All sorts of cool stuff comes in small packages. At holiday time, those tiny boxes with little bows on top often signal something shiny and expensive. The diminutive Toyota Yaris gets 36 miles to the gallon. And those baby Laughing Cows are just enough cheese to satisfy, requiring no slicer and no tummy ache later.
Kokoro Japanese Restaurant is teeny-tiny in size but holds a much larger amount of quality than some of its larger counterparts.
Located in an inconspicuous strip mall on Menaul, its small sign is not particularly noticeable unless you're looking for it. Walking in the door, I kept looking around the telephone-booth sized dining room and wondering if there was more to it.
Nope. The kitchen area and the dining area were roughly the same size, and the entire dining room had only four tables and eight bar seats. I had very little space to change into my superhero costume (Super Reviewer!), but the window counters were fairly spacious, so I sat there.
The menu is as diminutive as the restaurant (which is perfectly understandable with a small kitchen). The meal offerings are succinctly pared down to a handful of quality home-style Japanese dishes—noodle soup (udon wheat noodles or soba buckwheat noodles), curry, donburi bowls (rice bowls topped with meats, vegetables, fish and a sweet or savory sauce), bento and a small sushi menu.
The bento box meals come with a reasonable variety of protein choices, such as marinated, deep-fried chicken; chicken cutlet; unagi (eel); grilled, salted salmon; aji (deep-fried Spanish mackerel); and potato croquettes. The meal also includes small portions of rice, miso soup, hijiki seaweed, stir-fried vegetables, beans, potato salad, egg omelet, a nori-cabbage salad and fruit.
The place is definitely vegetarian/vegan-friendly with dishes like “just curry,” which is white rice with curry sauce and Japanese pickles, a wakame bowl of seaweed and noodles, and potato croquettes (tempura potato balls) as a substitution for the meat or seafood. I ordered “just curry” ($3.50) and got not only a little stockpile of bright red tsukemono (literal translation: “pickled things”) with a healthy scoop of rice garnished with green peas, but also some of the best curry sauce I’ve tasted in town.
Compared to Indian curry, Japanese-style curry sauce is darker in color, milder in heat, sweeter and a bit thicker, closer to the consistency of nice stew gravy. Kokoro’s was rich, thick, flavorful and a lovely burnt-caramel color.
Next up were two donburi bowls, one with unagi and one with raw tuna ($8.95 each). Each oversized bowl was enough for a filling meal even without the miso soup or delicious cold cabbage-seaweed salad that accompanied it. The unagi was cut into bite-sized chunks and hot off the grill, resting over a bed of avocado, cucumber and greens, and topped with sweet basting sauce. The tuna was of impeccable quality, ice-cold and crowned with neon-orange smelt roe for a wonderful flavor symmetry of sea and salt.
The sushi list is petite as well--only basic rolls and none out of the ordinary. The rainbow roll (a california roll layered with a colorful variety of sashimi, $8.50) was nicely done, and both the salmon and tuna were fresh and moist.
The service was smooth and friendly. Kokoro even includes a customer-pleasing gem of complimentary and unlimited green tea, coffee or water with meals. (Diners are free to serve themselves refills from a beverage station by the counter.) If it’s all about the little things, then Kokoro delivers in a big way.
The Alibi Recommends:
• The “just curry” meal, extra pickles
• Tuna donburi bowl
• Rainbow roll
Kokoro Japanese Restaurant, 5614 Menaul NE, 830-2061. Hours: Mon–Sat 11 a.m.–8 p.m. Closed Sun. Price range: moderate. Credit cards, no booze, catering, vegetarian-friendly, party platters.