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Sakana Co. boasts Japanese favorites and fusions

Medford’s loss is Ashland’s gain when sushi newcomer Sakana Co. relocated after a short but promising stint in the former city’s downtown.

Establishing itself in Medford last year, Sakana laid a solid foundation of Japanese favorites with a few fusion-cuisine surprises. The menu in Ashland is more refined in concept and presentation with dishes that push the envelope even further. Just when you think you’ve seen every possible variation on a burger, for example, Sakana serves up a beef patty topped with a softshell crab. There’s also a “sushi dog” and iteration of macaroni and cheese.

But the sushi is tempting enough that there’s little reason to venture beyond Sakana’s nigiri, sashimi and maki rolls. I’m also eager to try the restaurant’s battera, which presses layers of fish onto a layer of rice inside a wooden box, resulting in cohesive bites that resemble the classic French terrine technique. Traditionally made with mackerel, battera also comes in smoked-salmon and assorted-vegetable versions at Sakana.

Mackerel (“saba”) also caught my eye under the menu’s nigiri/sashimi section. I like to order this fish when it’s available fresh, rather than pickled. With a pronounced fish flavor, it’s chock-full of omega-3 fatty acids but considered more sustainable than the tuna species so often used in sushi and in peril of overfishing. I confirmed that Sakana’s mackerel was fresh and ordered saba nigiri, priced at $6 for two pieces.

One of my friends had long since decided that she wanted the “tycho” roll ($15), filled with tempura prawns and crab, topped with salmon, delicate slices of lemon and flying-fish roe. I heartily agreed. Of all the maki rolls I sampled at the Medford location, the “tycho” roll easily was the most memorable, marrying just the right richness from the fried prawns and salmon with the clean, bright note of citrus.

She also wanted seaweed salad ($7), and in deference to the cold evening, I advocated for miso soup ($3), a bowl apiece for our party of four. If the seaweed salad hadn’t received such a solid vote, I would have ventured an order of sunchokes with pickled ginger, garlic and chives or shisito peppers with yuzu. Surprisingly, the group didn’t gravitate to tempura or potstickers, practically compulsory appetizers and fairly priced at Sakana compared with other Japanese establishments in the valley.

Because I couldn’t conscience ordering the softshell crab burger when we had agreed to dine family-style, I did insist on the tempura softshell crab ($12), augmented with citrus, mango and avocado for a salad-type presentation that could be shared among us. My friends voiced their approval of the crunchy-fried crustacean, contrasting with silky avocado and acidic notes of fruit.

Improbably, the dish that most impressed me was the seaweed salad, at first glance in a class of its own compared with commonplace versions, usually adulterated with food coloring and preservatives, which so many restaurants resort to serving. This one had even more visual appeal and diversity in natural color, from light green to muted purple. At least three types of sea vegetables offered hearty, crunchy and slippery, rather than slimy, textures. I could have eaten the entire generous portion myself.

While the seaweed salad tasted of ocean water accented with the slight bitterness of sesame seeds, the mackerel had an assertive fish flavor without being “fishy.” The “tycho” roll received rave reviews and the pickle roll more of a measured response.

Two of my friends reflexively removed the pickle roll’s dollop of green sauce on the assumption it was wasabi. In fact, it was avocado puree that lent a luxurious mouth feel to the vegetarian roll prepared with whole-grain rice. I appreciated its striking topping of roasted beet, mimicking a slab of fish, its hue echoed in the magenta flecks of forbidden rice surrounding pickled carrot and fennel.

Each item paired well with the “Wandering Poet” sake that my friend and I favored. A large carafe furnished enough for both him and me to sip throughout the meal. Newcomers to Japan’s quintessential rice-based drink find an accessible sake list at Sakana. Small carafes start at $5, affording a single person a few cupsful. Entire wine-size bottles are priced from $35 to $59.

In business with Jefferson Spirits, Sakana boasts the parent restaurant’s strong bar program. The sophisticated cocktail list has a couple of playful drinks, dubbed “Drink the Kool-Aid” and “Not Your Granddad’s Bathtub Gin.” There’s also a thoughtful selection of wines by the glass that mingles imported and domestic labels.

Located at 145 E. Main St., Ashland, Sakana Co. is open 5 to11 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 5 p.m. to midnight Thursday through Saturday and 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Call 541-708-0901. See sakanaco.com

Vegetarian pickle and “tycho” rolls at Sakana Co. Photo by Sarah Lemon