Release the Kraken! And while you're at it, bring out a Mad Dragon, a Lava King and a Drunken Tiger. Maybe even a Foxy Lady.
While the campy film "Clash of the Titans" has nothing to do with the menu at Octopus Japanese Restaurant in Menlo Park, someone was inspired enough to name one of the special sushi rolls after that classic monster. In fact, someone was pretty motivated about naming most of the restaurant's specialty items with wit and whimsy. Thankfully, each of the 50-plus rolls includes a photo and detailed description of its contents on a multi-paged menu.
Like many foods we've adopted from other countries, Americans have given sushi our own spin. Purists may object to fusion-style sushi -- the oversize rolls with nontraditional ingredients like jalapeños, cream cheese or even Spam. The rolls at Octopus are more civilized and the contents more traditional. And size does matter.
My favorite was the Ask Jamie ($15.50) stuffed with unagi (eel), avocado, mango and macadamia nuts, topped with thin slices of hamachi and salmon and drizzled with savory-sweet unagi sauce. It was an intricate blend of flavors, with the more delicate fish layered on top so they were not overwhelmed by the heavier tones from the fillings, and the crunch of the nuts was counterpointed by the creamy smoothness of the avocado.
In fact, that point-counterpoint was a strong suit in all the rolls we sampled. Avocado coupled with crisp cucumber, velvety seared tuna paired with pops of salty fish roe, spicy tuna matched with low-key tempura. The attention to texture was just as apparent as the freshness of the ingredients. Rolls were large and tight, yet fish held their own, offering just enough give when you bite -- yielding without being mushy.
The Kraken ($20) really was a monster, loaded with hamachi, salmon, crab and cucumber, topped with spicy octopus, salmon, unagi and avocado. Despite the variety of ingredients, it was easy to detect the more subtle components despite the more aggressive ones, including the somewhat heavy hand with the sauces layered on top.
The same goes for the Fire Dragon ($15.50), composed of shrimp tempura, spicy tuna and kanikama (imitation crab) inside, with tuna, hamachi, ebi, avocado, roe and green onions on top. This roll, like several others on the menu, is marked as spicy but the spiciness was subtle, not overpowering.
Each dish we ordered was attractive in presentation. Rolls were assembled with care and very generous in size, though some of the compositions could be challenging to eat.
Octopus took over the location from longtime occupant Akasaka and redid the interior with wood flooring, pumpkin-colored walls and rustic architectural elements. Owner Jeffrey Son has 10 years' experience working in Japanese restaurants and opened Octopus about 18 months ago in partnership with his father, who has been in the restaurant business for more than 30 years. Together they come up with the roll concoctions, often with help from the staff members, while Son invents the names. A friend created the distinctive restaurant logo.
The restaurant also features excellent-quality traditional Japanese dishes, including katsu, teriyaki, maki, sashimi and nigiri. The bento box ($13.50 for two items) is generous in size and attractive visually. The option I chose included sweet salmon teriyaki and crisp vegetable tempura, and came with miso soup and firm, tasty rice. The nabeyaki udon soup ($15.50) came loaded with thick, dense noodles garnished with chunks of carrot, zucchini, daikon and enokitake mushrooms, all topped with a large shrimp tempura.
Service was inconsistent, wavering between personable and responsive one evening to perfunctory and rushed another. Sitting at the bar eliminates that X factor, with direct interaction with the sushi chefs.
Octopus has a lot going for it: creative fusion cuisine, high-quality ingredients, good value and a plethora of selections. You don't have to be a fan of monsters to find a satisfying experience there.
Octopus Japanese Restaurant
925 El Camino Real, Menlo Park
Hours: Lunch, Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday-Friday 5-9 p.m. and Saturday 4-9 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Credit cards: Yes
Outdoor seating: No
Alcohol: Wine, beer, sake
Happy Hour: Yes
Noise level: Low