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updated: Jul 17, 2010, 9:00 AM
By Ms. Lemonjelly
I have been a fan of Kobachi since it first opened in late 2008. The style of Japanese food it specializes in is called izakaya, or Japanese tapas. Kobachi itself translates roughly into "small plate". Since I am the type that likes to dabble with a diverse range of food rather than a large portion of one dish, this has been a favorite dining spot. It is also, by far, my most photographed subject matter - not only because of the number of times I go here, but because there is so much to choose from on the menu and new things keep getting added.
Kobachi is owned by the same people who operate Ahi Sushi on upper State Street. The sushi rolls might seem similar at both venues, but at Kobachi, the stuff to order is the izakaya menu.
Like Spanish tapas, an izakaya is primarily a drinking establishment, a place to unwind with friends and co-workers at the end of the day. There is food to accompany the drinks, like nibbles, but more substantial than beer nuts and pretzels. And, like Spanish tapas, a level of art and creativity has emerged from conjuring up these little morsels.
Here's what I sampled on my latest visit:
This dish is the Hawaiian poki. It is a salad of tuna sashimi, octopus and cucumber, dressed with spring onions, sesame and sesame oil. It is great for sharing, as long as everyone is nice about dividing up the tuna and octopus.
Rather than potato chips, Kobachi serves gobo chips. Gobo is burdock, and a raw marinated version is often used in sushi rolls. They also served chips of fried lotus root, called renkon, but I didn't order them on this night. Both are great as a salty fried snack.
I know I said that Kobachi is best for the izakaya menu, but this establishment turned me onto shiitake nigiri, and now I need an order of it every time I visit. I don't know what it is about how they prepare their shiitake, but it's yummy. This nigiri is one item I insist new visitors try, especially the carnivorious ones, and everyone is amazed. The ones I ate on this night weren't as photogenic as ones in the past, but they were just as delicious. It's a small cost for a little taste that might change how you look at vegetarian nigiri as well.
I suspect that most of our experience with mochi comes in the form of green tea mochi ice cream, or mochi ball toppings on frozen yogurt. Kobachi recently put this dish on the menu, and it's baked mochi and eggplant in a smokey sauce with bonito flake on top. A bonus is that when bonito flake is set on top of a warm dish, it wavers back and forth like little tendrils, making the dish look alive! This can be a very filling dish, be sure to share. And if you want to learn more about mochi, there's a really cool mochi demonstration day held every year at Hope Community Church, around February. I went in 2009 and it was awesome! The mochi was made from scratch, starting with the hot rice, and then pounded and formed into mochi balls, then served sweet, savory, in soup, etc. But I digress. Try this dish if you like mochi, and want to try it as a savory dish rather than the usual dessert.
This is also a newer item on the menu - pork belly skewers with red miso sauce, or yakitori. Really good! If there are two of you dining, you're going to have to fight over the odd one.
Finally, a dish called chicken tsukune, or chicken meatballs. They have a smoky flavor to them - great for nibbling.
I ordered more for this meal, but I think six photos are the maximum to digest. I want to add, even though it wasn't a big part of this meal, the seafood izakaya here is a real treat. This is the kind of place where the dish of wasabi and ginger is set on the table as a tradition, but is totally unnecessary. The nigiri or other fish dishes are seasoned just right. Just try it, as the first bite!
Price-wise, I've found that it comes down to about $20-25 per person. It's roughly 3-4 dishes ordered per person at the table.
Also to note: Kobachi has open hours for lunch, but the izakaya is strictly an evening thing. Come here at the end of the day, have some sake, beer, or my favorite - shochu with oolong tea, and unwind with friends. I find it's best to arrive early in the evening, around 6 pm soon after they've opened. It may be tucked away in el Mercado Plaza, but it can get busy and there are few places within walking distance to fall back on as a second choice.
In August, Kobachi will celebrate its 2 year anniversary with a variety of special offers.
Between 5 - 31 August, they will have:
Edamame for $1
Large house hot sake for $2
Asahi draft beer for $3
Salmon poki for $4
and shrimp and vegetable tempura for $5!
How to partake of this? Go there beforehead to dine, and the coupon will be attached to your bill. Show it to your waiter or waitress when you order. And please note: as the izakaya menu is only for dinner service, so are these special offer izakaya dishes. I got the coupon when I ate there this week! All the info I listed above is printed on it.
Kobachi Izakaya Dining (closed Mondays)
4141 State St
Santa Barbara, CA 93110
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