December 4, 2015 – Twice now we’ve been to happy hour at Aji Japanese Bistro in El Dorado Hills. We want to stay for dinner. Really we do. But the small plates are so good. We just never seem to get past them.
We have come to know Sean, the bartender on the two days we dropped in, on a first name basis. From the quality of product coming from the bar I think bartender is not enough of a word. Sean and his colleagues are mixologists. And they mix up some wonderful cocktails.
The first time we dropped in my wife ordered the Icelandic Poppy. The base for this cocktail is Reyka lime vodka, which uses glacial water in the distilling process. They shake it over ice with natural cane and lime juices.
I asked for their seasonal punch, a sangria style drink made with fruit infusions in house. It’s based on the style of drink served in taverns as far back as the 18th century. The forerunner, really, of what we know as a cocktail today. It was refreshing. Fruity without being too sweet.
When it came to food my wife ordered spring rolls. They arrived perfectly crisp, nicely browned and filled with pork mixed with a sambal chili sauce. Sambal is a sauce made from a variety of chilis and can include several other ingredients such as ginger, garlic, and fish sauce. It can be very spicy. Aji chooses to make their sambal on the sweet side. Very appetizing
My eyes locked onto the karaage. Crispy fried chicken thighs. In a world where most restaurants offer the skinless, boneless and, to me, tasteless chicken breast, I was delighted to see juicy, tasty thighs on the menu. Had to have’em.
Karaage is a method of deep frying in which the meat is usually marinated in soy sauce, garlic and sometimes ginger. It’s then lightly dusted with a little flour before frying. The boneless chunks of dark meat lightly sprinkled with a teriyaki-style sauce had all the characteristics of perfection. A fancy way of saying they were good. Really good.
Nick Didier opened Aji after serving apprenticeships in some of the finest restaurants in Napa and San Francisco. From what I’ve observed his passion seems to be customer service. Listen to the customer. Watch the customer. Look for clues that will help you provide what the customer wants. It’s an art. The artistry shows in the service at Aji.
Nick was joined by Executive Chef Russell Okubo. Okubo draws his inspiration from Asian street food. He offers creative varieties of sushi. He is especially imaginative in adding a Japanese twist to familiar American dishes.
The second time we visited Aji my wife ordered the seasonal punch. She had tasted the one I had on our first visit and liked it so much she wanted one for herself. I ordered the Empress. For this cocktail they use Reyka vodka which they infuse with lemon in house. They add a touch of pear brandy and a little cherry juice.
For our small plates my wife ordered the Kalbi Tacos. Kalbi refers to Korean style barbequed short ribs. They were accompanied in the tortillas with a kimchee slaw. She pronounced them delicious.
I asked for the Bistro Slider with togarashi fries. The slider was more like a large burger. It came on what was described as Japanese toast. Buttery. Flavorful. The meat had been marinated in a little soy sauce and shiitake mushrooms. It was cooked as good as a burger can be cooked.
The fries provided a little heat from the togarashi seasoning. Togarashi is a mixture of dried peppers and any of several other spices including ginger, dried orange peel and nori. An ideal combination of texture and flavor.
We left happy. But we still didn’t make it to dinner.
Maybe next time.