Rick Zaslove has been itching to have his own restaurant for quite some time now.

His culinary dreams got a shot in the arm last year when he hit on the idea of working with an established, well-liked Japanese restaurateur in a new venture spotlighting what he likes to call “modern Japanese cuisine.”

The president of Golden State Lumber, Zaslove said he believes being a restaurateur is the perfect “something to do when I retire.” No, Zaslove hasn’t retired from more than two decades in the lumber business. But with the opening of Eiko’s in the Napa Town Center 10 days ago, he’s well on his way to living the retirement dream.

Zaslove said he’s more than qualified to shift to a culinary career. “I’ve been eating out at lunch every day for 38 years,” he volunteered as he talked about launching a new urban Japanese eatery in downtown Napa.

“One of the places I used to go to all the time was Fujiya (the oldest Japanese restaurant in Napa located in the outlet stores mall),” he continued. “I began to work with the chef, suggesting things to him, and eventually some of the things on the menu were dishes I helped create.”

One day last year, while dining at Tokyo Fro’s in Sacramento, a popular Japanese sushi restaurant with a full bar, Zaslove wondered: “Why couldn’t we have a similar restaurant in Napa?” He started looking around for available sites, and one afternoon spotted the vacant storefront along First Street that formerly housed Piccolino’s.

“I called my brother, Mike, and asked him if he wanted to partner up with me to open a Japanese restaurant. I also knew that Eiko Nakamura had been struggling at Fujiya, so I invited her to be a partner as well. She agreed to bring her core menu, some staff and for us to use her name. And that’s how we all got together to open Eiko’s (pronounced ‘ey-kohs’).”

Over a 10-month period, Zaslove put together the plans for a Japanese restaurant with a full bar lounge that offers everything from sushi to bento boxes, udon to tempura, yakitori to main courses featuring grilled and sautéed fish, Wagyu steak, Scottish salmon and lamb tenderloin. 

The budding restaurateur wanted a restaurant that’s informal and welcoming. “I wanted it to be inviting and classy, but certainly not stuffy,” he said.

To that end, he enlisted the help of designers Dan Worden and Kimberley Nunn. Their Shopworks firm is responsible for the public space design of W Hotels in Dallas, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, New York and Chicago, as well as a trio of Napa eateries — Norman Rose Tavern, Farm and Boon Fly — plus Napa’s Oxbow Market and Banana Republic outlets, among many other commercial entities.

Because of his ties to the lumber company, Zaslove told the Shopworks partners to use as much wood as they wanted in the design. That prompted Worden and Nunn to work Brazilian ipe — a dark ironwood — and pine into the restaurant and lounge design. The First Street space is dominated by an 18-foot-tall woven ipe wall, inspired by Japanese fences and basketry. Japanese temples served as inspiration for the back bar and lounge seating area. The ipe was also used for sturdy dining tables, pine for subtle panels.

The polished concrete floors are studded with a traditional Japanese symbol, nearly two dozen hand-painted applications of koi fish. There are two outdoor fire pits in the al fresco dining area, and a fireplace in the lounge, ideal for the cool nights that had been hanging on of late.

In addition to track lighting, illumination of the 140-seat restaurant includes hanging lamps reminiscent of fishing nets and large fishing floats. Inspired by signs at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, a giant “lantern” above the sushi bar contains blessings, selections of poems and musings (“Kokin Wakashu” and “Pillow Book”) as well as names of fish and Japanese celebrities.

Black awnings will anchor the front of the building once the planned sidewalk cafe is added to the mix of indoor and outdoor dining options.

 

Sushi, anyone?

Dining at a Japanese restaurant without at least one order of sushi is, well, downright heretical. Chef de cuisine Jake Rand and his team of sushi chefs have a wide variety of choices when it comes to sushi and sashimi. The offerings include Japanese hamachi, shrimp, halibut, wild salmon, scallops, shrimp, octopus, squid, red snapper and prized tuna in various forms. Served two pieces to the order, current prices for sushi and sashimi range from $6.50 for smoked salmon to $13 for Santa Barbara sea urchin. Served with house salad and miso soup, Eiko’s sashimi dinner ($30) features an assortment of 15 pieces and steamed rice, while the sushi dinner ($28) offers nine pieces of nigiri sushi and a California roll.

Classic presentations ($5-$9) include Tekka Maki, poke, avocado, yellowtail and spider rolls. Eiko’s signature rolls range from spicy tuna ($7) to tsunami ($13), which features crab and tempura onions topped with avocado, crispy scallops and jalapeños. A pair of rolls appear to have been inspired by a popular TV character — Ricky Ricardo (shrimp tempura with hamachi, maguro, crab, green onions and tobiko) and Ricky Ricardo on Vacation (shrimp tempura with salmon, avocado, maguro, crab, sesame sauce and tobiko).

The other evening, a friend and I tried several of the offerings from a menu the chef titles “Japanese tapas.” The tasty hamachi bonbons ($12) feature slices of richly flavored yellowtail wrapped around snow crab that had been flavored with a sweet eel sauce. The hamachi jalapeno takes on a Latin accent with chiles and cilantro adding flavor to the fish along with the yuzu/soy dipping sauce. The unusual tuna “pizza” ($13) is actually a crisped sushi rice cake topped with spicy tuna, avocado, jalapeño rings and tobiko. 

Although it sounds a bit redundant, “ceviche sashimi” ($12) is finely chopped and marinated snapper, octopus, shrimp, cucumber and citrus artfully presented in a leaf-shaped ice mold. It’s accompanied by house-made wonton chips. This is an unconventional, but most tasty, ceviche and, as my dinner partner pointed out, served with yummy chips that would make anything taste good.

Items the chef can offer in the full bar, the tapas menu (generally $9-$13) also includes healthy fries (tempura green beans with sesame dipping sauce), Eiko’s calamari (with creamy sesame sauce), rock shrimp “popcorn,” tacos Japonais and chicken lettuce wraps. The kitchen also deep-fries a crispy whole fish ($22), flavored with ginger, cilantro and chives.

Country miso soup ($6) features enoki mushrooms and tofu, while tuna tataki Niçoise ($16) pairs seared rare tuna slices with fingerling potatoes, haricots verts and cherry tomatoes, and Italian-accented tomato udon ($14) tosses udon noodles in a savory tomato sauce and tops the noodles with seared scallops and tiger shrimp.

From the kitchen’s hot line comes a half-dozen main courses, including toothsome miso black cod ($22) that’s been marinated for 48 hours, then broiled and served atop an edamame/yellow corn succotash. The yakitori dish ($19) features grilled teriyaki chicken with Tokyo onions, steamed rice and a summer salad. Seared scallops ($24) float atop Tokyo turnip puree, Scottish salmon decorates a crispy sushi rice cake and flavorful lamb tenderloin ($26) nuzzles against a generous helping of pork belly/Asian sweet potato hash. The Wagyu tri-tip is served with Asian sweet potato fries.

When the restaurant opens for lunch in a few weeks, the kitchen will offer several bento boxes as well.

Desserts (all $6) include five-spice chocolate cake with ginger cream, tempura green tea ice cream with chocolate sauce, ginger crème brûlée, six flavors of mochi ice cream, plus housemade chocolate ganache and crème anglaise “lollipops,” crafted with the help of liquid nitrogen. 

Liquid nitrogen also features prominently in the preparation of the bar’s Nitro Caipirinha, Brazil’s national cocktail made with cachaça sugar cane rum and served here as a sorbet.

Sommelier/beverage director Christina Merrigan, who came here from the Ritz Carlton at Half Moon Bay, has put together a complementary list of wines by both glass and bottle as well as a substantial selection of sake.

Considerable attention has been paid to detail — liked the shaved wine bottle corks now doing duty as chopstick holders, the comfortable lounge chairs and cushions, the after-dark lighting scheme and the spiffy outfits for wait staff: crisp white shirts embroidered with the logo, black vests and jeans.

 Dinner is served at Eiko’s from 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. A late-night menu wil be offered in the lounge from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on weekends. Eiko’s is located on First Street at Napa Town Center. For reservations, call 501-4444.

 

The backstory

After serving diners at Fujiya for 24 years, Nakamura decided the move to downtown was in her best interest, Rick Zaslove said. “Plus, she’s our good luck charm.”

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Zaslove said putting the concept for Eiko’s in place involved a number of people, including sommelier/beverage director Merrigan and general manager Fellippe Esteves, let alone lengthy consultations with the restaurant’s namesake and its chef de cuisine, Jake Rand.

A native of Charlottesville, Va., Rand got his first job in a restaurant kitchen at age 14. “I worked in kitchens all through high school,” he said prior to the start of service the other day. “At the time, I thought of it as a way to eat and drink for free.”

At 19, Rand moved to Colorado with the idea of going to college. Instead, he apprenticed at a restaurant and didn’t crack a textbook until he turned 25.

His proving ground was Denver’s Sushi Den Restaurant. “We had 15 sushi chefs and did anywhere from 450 to 700 covers a night,” he noted. 

The University of Colorado has a renowned undergraduate and graduate program for students of all things Japanese, dating from the era of World War II when document translation took place on the campus, Rand said. He received his degree in Japanese from the campus of the Buffaloes. 

For a time, he lived and worked in Shimoto, Japan, located south of Tokyo. He helped open a sushi bar in downtown Denver’s Ritz Carlton, which was named the best sushi bar in Denver while Rand was there. He was a partner in another Denver restaurant prior to coming to Napa.

Rand points out that “practice makes perfect” at a Japanese restaurant, which often means long days for the culinary team. “I’m lucky that two chefs from Fujiya agreed to be part of Eiko’s (staff).”

Following in his mother’s footsteps, Fellippe Esteves spent 16 years as an international tour guide before relocating to Los Angeles to get his hospitality and tourism degree from UCLA. A native of Ipanema, Brazil, Esteves said jobs as dishwasher, busser and server pointed the way to his current career choice.

“I just fell in love with the restaurant industry,” he declared. “I love to guide guests through the stories of the restaurants where I (previously) worked — Crustacean in Beverly Hills for six years, general manager of Aureole at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas and general manager of Mastro’s Steakhouse in Beverly Hills and Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica.

“Now, this is a great opportunity to me to introduce Eiko Nakamura to those who don’t know her and to help the partners put their best foot forward in welcoming our guests.”

During the day, Zaslove can usually be found in the restored 1885 Victorian on Second Street that once housed La Boucane restaurant. Golden State Lumber restored the structure to its period look prior to establishing its Napa offices there. Founded 50-plus years ago by the Nobmann family of Petaluma, Golden State Lumber is a building material supplier for professional contractors.

 

Tomato Udon with Shrimp and Scallops

By Jake Rand, Chef de cuisine, Eiko’s

Serves 6. 

 

6 portions Udon Noodles (fresh or frozen)

1/2 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined

6 large scallops, cut in half 

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

12 Roma tomatoes, halved

1 shallot, chopped

2 Tbsp. fresh ginger, chopped

1/4 cup fish sauce

1/4 cup cream

2 Tbsp. butter

1/4 cup  sugar

1 bunch fresh watercress or upland cress

1/2 pint cherry tomatoes

Blend Roma tomatoes, shallot and ginger in a food processor with fish sauce until smooth. Transfer to a sauce pan and simmer for 10 minutes. Slowly add cream, butter and sugar and transfer back to food processer and blend for five minutes on high.

Boil water in large pan and cook udon until noodles are soft. Strain noodles and reserve.

While noodles are cooking, season scallops with salt and pepper.  In a large skillet, heat olive oil until pan almost smokes. Add scallops and sear on one side until brown. Add tomato mixture and shrimp and simmer until cooked through, about 3 minutes.

Add cooked noodles and toss mixture with watercress.

Transfer to six bowls, garnish with cherry tomatoes and serve immediately. batch. Remove with a slotted spoon to the prepared plate, toss with salt and parmesan cheese and enjoy immediately.

 

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