Ethnic restaurants continue to share a tendency to offer menus that read like "top hits" of a country's specialties. These menus can offer excellent preparations, but they are limited in the sense that they give no impression of the dishes eaten daily by those in other lands.
Shien of Osaka remains one of the few restaurants that serves what might be called a Japanese Japanese menu. This small, Rancho Bernardo eatery offers some of the cooking styles that have become familiar to Americans, such as tempura, sushi and various teriyakis, but it also serves much that might be called everyday or home cooking--garnished noodle dishes, Japanese-style chicken curry (very aromatic, but quite mild) and a variety of unusual vegetable preparations that relatively few local Japanese kitchens take the trouble to prepare.
Since Osaka is regarded as the cultural and culinary center of Japan, a restaurant that denotes itself as Osaka-style implies that it takes a certain haute cuisine stance. Osaka cooking also has the reputation of being sweeter than other styles (Japanese cuisine in general shows a fondness for sugar), although the food at Shien seems no more sweet than elsewhere.
Much of the down-home cooking appears on the appetizer list. In addition to the popular dumplings called gyoza (a little too tender and mealy here) and the skewered chicken yakitori , the list offers boiled spinach ( oshitashi ), which is pleasantly seasoned and a little more exciting than it sounds, and nameko oroshi , or woodsy nameko mushrooms seasoned with grated Japanese radish. The tasty beef negima tucks a bundle of scallions inside a tightly rolled sheet of very thin beef; after broiling, this is cut into small mouthfuls and moistened with a sweet but savory sauce.
Other less-familiar choices include ika natto , or sliced squid dressed with fermented soy beans; nikujaga , or potatoes garnished with thinly sliced beef (potatoes are considered an exotic luxury in much of the rice belt), and tsukimi yamaimo , a pairing of flavorful "mountain" yams and quail eggs.
Japanese cuisine sometimes takes startling cross-cultural leaps, often expressed by its versions of folksy American salads, and most appetizers are garnished with a pasta concoction that tastes exactly like the macaroni salads of Midwestern pot luck suppers. For all that, it's rather good.
The restaurant has a sushi bar and the usual long list of offerings, as well as a specialty called the "U.S.A. roll" whose combination of river eel, shrimp and avocado sounds a little less than Middle American. Typically Japanese but not too common in this area, the chirashi sushi is a bowl of sweetened sushi-style rice, topped with sliced seafood and served with soup. Combination dinners include a California roll, a sushi assortment or a small plate of well-chosen, fresh-tasting sashimi --a recent selection included slices of raw tuna and octopus.
The entree list runs mainly to endless variations of acceptable tempura and reasonably well-cooked chicken, salmon and beef teriyaki. But on the less-familiar side, it offers great bowls of noodles, served simply in soup or, more grandly, topped with tempura ( tenzaru soba ); with grated radish and yams ( oroshi soba ); and with a sort of mixed buffet of chicken, egg, seafood and vegetables ( nabeyaki udon ). These are simple but savory concoctions and can be rather fun when tackled with chopsticks.
Style is not Shien of Osaka's long suit--the lights burn brightly and the perfunctory service can be rather too speedy. But, despite the occasional rush and the odd shouts and bellows that come from the sushi bar, the decor is reasonably restful, thanks particularly to a wall-sized mural of a shady, mysterious-looking bamboo forest.
SHIEN OF OSAKA
16769 Bernardo Center Dr.
(The Plaza, Suite 11)
Hours: Lunch served weekdays, dinner Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday.
Cost: Entrees from $5.15 to $15.25. Dinner for two, with a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $20 to $50. Credit cards accepted.