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RESTAURANT REVIEW : So Near and Yet So Far East : At its motel-adjacent location, Mikado has long served a wide variety of Japanese fare.

August 18, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews Valley restaurants every week. Beginning next week, his reviews will appear in Thursday Calendar

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — Japanese food means sushi to the average Valley restaurant pa tron, or perhaps teriyaki and tempura to those who don't fancy uncooked fish. Mikado hardly stops there. The restaurant is attached to a Best Western on Riverside Drive, and it has been quietly serving one of the San Fernando Valley's most comprehensive Japanese menus since 1963. Between the Mikado's Japanese-style wooden door and the motel is a small pool stocked with koi, Japanese carp. This Japanese touch is supposed to make you forget that you are dining next to a motel, just as recordings of chirping birds are employed by Japanese hoteliers to make guests forget that they are in the city.

Mikado is a cavernous place. The main dining room is pale red rose set off by shoji --Japanese paper windows--and beams of blond wood. Settle into a comfortable booth or take a seat at the long sushi counter, where the menu is limited to sushi and a few cooked items. The sushi chefs do put on a good show. These exuberant fellows turn out everything from asparagus hand rolls to the eccentrically named Dynamite, which is scallops, mushrooms and smelt egg baked in an unctuous cream sauce.

Though Mikado's clientele is primarily non-Japanese, many things about this place, certain dishes included, are emphatically non-Western. Waitresses wear ornately designed kimonos, for which they merit one's sympathy. These stiff, uncomfortable garments are beautiful but hardly practical and a nightmare to slip in and out of.

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Then there is the restaurant's piano, a Yamaha Disk Klavier. This '90s player piano is a baby grand with keys brought to life by a new CD technology. It's quite strange to watch a piano playing with no one at the bench. The realization isn't half bad, but I'd prefer Bach, Chopin or Japanese folk tunes to virtual Beatles songs and cloying cocktail lounge renditions of Gershwin.

Once seated, the bar hostess will bring you a dish of otsumame --mixed rice crackers and fried peas--intended to promote a healthy thirst. Japanese food can be quite salty without this extra help, as evidenced by such appetizers as edamame (boiled salted soybeans in their pods) and salads with ingredients such as crisp salmon skin.

Homemade gyoza , one of the few Japanese dishes traditionally cooked by men, may be the very best thing you can eat at Mikado. Gyoza are thin pockets of egg dough pinched together in the shape of a tiny boat, with a filling made from ground meat, vegetables and white pepper. The restaurant makes these pan-fried dumplings fresh daily and serves them six to an order. Tempura is also served as an appetizer here, and the batter-fried shrimp and vegetables are better than average, though not nearly as light and crunchy as they would be at a first-class Tokyo tempura bar.

Soft-shell crab and tatsuya age , two more fried appetizers, point out the kitchen's inconsistencies. The crab did not taste particularly fresh and had a slightly acrid flavor. Think of tatsuya age as a Japanese take on Chicken McNuggets. Essentially it is white-meat chicken in tempura batter, but these nuggets are far more delicate than anything you could ever hope for in a fast-food establishment.

I'd call the set dinners at Mikado competent, certainly far from brilliant. Sukiyaki is a big production, served for two and cooked table side in a Japanese iron pot. Mikado uses about twice as much rib-eye steak as you'd ever hope to get in Japan, mixing the meat with traditional sukiyaki ingredients such as tofu, fresh bamboo shoots, green onion, noodles made from yam paste--and plenty of dashi , the all-purpose Japanese soup stock.

The dashi is what prevents this from being a great sukiyaki. The stock doesn't have nearly enough intensity of flavor. That is less of a problem with the dish called yosenabe --"everything in a pot." A pot is brought bubbling to the table and filled with Japanese fish cakes, chicken, scallops, white fish, shrimp, yam noodles and winter vegetables, and the contents are warming and delicious. (Japanese rarely serve yosenabe during the hot-weather months, incidentally, but in the States, restaurants don't seem to be bound by such rules.)

You can rely on the corn-fed Omaha rib eye the restaurant calls its steak Mikado, the crisp pork cutlet known as tonkatsu and a trio of good broiled fish: sea bass, salmon and snapper. On the menu these broiled fish are referred to as batayaki, literally broiled in butter. The dish description tells us something different, that the kitchen uses garlic butter, a most un-Japanese concept. On the other hand, teriyaki at Mikado is made with chicken or beef, while in Japan teriyaki sauce is reserved exclusively for fish.

I asked our waitress if the kitchen would prepare a sea-bass teriyaki, but the chef went ahead and brushed it with garlic butter anyway. That's the peril of eating Japanese food in America. You never know whether you're going to get authentic Japanese fare or a strangely Americanized version. After 32 years, I suppose Mikado has earned the right to do whatever it wants.

Where and When

Location: Mikado, 12600 Riverside Drive, North Hollywood.

Suggested dishes: Gyoza , $6; salmon skin salad, $5.95; tempura appetizer, $7.50.

Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday. Dinner, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. Self parking in lot. All major cards.

Price: Dinner for two, $26 to $52.

Call: (818) 763-9141.

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