Monday, August 18, 2008

One of those things about living in the Phoenix area is dead obvious to anyone who lives here: It's damned hot in the summer. Sometimes, you just have to get out of town. Las Vegas has awfully tempting hotel rates, but there had best be a great pool where you stay since it's going to be just as hot. San Diego has tons going on, but with gas prices where they are, one gives pause to travelling there during their peak hotel season. Northern Arizona looks more and more tempting, doesn't it? I've had friends and family up in Prescott for all my life, so when someone from up there called to catch up on things, I jumped at the chance to pay them a spontaneous visit. Two hours later, I found myself up there under a blanket of stars, with lightning flashing further north on the rim.

Something I have noticed about Prescott is that while it's still a sleepy little town, the quality of restaurants up there has dramatically improved in recent years. Case in point is Esoji, a relatively new restaurant on Gurley just a stone's throw west of Whiskey Row. I never would have guessed that one of the best Japanese restaurants in the state would open its doors in such a picture-perfect slice of small-town Americana as downtown Prescott.

My friend J (no relation to Seth Chadwick's J., congratulations to you both on the wedding!), his wife Keely, and their kid Kidlet had a great time catching up on things as we strolled around the square under the blazing hot 85 degree sun. As we approached Whiskey Row, we all noticed it was about time for lunch. We were all disgusted by the presence of a Quizno's franchise at the south end of Whiskey Row (It's great when a downtown area is completely dominated by independently owned shops and eateries like Prescott!). We nearly stopped at a new hole-in-the-wall Mexican place on Whiskey Row called Annalina's, but in the end Esoji won out for getting a visit this time. Annalina's looked like it would be a promising little place, so I'm looking forward to giving them a try the next time I'm up there.

When we entered Esoji, we were given the standard table-or-booth choice. We were a bit torn; booths always have a more intimate feel, but with Kidlet along and his need for a high chair, it would be a lot easier to sit at a table. The hostess quickly offered a banquette at the end of the row of booths, and it turned out to be a great idea. For some reason, the inside edge of the booth side of the banquette was considerably more firm than the rest of it, leaving yours truly sitting off-kilter.

We perused the menu, and went with relatively basic choices. Keely hadn't been to a Japanese restaurant before (J is working on opening her up from her once sheltered life diet), and went with teriyaki chicken donburi. J and I both selected the bento ($13.50), a combination of grilled meat, shrimp and veggie tempura, vegetables, California or spicy salmon roll, miso soup, and green salad. I went with teriyaki salmon, J had the teriyaki chicken, and we both had the California roll. If I was thinking about it, I would have selected the spicy salmon so we could have some of each. I'll have to do that next time. J is allergic to shellfish, so I offered to eat his shrimp tempura, but alas having the crustaceans touching something else on the plate would set him off, so he requested no shrimp tempura.

The waitress went off to place the order, and a few minutes later arrived with my and J's green salads. An added surprise was a little teddy bear face made out of sushi rice and veggie bits for Kidlet! Kidlet couldn't enjoy it as much as the itamae hoped since Kidlet isn't quite up to solid food yet, but it was still a very welcome touch. The salad was unusually good; there was some traditional iceberg for crispness, mixed in with spring mix for complexity. The dressing was an eye opener, definitely not your usual Japanese ginger dressing that I swear doesn't change no matter where you are. It was vibrant and citrusy, with ginger, a little soy, and goodness knows what else. You could tell that they made it there. You could also tell they were very proud of it since they sold it by the bottle. Miso soup was executed just as it should, with flavorful broth and a couple of small bits of seaweed and tofu.

A short while later, our entrees arrived. As you can see in the pictures, they were nearly works of art. Colors played off of each other beautifully well, shapes were attractive, and everything just looked well thought out. The teriyaki sauce was definitely not the sticky sweet bottled glop used at so many places, and was applied with a modest hand. It truly complemented the meat instead of taking center stage. Vegetables were all cooked to a perfect degree of doneness whether sauteed or tempura. Speaking of the tempura, I have never had a tempura this incredibly light. My shrimp was tender, juicy, and tasted like... shrimp. We have some wizards of the deep fryer where I work, but they don't hold a candle to the person manning it at Esoji. Since J passed on the shrimp, he instead received tempura sweet potato slices, and they were so good that he didn't miss the shrimp one bit. A small nest of noodles were dressed in a light sauce that took me by surprise. I had a feeling they would be a little spicy since you could see flecks of togarashi, but there was also a contrasting sweetness with a hint of tart that I'm pretty sure was provided by a splash of citrus. The California roll was a good California roll; nothing to write home about, but even the best California rolls play second fiddle to pretty much every other kind of sushi out there. The sushi rice was perfectly balanced; not too much rice vinegar, nor too little.

I had already planned to stop by the crêperie on Gurley for dessert, but that plan was dashed when our waitress mentioned green tea crème brûlée. It came attractively presented, along with a surprise of a miniature scoop of green tea ice cream, presumably for Kidlet. We were all enthralled with the crème brûlée. I thought that the crust could have been thicker (I like mine to crack when hit with a spoon, this one didn't), and I would have appreciated it if the sugar on top had been melted by blowtorch instead of broiler; the custard part had started to cook more than it should from the broiling. Still, it was delicious and creamy, and the green tea paired well with the creaminess of the custard.

The total bill for three lunches and one dessert came to just over $56. This is pretty pricey by Prescott standards, but very well worth it. Esoji is head and shoulders above any other Asian food I've had in northern Arizona, and is easily in the top tier of Japanese restaurants in all of Arizona. Indeed, Esoji may well be the best traditional Japanese restaurant in the state.