Scott Porter is a Fairfax firefighter, but you’ll also see him working the door at Village Sake, greeting guests and kindly telling hungry patrons there might be a 45-minute wait.
Even when the doors open at 5 p.m. on a Sunday, there are enough people waiting to fill all 36 seats. Their patience is rewarded with pristine slices of Japanese sea bream ($11), skewers of skirt steak glazed with yuzu ($11) and crisp, lacy tempura ($9). That’s probably the reason Michael Mina and his wife were among those standing in line one evening.
Porter has a strong local connection to this quirky town of 7,500, which is said to have the highest percentage of Green Party members in the United States — and his partner Scott Whitman has the talent to keep them coming back. For 15 years, Whitman was the chef at the popular Sushi Ran in Sausalito, consistently earning a place in the Bay Area’s Top 100 Restaurants.
The pair took over a Chinese restaurant in downtown Fairfax and turned it into a Japanese pub, which seems a little esoteric with all the bars and entertainment venues that line the surrounding storefronts. Yet it’s clear people are hungry for what Village Sake offers.
I had a flashback to Sushi Ran when I tasted Whitman’s miso black cod ($16) perched on a bed of spinach. It was always one of the most popular dishes in Sausalito and it continues to resonate here. Several other specialties, such as the hamachi collar ($15), will also seem familiar to fans of Sushi Ran. It, too, is a must-order item; with its rich, bold flavor, it’s the foie gras of seafood.
The Village Sake menu consists of small plates, a few sashimi and nigiri options, maki rolls and three or so skewers, including smoky chicken thighs ($7) lightly brushed with a soy-based sauce.
Whitman’s tempura was always a wonder in Sausalito, and it’s just as light here whether the batter is coating tender green beans ($8) or in a more substantial fry with shrimp, burdock root, sweet potatoes and other vegetables ($9).
The compact space was designed by Jim Maxwell of Architects II in San Francisco and it has a pleasant rustic vibe. A row of high wooden booths line one wall, and a counter separates the dining room from the kitchen where you can see Whitman, with his lanky physique and long blond ponytail, stoking the fire.
It’s amazing what the crew turns out of that tiny kitchen. Even when they’re slammed with everyone sitting down at the same time, the plates come out rapidly and beautifully presented. The Wagyu beef tataki ($22), far and away the most expensive item on the menu, consists of two dozen thin slices of marbled beef precisely fanned around a knob of daikon, red onions, ponzu and hot red pepper paste, which the efficient waiter suggested we mix together to help flavor the meat. It’s a combination that works on every level.
Charred octopus ($14), explosive with Korean red chile paste, is beautifully displayed on an oblong plate, its tentacles arranged between tiny potatoes and leaves of mizuna.
Whitman is unparalleled in his treatment of vegetables. He chars Brussels sprouts ($6) and flavors them with kimchi, creating a dish that is so good I can’t get it out of my mind. He spikes spaghetti squash ($6) with curry, ginger and lime, twisting the long strands into a beehive in the center of the plate; it looks like a pile of angel hair pasta, but still has a vegetable crunch. In yet another memorable preparation, Whitman grills shiitake mushrooms ($8) and tosses them with green onion, ginger soy sauce and clumps of tempura fried corn.
The small-plate selection includes delicate scallop-chive dumplings ($9) where the gossamer wrapper encases finely minced seafood and little chunks of ginger that continually surprise with intensity.