent rice in a monogamous marriage, unsullied by sauce. The result is exactly what sushi was always meant to be: refreshing, interesting, satisfying and virtuously clean. Take the spicy scallop and cucumber roll, which arrives barren, the spice coming from a sparse zigzag of sriracha and miso sauce layered on the plate. The scallops are thick chunks of day-boats, pulled moments ago from the genteel raw bar that graces the corner of the dining room, an elegant display with oysters, lobster and shrimp that speaks to Dedier’s sophisticated Napa sensibilities.
Venturing away from the sushi is equally as rewarding. The siu mai spring rolls are crispy and flavorful without any oiliness, and the house ramen is a rich, comforting bowl perfect with chewy noodles, egg, bamboo shoots and fried shrimp, while the kakuni buns, a deconstructed take on baos, combine sweet, tender pork belly and onion slaw inside a dense roll that’s served looking like an Asian version of the taco. Okubo’s trademark is layered flavors that reveal themselves slowly, and every bite at Aji Japanese Bistro seems to end with an unexpected but pleasing finish.
The restaurant also has a full bar, where “cocktail guru” Balele Shoka (formerly of Restaurant Thir13en) has created an inventive collection of drinks like the Kyoto New Year, a fizzy mix of Bombay gin, Banzai Bunny sparkling sake and Heering cherry liquor, with a brandied cherry resting on top of a lemon zest shell, meant to be slurped like an oyster.
While Okubo deftly manages the kitchen (even giving lessons on the proper way to scrub a grill), Dedier does his magic on the floor, creating an atmosphere where the experience is as much of a draw as the meal itself—that electric vibe that makes a restaurant feel like the place to be rather than just a place to eat. “There’s got to be value on something other than the food, and it’s got to be the hospitality,” he says of his management philosophy. “People are paying for knowledgeable, confident service that’s warm and welcoming and very familial.”
While Aji Japanese Bistro is off to a deservedly strong start, both Okubo and Dedier know that consistency is the key to long-term success. But that, says Okubo, is where their combined experience pays off. “We are both really good in our departments. We’re called the dynamic duo in our families,” he says with confidence. “I’m excited. It’s perfect.” S