Behind the etched glass dividers, flames shoot and metal clangs, as if a medieval battle is under way. At the sushi bar: a monastery's serenity. And in the dining room that separates them, Hotoke finds the middle ground to make itself new.
This Japanese restaurant, popular for its raw fish and overcooked social scene, has taken a more pronounced fusion turn, while continuing the hibachi show, sushi specials and ardent imbibing. It feels like three eateries looking to mate with a fourth.
The result is more ambitious than when Hotoke was first reviewed in 2008. It's usually just as good. But there have been lapses, too, especially in the service, which sometimes manages to be brusque and erratic.
Hotoke's entrance crowds quickly on weekends, and waiting for a table is common. But you're in a shopping center that includes the Alpine bakery and pastry shop as well as Uncle Giuseppe's Marketplace, so there's some appetizing wandering nearby.
If you're inclined, Hotoke's hibachi extravaganza has the required special effects and the standard variations on surf and turf. All that's missing are samurai outfits for the chefs. The younger audience is enthralled.
Diners at the sushi bar see a sharper and subtler show. Hotoke prepares very good sashimi and sushi, and kaleidoscopic rolls often are fine, too.
"Spring fever" brings together spicy crab, mango and avocado, wrapped with tuna, finished with avocado sauce for a seasonal jolt. The scallion pancake-tuna pizza with tofu-wasabi aioli, crunchy tuna tacos, and kampachi with guacamole sauce and cilantro emulsion are East-West fun, and flavorful.
Best, however, is traditional sushi, especially the "chef's finest omakase," a greatest-hits combo that may be shared. Beats any spicy tuna roll.
Things get cooking with good beef negimaki. There's a respectable duck salad with crisp-skinned meat, jicama, beets and greens with olive balsamic dressing. Grilled salmon with asparagus would be better minus its hazy miso sauce and creamy relish.
Arriving lukewarm: pan-fried filet mignon with brush strokes of sweet-tart sauce, and mashed potatoes from which rises a narrow sail of fried plantain. Udon and soba noodle dishes have the right texture and temperature.
Fried oysters look more like jalapeño poppers and entomb anything marine. Thai calamari benefits from mango salsa and sweet chili sauce. Seafood salad, a placid union of octopus, crab and shrimp, shows up barely dressed.
No desserts deserve your attention. The biscotti at nearby Alpine, however, are easily recommended.