In defense of Izakaya Mai, San Mateo
I had another good meal at Mai, in downtown San Mateo. Mai does not always rate well -- as you can see in the posting from Hound Extraordinaire Melanie (see link). So I wonder if it's my luck or something about how I order.
Izakaya Mai has a comprehensive menu that is typical for some food-centered izakaya in Japan but pretty uncommon here in the Bay Area. A page of grill, a page of fry, a page of sushi, and then a scattering of boards and cards with specials. To me, Mai's atmosphere is that of a local on a side street in, say, Shimonoseki. NHK plays, with sound, on a TV over in the corner. But you can sit far from the TV if you like. There's a sake-and-beer-and-Calpico list with pictures of the bottles.
Tonight I had iwashi mentai, which of course in English is popular as 'sardine grilled with some spicy roe in its belly'. Iwashi is a great fish for grilling, with a high fat content, firm flesh, and a skin that takes well to charring.
Sardines should be more familiar as restaurant food: some of the best fish I've had at Zuni or Ecco (at South Park) were sardines. In Japan, iwashi (pilchard and sardines) are most widely caught and eaten during the summer, but evidently you can get them here in December. Imagine if you could walk into any diner on a Thursday morning and say "I want an bowl of grits, two eggs over medium, and a grilled sardine. Hold the gravy on the sardine."
Mai grilled the fish exactly to the point where it's cooked but no parts are dry. I think they pre-salt, which is usual for silver-colored fish, and which helps ensure a fairly crispy skin, since it draws out moisture before cooking starts. As usual for grilled fish, it was served with grated daikon and a piece of lemon. Although I would never touch the lemon when it appears on the platter with raw oysters, I aver that the combination of strong lemon juice and grilled sardine-like fish is heavenly.
I also enjoyed an order of toro sashimi. This is a challenging dish. Toro (ventresca in Italian; it's fatty tuna belly from one of the big tunas, like bluefin) is expensive and can be tough, probably partly because of the fat but mostly because belly muscles are full of connective tissue. You might consider it seafood's answer to beef brisket: flavorful and toothsome when prepared right.
The plate held six thick-cut, folded rectangular pieces, just on the edge of frozen. They leaned against a shiso leaf and some daikon strips. I was reminded of beef carpaccio, as the toro was thoroughly marbled and very cold. Toro sashimi is a little extreme -- I will probably go back to negitoro, grated with scallions, henceforth -- but this extreme fish dish at Mai was pretty, chewable, and pleasing.
In the past few months, I have tried other dishes at Mai and thought well of them. Ankimo, monkfish liver, was prepared simply and well. For someone who doesn't eat foie gras every week, ankimo is a rich affair. It's more interesting and considerably bigger than most fish livers; and it won't kill you in six hours, as fugu liver might.
I also think Mai's oden worth the money. Oden --boiled hotpot items -- is salty, warming eating for a rainy night.
The iwashi mentai is on the menu; the toro was on the specials board. Toro sashimi was $19, or quite expensive. Many of the small dishes run about $5.
In summary, Izakaya Mai is just down the block from Himawari, where I would prefer to go if I wanted ramen and couldn't get in at Santa. Sushi is probably better at a couple of San Mateo spots. But Mai's small cooked dishes seem by and large good (not in the class of Seattle's Maneki or Seattle's astounding Shiki). Prices are lofty, but the atmosphere is homey. I think concentrating on the specials might help make Mai memorable.
Izakaya Mai, 212 2nd Av, San Mateo, 650 347 2511.
I am one of those people who has never really gotten over the passing of Tombo (the udon shop that was replaced by Mai).
One of the charming things about Tombo was that they had so much integrity. They didn't go out of their way to cater to Americans. They had a modest menu but they executed that menu to perfection.
..then you see Mai come in and it's all flash and superficial. Sure they have 100 things on their menu but half of it is pretty terrible, even many signature izakaya dishes are bad.
I think some of the bad reviews is actually a reaction to the fact that they replaced Tombo.
I haven't tried their Champon, but Oidon, Sushi Sams, and Lakuni are all much better than Mai.
Just went last week and enjoyed our meal and the atmosphere a lot. The most memorable dishes were the miso pork don and the miso eggplant. I'm hoping to try the hamachi kama and the ramen on our next visit.
We went after peak dinnertime on a Saturday and it was quiet and very pleasant. I guess the key is to go really early or really late (they're open until 11:30 most nights).
Thanks David for this great report.
I think for more authentic izakaya, Tanto Sunnyvale and Saizo in Sunnyvale would be better standards of measurement (also what they can offer). Saizo's yakitori selection is very interesting, and while Tanto's more pricey and high end, they nail the specials down so well (like the fried + stewed kinki or soy sauce steamed kinki (nitsuke, or red snapper over special rice [tai meshi]))
Sushi and common restaurant items like tempura and any teriyaki/ramen/udon/soba dishes are really there to add variety to the menu to cater to all varieties of diners, but to make it more interesting I am hoping Izakaya Mai offers more than just that and the basics.
Does Izakaya Mai offer robata-yaki or yakitori (skewers)? If they do and do it well, I may consider checking that place out. Lakuni nearby offers the latter, though I will not step foot in there again given the bad experience I had 2+ years ago.
Sushi Sam's has some fantastic appetizers on their smaller menu, which could double up as izakaya items (if only portions were bigger). Wagyu Suji (stewed wagyu beef, I think meat near the bones/sinews) is made by Mimi personally (Sam's wife) and is dearest to my heart. Grilled black cod (gindara) is fantastic, though a bit heavy on the sake marination, and too small of a piece.
I went with some friends a few months ago, and it has *significantly* improved over when it opened. If you order correctly (sadly someone else who goes there often ordered for me, so I don't remember what we had), you can have a pretty good meal. However if you order incorrectly, you'll wonder why it's still open.
Went there Friday night. Most everything was tasty although they totally screwed up our vegetarian's order. We ordered vegetarian udon and confirmed absolutely no meat and no fish. Yet, a piece of fishcake ended up in it. With the futomaki roll, it had both salmon and surimi in it.
The oyako don was okay. I prefer more flavor. The Gindara was really tasty, but a rather small piece from what I'm used to. Seaweed salad was good, but how can one really mess that up? Curry was tasty, and the sushi was surprisingly not bad. I would have figured in a restaurant that was all over the place that the sushi would be mediocre and it wasn't! There was a good amount of Japanese clientel and our waiter spoke Japanese as well so we could confirm certain dishes listed in English were the ones we were familiar with in Japanese. I really liked how they had mini-dishes so we could get a bunch of different things.
I would rank them over Saizo. We went there within the last month and my sashimi was extremely cold and the guy's knife work was horrible. He was sawing through the fish rather than letting the knife melt through it.
re: Melanie Wong
Just went there again last night.
The gindara was flaky and tender, but lacked flavor.
The mentaiko chazuke was not as good as Tanto's and was watery.
The broth with the champon was really tasty and the ingredients of mussels(?) squid, fishcake, and cabbage were all good, but the noodles tasted like overcooked lo mein. I have no previous experience with champon so I don't know if this is correct or not.
The chicken karaage was fantastic! Very flavorful.
My two pieces of hamachi were acceptable.
Curry was still tasty, but of an average quality to sub-par quality rather than what I know it can be out there.
I have been once to Mai and was underwhelmed with both the food and the atmosphere. :-)
I was there about a month ago and had tenzaru soba, which was passable. The noodles were rather mushy. My mom had sushi, which I tasted, and I again found it very so-so.
Mai is run by a Japanese owner so they should know about authentic Japanese flavors. Maybe I should try some other dishes, but this place cannot compare to izaka-ya in the South Bay. And Oidon Sozai Corner in San Mateo would get my vote over Mai big time.
I like Himawari's ramen and I enjoy their small plates too, such as their agedashi dofu and chicken kara-age. Of course they do not have as much choice as Mai since they are mainly a ramen-ya. For regular Japanese dishes (not an izaka-ya), I would recommend Suzuyou for tasty, authentic Japanese food in San Mateo. And for sushi I would recommend Yuzu.
Oops, I just read Melanie's post on Mai that was linked and I now know it is call Ramen Champon. I have to admit that it has been almost a year since I last had this ramen but I thought the bowl was hugh with a lot of good seafood. Perhaps it's changed?! I'll have to go again and see. Margret
We've been going to Mai since a few months after if opened. (I have to admit to some residual, irrational resentment since they replaced my favorite udon place.)
I'd agree with David: we've almost always enjoyed our meals there, whatever we ordered, whether it was grilled fish, champon, or sushi. The misses have been few and far between--nothing serious--and I'd say that Mai is definitely above average for a neighborhood place.
I'd go more often, but I have to be in the mood for the visually challenging decor--which is liable to crowd out the clientele, at its present rate of reproduction.
I went to Mai soon after their opening late last year with the hope that the former Tombo chef left behind his great udon recipe and that Mai would offer a Tombo-style udon. Alas, that was not to be. Their udon is of the vacuum packed variety that anyone could make at home. I forgot what my wife had but she wasn't too impressed either. At least I thought the decor was an improvement over Tombo but has it become more cluttered or as the Japanese would say "gocha-gocha"?