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First Bite: Refined Abundance

Tozai Izakaya offers much more than noodles.


Charles D, Yelp

Taking the place of Hamachi—a garish restaurant with a nightclub vibe specializing in sushi rolls with bright, unctuous sauces—2-week-old Tozai Izakaya is tasteful in every way. Unvarnished, bi-toned wood paneling reflects an ingredient-driven menu that derives its stylishness from its simplicity. And by simple, I don’t mean minimal; the variety on offer is almost overwhelming.

The restaurant’s location and facade is as unassuming as its owners— the same couple behind Walnut Creek’s Ramen Hiroshi (my favorite noodle restaurant). Tozai is situated on quiet Giammona Drive and marked by a single Japanese lantern. I arrived early Sunday to see the exhibition kitchen already in motion, including one cook literally fanning a charcoal grill mostly dedicated to the menu’s more than two-dozen skewers.

I enjoyed blistered shishito peppers—a perfect palate cleanser between dishes—and meaty pork belly. A sashimi special of blue fin tuna was outstanding: a generous portion of firm, thick slices, served super-chilled over ice.

The beauty of Tozai’s menu is that it caters to every palate whether you’re after tempura and yakitori, or dare to try cucumber with crab brain (sweet and pungent). I also dived into crunchy whole smelt—head, bones, and all—the size of chicken fingers, breaded and deep-fried. A squeeze of lemon and a sticky–savory teriyaki sauce cut through the naturally oily fish. Passing on the seductive special of miso-marinated cod, I finished with hamachi kama, fresh yellowtail collar grilled on the bone.

With most menu selections in the $3 to $12 range, Tozai is an izakaya-style restaurant, designed for grazing with cold sake (a wide selection of beer and craft cocktails are also on offer). It’s easy to make a meal of grilled rice balls, salmon skin salad (lively greens with charred bacon-like bits), mountain yams, and torched tofu; but you can also settle into beef–daikon stew or steaming soup with soba or udon.

With so much more than noodles, Tozai invites many return visits.

1523 Giammona Dr., Walnut Creek. Dinner Tues.-Sun.