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Kobe fulfills quest for 'shiro maguro,' small plate feast

Ahi is practically synonymous with sushi in Southern Oregon. Albacore, not so much.

But the tuna species that’s become something of a mascot for sustainable seafood is available locally as sushi, sashimi and poké — if you know where to look. After I researched and wrote a cooking column earlier this fall about Oregon’s prized albacore in raw preparations, my appetite was piqued for a sushi chef’s interpretation. The quest for “shiro maguro,” as it’s known in Japanese, led me to Ashland’s Kobe.

Perched above Ashland Creek, Kobe cultivates a Zen-garden persona and touts “modern Japanese cuisine.” I’d dined at Kobe on several occasions since it opened in 2007. Menus have remained much the same under Kobe’s transition from founder Billy Harto to new owner Nicole Hosoya Ruibal, who promotes vegan and gluten-free options, as well as sustainably harvested fish.

Albacore, from the U.S. and Canadian Pacific coasts, is a certified “best choice” by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. And the fisheries support family businesses, like those found in Coos Bay. More sushi restaurants would do well to offer authentic “white tuna” in lieu of bigger, red-fleshed species that have been overfished in some waters.

Discerning sushi chefs have confidence that customers won’t blanch at albacore’s pallor. Kobe heightens interest in albacore by marinating it in a garlic-soy mixture, then garnishing it with garlic “chips.” The roll, appropriately dubbed the “garlic albacore” is priced at $11.

Albacore gets a boost from ginger and ponzu sauce in Kobe’s poké, augmented with onion, scallions, bell pepper, cucumber and sesame seeds for $18. Two pieces of albacore nigiri cost $8.

Kobe’s nigiri sushi ranges in price from $5 for avocado to market price for uni, which is a mark of Kobe’s dedication to freshness and seasonality. Rolls run from $12 to $17 for “surf ’n turf,” which combines tempura lobster and slices of beef.

On the small plates menu, customers find beef tataki, chicken yakitori and Korean short ribs, among other items, from $12 to $25. “Special assortments” from the sushi bar cost as little as $7 for an oyster shooter or as much as $33 for the sashimi platter. Miso soup and seaweed salad can be had for $4 and $8, respectively.

Deliberating between the albacore poké and futomaki, I succumbed to the lure of crispy bits of garlic. In keeping with the Oregon coast theme, my partner and I also ordered the Northwest, another “fat roll,” stuffed with salmon, crab, cucumber, daikon sprouts and lemon slices, topped with sesame seeds ($12).

Fairly virtuous, our selections begged for the contrast of deep-fried appetizers. Kobe’s duck spring rolls with orange-miso sauce ($12) are among my favorite restaurant dishes relying on this rich poultry. But the kitchen had run out on this particular weekend, so we skipped down to the menu’s tempura section and decided to splurge on the lobster ($15), priced just two dollars higher than the vegetable platter.

And because fried foods are only improved with a sip of anything alcoholic, my partner and I each ordered a cocktail — “St. Germain’s Garden” ($12) for me and a floral Old-Fashioned ($12) for him. As the meal progressed, we paired a glass of crisp Abacela albarino ($8) with the sushi.

Battered in bite-sized pieces, the lobster was more than a succulent starter. Vibrant mixed greens, served in almost equal quantity to the crustacean, practically constituted a salad course.

A drizzle of spicy mayonnaise added just enough decadence to the lobster without compromising the breading’s crunch. The presentation, indeed, was more successful than serving the sauce on the side. The hint of spice complemented my beverage’s elderflower note and the more surprising aroma of chamomile in my partner’s drink.

Our dozen pieces of sushi were simply arranged on their platter and minimally adorned. Savvy diners can conclude that top-quality, fresh fish doesn’t need extraneous condiments. Dousing sushi in soy sauce and smothering it in wasabi paste only masks the fish’s flavor, which may remedy lackluster specimens. At Kobe, we applied the tiniest amounts of soy sauce and wasabi to our futomaki.

The garlic albacore roll met all my expectations of mild, buttery flesh as a foil to crunchy scallions and cucumber. The garlic nicely accented, rather than detracted, from the primary flavors and textures.

And albacore is a fish anyone can feel good about eating. Packed with protein, albacore boasts high levels of essential vitamins and minerals, including B12 and selenium. It’s also higher than other tuna species in omega-3 fatty acids.

That omega-3 champion, salmon, vied with crab for our appreciation in the Northwest roll. Although it wasn’t strictly speaking crab season, Kobe does one better than the majority of sushi restaurants locally. When its menu designates crab, diners can read that as actual shellfish, not the imitation made from artificially colored and flavored white fish.

I was hoping, however, for a stronger taste of citrus from the roll’s lemon slices listed on the menu. I’m accustomed to seeing thinly sliced lemon perched atop sushi rolls at other local establishments. But these must have been tucked snugly inside the roll or perhaps reduced to mere slivers.

While satisfying, the meal afforded plenty of room for dessert, particularly when we heard that, not one, but a trio of crème brulee was among choices. The flavors — ginger, green tea and five spice — were in keeping with Kobe’s sensibilities. And I couldn’t recall tasting green tea or five spice in crème brulee, although the dessert is one of my longtime favorites.

The ginger was the trio’s most subtle and almost furnished a palate cleanser for its companions, which came on strong and finished with barely perceptible bitterness. Conscientious caramelization of the sugar topping, producing a hard-crack candy coating and eliminating gritty granules, would have extended my enjoyment of all three custards.

Located at 96 N. Main St., Ashland, Kobe is open from 5 to 9 p.m. daily. See kobeashland.com or call 541-488-8058.

Tempo Tidbits

Southern Oregon’s top chefs are teaming up, not competing, to put on a special multi-course dinner this month in Ashland.

The Nov. 14 event pays tribute to the Ashland Culinary Festival, canceled in its 14th year as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing and other safeguards at Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites conform to Neuman Hotel Group’s well-being practices. Find information, view the menu and purchase tickets at neumanhotelgroup.com/top-chefs-dinner

The $85 all-inclusive price affords four courses paired with wine, as well as a cocktail sampling to kick off the evening at 6 p.m. Participating chefs are 2009 winner Franco Console, 2011 winner David Georgeson and 2017 junior winner Felix Villagrana, as well as last year’s top mixologist Jordan Shepard-McGuire.

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Gluten-free Singapore noodles, vegetarian Japanese nabe, and saffron-seasoned buckwheat risotto are among the new menu items at Melange Eatery in Medford.

Melange’s plant-based cuisine is aimed at vegetarians, vegans, keto, Paleo and gluten-free dieters, as well as anyone who wants to uphold health-conscious habits while dining out. The menu also has a section of raw food specialties, including spaghetti, tacos and a burger.

Melange spans the culinary spectrum from artichoke dip and deconstructed lasagna to sushi, Thai curry and Cajun tofu, priced from $8 to $18. Original dishes on the menu include the Korean rice bowl bibimbap and soba noodles steeped in oolong tea broth. Takeout is available for pickup at the downtown location or delivery with GrubHub.

Located at 406 E Main St., in Main Street Marketplace’s downstairs suite, Melange is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, until

2 p.m. Friday. See the menu and order at melangeeatery.com. Call 541-500-1063.

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Chicken is an up-and-coming concept behind some new local food-service establishments.

Billy’s Fried Chicken opened Oct. 29 at 82 N. Main St., in Ashland, the space formerly occupied by Thai Pepper Satay Bar. It’s the latest brainchild of prolific Southern Oregon restaurateur Billy Harto, who took over Thai Pepper 30 years ago.

In addition to buttermilk-battered, Korean and Japanese styles distinguish Billy’s chicken. Side dishes include coleslaw, potato salad, truffle fries, jasmine rice and radish kimchi. Prices range from $13 for a choice of white or dark meat with two small sides to $40 for a whole bird with two large sides.

Call 541-708-6744. Hours are forthcoming.

In Medford, diners can get their chicken fix at The Chicken Shanty, a drive-up serving wings and hand-breaded chicken strips as sandwiches, tacos, wraps and meals with side dishes and house-made dipping sauces. Prices are from $6.99 to $9.99.

Serving from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, The Chicken Shanty is perched on the edge of Quality Market’s parking lot at 1211 E. Jackson St. Outdoor seating is available. See thechickenshanty.com or call 541-200-4046.

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Have a Tempo tidbit to share? Email news about the local dining, food and beverage scene to: thewholedish@gmail.com

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Sarah Lemon has relished the Rogue Valley’s dining scene for nearly two decades as one of the original contributors to Tempo’s dining column. Her palate has helped to judge some of the region’s culinary competitions and festivals. The former editor of A la Carte, the Mail Tribune’s weekly food section, she writes a biweekly column, The Whole Dish, and blogs and podcasts under the same name. Listen at mailtribune.com/podcasts and read more at mailtribune.com/lifestyle/the-whole-dish. Follow the.whole.dish on Instagram, @thewholedish on Twitter or see facebook.com/thewholedish.

Garlic albacore and Northwest rolls are among the futomaki selections at Kobe in Ashland.{ }Photos by Sarah Lemon
The custard is under a topping of caramelized sugar.