As I nibble on yuba at the new Miminashi in downtown Napa, I'm very, very happy. The tofu skins are fresh, firm and creamy, with subtle, nutty soybean flavor. The fresh wasabi is sharp and pungent, and chives offer a hint of acid. It's the real, Japanese deal.
Japanese food is everywhere in Wine Country these days—just look at the newly expanded Ramen Gaijin in Sebastopol, Persimmon in Healdsburg, the soon-to-open Two Birds One Stone in St. Helena, and the upcoming Single Thread, also in Healdsburg. Yet even amid the heady competition, Miminashi shines, boasting authentic dishes as good as anything I enjoyed when I lived in Tokyo.
It's quite a departure for chef-owner Curtis Di Fede, who leapt into the spotlight with Oenotri, his southern Italian restaurant in downtown Napa. But two years ago, he and co-owner Tyler Rodde dismantled their partnership, with Rodde keeping Oenotri.
Shoyu ramen(Carey Sweet)
Now, instead of Oenotri-style braised-pigeon pasta, Di Fede gives us shoyu ramen ($15), a savory broth-and-noodle symphony studded with pork chashu, maitake mushroom, negi (onion), and crowned with a silky onsen egg, expertly poached inside its shell. Di Fede adds sugar snap peas and asparagus for freshness and texture.
In the style of an izakaya, the menu focuses on bowls, small plates, and drinks with a few larger entrées for more ravenous appetites. Di Fede fell in love with the concept while touring the country a few years ago. He gave Minimashi some Napa-style flair with wood-clad walls and tall wooden booths that look like origami tents.
Tucked in the historic Young Building on Coombs Street between 2nd and 3rd, the space holds 85 seats, but feels busier, with nearly half of those chairs at the bar. Napa has long needed this level of chic; as I sat at a window table overlooking the street, I felt like I was in an actual, stylish big city.
Even the plates are art—imported pottery that makes food even prettier. Hamachi sashimi is elevated with avocado slabs and diced chives ($8), while fluke—a mild, sweet, flaky fish—gets a flavor boost from sansho (little, green fireball peppers), lime, and shaved sunchoke.
Start with a perfectly crisp croquette ($4.50) stuffed with creamy mashed potato, chicken and negi; it's delectable dunked in sweet, rice-vinegar mayonnaise. The gyoza also features appealingly crunchy edges that offset the tender wrappers and juicy filling of Georgia white shrimp and vinegar-sharp shiso ginger broth.
While the fried rice didn't thrill me (it's a little greasy and strongly flavored with blood sausage), I'd suggest pairing it with a cocktail to cut through the fattiness of the dish. I love the botanical sharpness of the Oshidori ($11)—Ford's gin mixed with aromatic Carpano Bianco, lemon, ginger beer and a golden-beet switchel (honey-ginger vinegar water).
Drinking heavily is de rigueur in izakaya culture, though Japanese patrons would usually slam Asahi Super Dry draft ($6) or chilled Gunma Izumi sake ($15) rather than the earthy, yet floral, Axolotl ($11; Olmeca Altos blanco tequila, St. Germain elderflower, makrut lime cordial, celery juice and bitters; $11).
But drink away—there's a sake "sommelier" on staff to help navigate the nearly two dozen choices including a prized Junmai Daiginjo ($100) from Japan's Niigata prefecture.
On the robata, the kitchen makes 15 kinds of grilled skewers, including chicken skin ($7), chicken thigh ($7), beef tongue ($8.50), and tiny whole potatoes kicked up with togarashi ($3.50). I'll pass on the chicken tail ($5) next time, though. I know it's a delicacy, but it's too fatty for my taste, and the odd calamari texture doesn't help.
When my dining companion insisted we order a Porterhouse ($68), I thought he'd dropped some brain cells. A 24-ounce hunk of beef seems so, well, American, especially when the menu also tempts with sake marinated black cod ($24) or pork donabe with grapefruit kosho pepper and braised fennel ($28).
Snake River Farm Rib Eye with brassicas and yuzu koshu(Miminashi)
Yet this beast was one of the best steaks I've ever enjoyed, served on the bone and sliced into thick, glistening, impossibly juicy slabs and dressed in green garlic-and-ginger butter and charred leeks.
With such filling meals, it would be easy enough to skip dessert, but don't. The soft serve ice cream ($6) is actually seductive, in classic Japanese flavors such as matcha green tea or black sesame. Spring for the super-crispy waffle cone ($1), and sprinkle on cornflakes and sesame honeycomb candy (50 cents each).
If you're wondering about the restaurant's name, it's a reference to Mimi-nashi Hoichi, a mythological character with a long and complicated story, but in a nutshell, he his ears are ripped off by a samurai. According to Di Fede, this tale evolved into the real-life Japanese tradition of a chef covering his ears with a towel while making ramen. Luckily, all you have to do with your ears is listen very closely: Go to Miminashi now.
// Miminashi, 821 Coombs St. (Napa), miminashi.com