Once upon a time, Japanese food meant a couple of sushi, maybe some grilled meats in sweet soy-based sauces, possibly a one-pot supper, sukiyaki. But today, more and more people are becoming familiar with authentic Japanese cooking.
In downtown Burbank, Zono Sushi is part of this educational process. It has a pleasant antiseptic ambience, from the pink neon sign behind the sushi counter to the decorative lithographs framed in shiny black lacquer that hang over tables. Japanese cotton-print curtains shroud the restrooms, and additional seating is on a patio area with a smoked glass ceiling.
The staff is almost entirely Asian. The sushi chefs are Japanese-speaking. Oddly, the waitresses are Taiwan-born. Still, they make a noble attempt at pronouncing the Japanese names of the dishes and always say "hai," in the Japanese manner, whenever they put dishes on tables.
The large selection of dishes is daunting. In addition to a foot-long sushi menu, there is a printed menu listing dozens of appetizers, soups and salads and a healthy selection of entrees (which come with miso soup, salad and rice), not to mention the several blackboard specials that change daily.
The sushi items are fine, though the tuna belly might not be as nicely marbled or the Spanish mackerel as delicate as you'd find in a more upscale sushi restaurant. Fresh-water eel is a bargain at $3.80, though the sweet soy glaze is a bit heavy-handed.
Zono Sushi also makes interesting hand rolls, such as spider roll: soft shell crab, mashed shrimp, radish sprouts, asparagus and rice rolled up in a seaweed wrapper. It's not for sushi purists, but it's tasty.
On the blackboard you might find monkfish liver (ankimo), which the Japanese call their equivalent of foie gras. You get three thick pinkish rounds topped with grated carrot and chopped green onion. The liver is pungent and creamy, though a trifle dried out.
You may also find Chilean sea bass, a hefty chunk of fish sprinkled with the juice of the Japanese citrus fruit yuzu and broiled quite simply. Gindara saikyoyaki is another winner: buttery black cod marinated in sweet miso paste and broiled.
With an ambitious menu like this one, it's not surprising that not everything is equally good. Absolutely stay away from the greasy fish and vegetable tempura dishes. On the other hand, Zono Sushi fries scallops very nicely in a light, perfectly browned bread crumb and egg batter.
Gyoza, those small fried dumplings that usually have a filling of minced pork and leeks, can be delicious when the skins are crisp. These gyoza, unfortunately, aren't crisp, or very flavorful either. The Zono beef roll--broiled steak rolled around colorful clumps of spinach and carrot--looks gorgeous, but a jelly-like mass of ponderous sweet soy glaze overwhelms the flavor completely.
Salmon-skin salad was another problem. The greens did not snap with freshness and the chopped grilled salmon skin made me think I was eating Japanese kibbles and bits.
But after a couple of disappointments, along comes something like dobin mushi, a tiny steamer pot of shiitake mushrooms, shrimp, chicken and ginkgo nuts simmered into a fragrant broth.
Classically, dobin mushi is made with matsutake mushrooms, one of the world's most expensive fungi. But shiitake work nearly as well for most of us, and at $3.95 a person the dish feels like a steal. (Dobin mushi with matsutake will set you back at least $20 a person in our more exclusive Japanese restaurants.)
There is a surprise at dessert as well. I wouldn't order the tempura ice cream if I were you, but I'd ask whether mochi ice cream is available.
All Zono Sushi has done is to take thin sheets of mochi (rice pounded until the gluten comes out and the rice forms a thick paste) and stuff them with various ice creams: coffee, mango, green tea. It's a wonderfully refreshing concept.
* WHAT: Zono Sushi.
* WHERE: 610 N. 1st St., Burbank.
* WHEN: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5:30-11 p.m. Friday, 4-11 p.m. Saturday, 4-10 p.m. Sunday.
* HOW MUCH: Dinner for two, $23-$41. Suggested dishes: unagi (fresh-water eel) sushi, $3.80; dobin mushi, $3.95 per person (two-person minimum); gindara saikyoyaki, $5; fried scallops, $6.50.
* FYI: Beer and wine only. Parking in adjacent structure. American Express, MasterCard and Visa.
* CALL: (818) 557-1268.