Slightly disappointing dishes at En [Santa Clara]
After watching the circus at HP Pavilion, a friend and I took the bus to try out En in Santa Clara. At 10:15 PM, the restaurant was packed. The decor is quite elegant, and there is this partition that blocks from view the long sushi bar with its row of seats. Last night no one was seating at the bar. I think this is the only izakaya where you don't get to see the open kitchen (unless you stand up and look over the partitiion). The restaurant had this heavy smell from cooking, and I imagine some would love it while others would hate that, but either way your nose would get used to it in minutes. I also met a bunch of familiar faces from the Japanese restaurant workforce in the area.
The menu has as expected a huge variety of dishes and beverages. Prices for shochu and nihonshu are reasonable though not exactly a bargain. I had a $9 glass of mushouhai while my friend had a $8 glass of Suigei. We ordered four dishes: yaki onigiri (two huge pieces for about $7), baby spinach salad with pork belly (about $9), grilled duck (about $7), and meshi with ikura and uni on top (about $12). The yaki onigiri was OK. It came out really quickly, to my surprise. I like my yaki onigiri with a really crispy skin soaked in the sauce, and the inside staying hot. This version met neither of my wishes. The spinach salad was quite good, with daikon at the bottom to soak up the dressing, but the large tomato pieces were just blah. The pork was grilled to almost perfection.
I didn't like the grilled duck, which was overcooked, and the charcoal flavor was so strong that in the beginning I was wondering if the meat was indeed duck. We originally planned to order the duck skewer, but our nice server steered us to this grilled plate. The meshi was the best dish of the night, with rice nicely crusted around the cute little pot. There was also a runny egg inside, which went well with the briny taste of the salmon eggs and sea urchin.
The best aspect of the meal was the portion size, definitely larger than what I had expected from an izakaya. But I think Gochi's food is better.
The restaurant was supposed to close at midnight, but by 11:15 PM the server was already announcing the last order.
My previous visit to En was in 2008 when it was, in hindsight, in its prime. Despite the great food at the time, we hadn't been back until recently. It's really lost its luster in that time and can't hold a candle to other local izakayas I've recently had like Gochi and Dan. It was telling that we could walk in during primetime on a weekend evening without a reservation that something was amiss. (Previously, you couldn't walk in at all at any time on weekends.)
We sampled a wide variety of items across the menu we previously found good including a beef tongue salad, several skewer choices, both the pork and sashimi meshi's and the gyu tataki.
The salad (advertised as a "beef tongue mizuna salad") was dominated by shredded daikon with little of the mizuna to speak of. The beef tongue consisted of tough, dried strips versus whole pieces. We saw someone nearby ordering a pork shabu spinach salad, and it was the same story - little of the spinach and a lot of daikon strips as filler underneath.
The skewers (beef tongue, duck, tontoro) were some of the worst I've had in recent memory. Totally burnt, overcooked and dry. This was consistent across several different kinds of meats, so it wasn't just a case of one bad skewer - it was consistently so. Not far away, Sumiya offers usually exemplary skewers with ample, ethereal charcoal taste and succulence, without the char to accompany.
The other dishes were OK. The meshi's (clay pot rice) were fine, but they were far off from what Gochi can put out in terms of crust formation (in other words, there was no crust to speak of here).
Although this is one data point and perhaps an off night, this kind of food is too pricey to give it another shot when so many better options abound close by.
re: Melanie Wong
Yes I would go back to En, *but* if I'm in the area and it's not too late, I'll go back to Tanto nearby, a place I used to frequent in the past but not recently. To be fair to En, they offer an extensive kushiyaki and sashimi menu, which we didn't really have the opportunity to try out. Of course Saizo is pretty close by as well.
592 E El Camino Real, Sunnyvale, CA 94087
Funny, isn't it, how we used to talk about Tanto a lot, debating which location was better at the moment, etc.? No one has mentioned it for a while. Certainly due for a revisit.
Here's Stett Holbrook's review of En from March 2010.
Any ramen on the menu?