I’m not a big fan of the Ozumo Concepts International restaurants. Ozumo at Santa Monica Place seemed out of place, and it closed not long ago. The Sonoma Wine Garden lacks personality, and don’t even ask about U-Sushi, especially if you read my review of it some time ago.
But this time, at Bamboo Izakaya, they got it just right. Izakaya is a Japanese drinking house, where you go mainly to drink and have fun and share a few small plates. Although some look a bit dark and, well, not appetizing, the Bamboo is upscale modern, bright and attractive, and projects just the right atmosphere for a modern version of a California Izakaya.
There’s a semi open kitchen/sushi bar and another bar with plenty of seating. Then there are lots of tables for two and a few larger tables, all in a pleasant high-ceiling room with big windows looking out over Ocean Avenue with the Pacific Ocean behind it. I know it will be loud when full, but the open structure makes it feel better than if it were small and cramped.
There’s a great staff of young ladies that you might recognize from other restaurants in the area, and a friendly, gregarious manager in Hiro Cristoph, who can speak enough Japanese when needed to get along. But the star addition for me is the Samsung tablets with the menus and pictures of the foods. The sake list, the wine list, even information about the restaurant chain, are all there to browse through. And if you want a closer look and to see the price, just tap on the picture. I predict that tablets signify the wave of the future for almost all restaurants.
Since it’s a drinking house we might as well mention the sake, including the wines. There’s not much to say about the wines. There is a modest selection with the usual suspects, and enough by the glass to be satisfactory. The prices are marked up four times bottle cost, about 25 percent more than one would hope, and by the glass expect to pay $10 to $12. The sake list is much more extensive than you’ll find at most restaurants — even Japanese restaurants — and there is a knowledgeable person available to help with the selection. The bottles of sake are very expensive, but by the time you share a bottle around with six to eight people so you can drive home safely $100 to $200 is not so bad. Priced by the glass the sake is not much more expensive than the better wines.
And so to the food. There is a lot of selection, from tempura shrimp to sushi and sashimi, lots of traditional rolls and a few “special house” rolls. There is a list of different soups that looks interesting. And there are a few special dishes not usually available at most restaurants. I had a bowl of marinated Brussels sprouts, which was delicious. A specialty of the house, crispy rice with spicy tuna, was OK, but I didn’t think the chopped tuna went all that well with the crispy rice squares, although individually each was delicious. However, the lotus crisp on top was not edible.
One of the special rolls, something like a California roll with crab salad on the top, was good, but not integrated in flavors. Some uni sushi and yellowtail sashimi were as good as anywhere else except for the very best sushi places.
What I did notice is that each of the portions was enough for two or three people to share. And the prices were quite reasonable. The sushi and sashimi run about $3.50 per piece, which is about the same as most Japanese restaurants other than those in the Japanese areas in town. The other dishes tended toward the $10 range. By the time you order four plates for four people and share them around you get by for $12 to $15 per person for food — maybe a bit more, and then it’s all about what you drink.
But of course if you want to eat a regular meal, like I did the last time I was there, it’s easy to run up a tab of $50 or so like in any other Santa Monica restaurant. I guess I ate for two.
The bottom line is that this is a great place to hang out with friends in the evening. It’s a pleasant atmosphere in a good location, with a very wide selection of interesting foods and some great drinks. As the old song goes, “Who could ask for anything more?”
If you go
1541 Ocean Ave.
Santa Monica, Calif.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.