Robata grill with special charcoal, sushi rarely seen in San Antonio, vast sake selection… the burden on Izakaya Nin to perform was unfairly heavy from the get-go. So let’s just get this out of the way upfront: many of my unreasonably high expectations weren’t met, and yet I’d willingly go back in a heartbeat.
I suggest you take advantage of the fact that the owner, Kuji Kubo, is a “sake sommelier” and will be happy to guide you in your selection. Flavors and aromas varied from brewy-yeasty to sharp and almost funky, with fruit, floral, and buttery components more apparent in some than others. Take your time. Let the sakes warm a little, too, as they tend to blossom and change as they do. And if you order a carafe for serious sipping with your meal, as we did, just remember the ritual: you serve your guest/companion, they serve you.
There may be a ritual order in which menu items ought to be served, too. But we couldn’t divine one. First to hit the table was a foil packet of shiitake slices in broth that had been grilled on the robata bar. The initial aroma was intense. If the imported cedar charcoal has any influence on grilled items, it certainly wasn’t apparent here; compared to the aroma, flavors were pallid, and we left this packet to sit until later, hoping the mushrooms would continue to infuse the broth (they did). Another robata offering, the bacon-wrapped enoki, was pleasant enough, but it was all about the bacon. The double-skewered chicken and green onion came closest to yielding an epiphany. We chose the more traditional salt-sprinkled (not teriyaki) option and felt that a little more salt might have been welcome. If the robata-cized whole squid hadn’t been $9.50, we might have tried it too, but rolls, both traditional and non, loomed large on our horizon.
The warm Tiger Eye roll was one of the first to appear, and the scored squid that served as a wrapper gave this handsome, sliced creation the look of a cogged gear into which colorful salmon and avocado had been stuffed. Yes, it was a beauty — to the point that the taste and texture inevitably took a back seat to the presentation. Still, worth ordering again (and quite good with a dry sake). Equally intriguing, not the least for its wrapper as well (parchment-thin soybean paper), was the Tokyo Rose roll, gathering eel, fried banana (yes), avocado, and eel sauce. This was perhaps too much of a good thing, but the two sweet components didn’t come to blows as we had feared. Do dip in your wasabi/soy mix, however.
We nevertheless tried most rolls first without dipping, and one that delivered undunked was the delicate and spring-like Sakura, a riceless roll with salmon, crab, shrimp, masago (smelt eggs), sprouts, and avocado all wrapped in cucumber and served with a citrusy ponzu sauce. This was probably one ingredient too many, but what the hey. The Banzai roll, also in soy paper, was another kitchen-sink creation (imagine eel, crab, egg omelet, cucumber, avocado, and masago with more sweetish eel sauce). It almost came together as well, though “the cucumber interrupts the eel,” commented my companion with zen-like gravity.
In contrast, and utterly laser-like in its clarity and focus, was the simplest roll of all, the Umejiso maki. There were just four ingredients in this tiny maki: rice, the nori wrapper, puréed salty plum and shiso leaf, and the flavor burst was breathtakingly intense. We kept coming back to it after less-pure rolls, such as the salmon tataki in which “torched” salmon dotted with puréed garlic and olive oil had been draped over a roll with kanikama (“krab”), asparagus, and cucumber. Sadly, the torching seemed too timid to do much of anything — but maybe the issue is cultural: what Japanese may consider exquisitely subtle, others could easily mistake for bland.
Which is precisely why a return may be required. And there are several sakes yet to sip. •
Izakaya Nin Japanese Tapas & Sushi
20330 Huebner Rd
A classy sushi joint with a charcoal-fired robata bar serving Japanese “tapas”
Sake selection, select rolls (Tiger Eye, and Sakura), chicken and green onion yakitori, and simple makis (plum and shiso leaf)
Lunch: Mon-Thurs 11:30am-2:30pm, Fri-Sat 11:30am-2:30pm
Dinner: Mon-Thurs 5:30pm-10pm, Fri-Sat 5:30pm-11pm, Sun 5pm-9pm
Prices $3-$12 (not including combos)