copyright © 2007 kru restaurant
Billy Ngo - 2008 Sacramento Magazine
Best 20 Chefs in Sacramento
Billy Ngo - 2007 Sacramento Region Sushi Masters
"Best of Show"
Kru - 2005 ForkIt Magazine
New Restaurant of the Year
Kru - 2005 Sacramento News & Review
Writer's Choice Best New Restaurant
Kru - 2005 Sacramento's Five Sushi Bars
by Mike Dunne of the Sacramento Bee
Kru - 2005 Rated 3.5 out of 4 Stars
by Kate Washington of the
Sacramento News & Review
Kru - 2005 Rated 3 out of 4 Stars
by Mike Dunne of the Sacramento Bee
Billy Ngo - 2004 ForkIt Magazine
Chef of the Year
By Chris Macias
Published April 7, 2010
Nenohi knife in hand, Billy Ngo slices the ivory king salmon like a surgeon of sushi. It's Thursday night at Kru, his midtown restaurant, and the sushi bar is growing crowded.
As Ngo serves up duos of nigiri sushi, he wears a black, short-sleeve chef's coat that exposes an arm-length tattoo. The tattoo refers to a Japanese fable: How a simple koi fish was struck by lightning and turned into a mighty dragon.
"It's a story of the little fish growing up," Ngo says with a grin.
The fable might be about Ngo. He was once a guppy compared with the big fish of Sacramento's sushi scene, busing tables and washing dishes in Japanese restaurants. Now 28, he's one of the city's most celebrated chefs, counting several of Sacramento's culinary leaders among frequent patrons.
"He's the best guy in town when it comes to this style of food," says Randall Selland, executive chef and owner of the Kitchen - and a Kru regular. "There's not a lot of Japanese restaurants combining French technique with Japanese ingredients. That's what separates him from everyone else."
For restaurateur Randy Paragary, Ngo was the guy to consult when planning Sake House, a swanky Japanese restaurant and nightclub that recently opened in Roseville.
"He's a true chef, but he's more than just a good cook," says Paragary. "He's the whole package when it came to consulting."
Amid sushi rolling and the assembling of savory small plates, Ngo is preparing to open his second restaurant, Red Lotus. It will be on J Street near 28th, just three blocks from Kru, at the site of the former G.V. Hurley's. Ngo is branching into Chinese food at Red Lotus, adding his culinary lightning to dim sum favorites, noodle dishes and more.
"What I did for sushi at Kru, that's what I want to do at Red Lotus with Chinese food," says Ngo. "It'll be a fun place, but the focus will still be on the food."
Excited for something new
Away from Kru's bustle on a Tuesday afternoon, Ngo leans against the semicircular bar at Red Lotus, a small pile of papers nearby: a preliminary menu, a sketch of how he wants the oxtail soup to be presented, inventory sheets. He expects Red Lotus to open by month's end.
Ngo wears small Versace glasses and a Brooklyn Dodgers cap. A hoodie sweat shirt that declares "Destroy Every Thing Rebuild" covers up his koi-dragon tattoo.
He's surrounded by chairs in stacks, empty booths yearning for patrons. Ngo envisions this spot popping with plates of Chinese food, the socializing fueled by drinks from the bar.
Red Lotus will open on a popular block of J Street; Harlow's and Centro Cocina Mexicana are nearby. Ngo knew he wanted to take over the spot once G.V. Hurley's shut down in September.
"I was excited to do something new," says Ngo, who speaks rapidly, as if he slurps espresso between sushi slicings. "It's a great block, but I think it's missing another real restaurant. I thought this would be perfect instead of another bar or nightclub. I'm excited about the food."
Up from the bottom
He was born Buu Ngo but is known to most everyone as Billy. A native of Hong Kong, he immigrated to south Sacramento at 8 months old. (Ngo has dealt with patrons who doubt Kru's authenticity since he's not of Japanese descent, but he shrugs it off.)
Ngo graduated from Valley High School; by that time, he was swimming in the often-turbulent waters of Sacramento's restaurant scene. He started at the now-defunct Fuji's on Broadway, working as a busboy and dishwasher.
Ngo didn't even like fish back then, not even when he was asked to help Fuji's chefs prepare rice for sushi.
"It was just a job," he says.
He landed four years later at Mikuni. Its freewheeling vibe was a departure from Fuji's traditional approach to sushi. Bending the rules was fine at Mikuni, with its saucy rolls and eye-popping presentations.
"I saw how much fun they were having," says Ngo. "It opened my eyes and made me want to learn culinary skills. I wanted to put my own twist to the sushi scene here."
Taro Arai, Mikuni's sushi chef, could sense Ngo's potential - and the need for a little kitchen discipline.
"He always came in late, so one time I bought him a big clock with an alarm," Arai says, laughing. "He had a hard time adjusting to our style back then, but he always wanted to get better and learn new things. He's a fun guy to be around."
Ngo enrolled at the California Culinary Academy, studying French cooking while learning the finer points of fresh fish at such Sacramento sushi spots as Nishiki and Taka's.
For his externship, Ngo landed at the Kitchen, one of Sacramento's most exclusive restaurants, where dinners go for $125 a head. Selland knew the kid in the Kitchen's kitchen had a serious knack for cooking.
"His idea was to put French technique to Japanese food," Selland says. "That's what all the big-time guys, like Nobu (the high-end chain founded by chef Nobu Matsuhisa), ended up doing. I always appreciated his dedication to the craft and that he always wants to try new things."
Like several of the city's other top chefs and restaurateurs, Selland has been a Kru regular since it opened in 2005. He comes not just for the impeccable sea bream and firefly squid - Kru means "raw" in French - but for Ngo's inventive small plates. Ngo's skill in sautéing, poaching and other classic French techniques shine in his small plates. Consider: bluefin carpaccio with garlic confit and chili ponzu; monkfish liver poached in sake ("It's the foie gras of the sea," says Ngo); pan-seared Hokkaido scallops with peppers, shimeji mushrooms and ponzu foam.
"He gets a lot of respect from the chefs," says Paragary. "You'll see Kurt (Spataro), Biba (Caggiano), Rick (Mahan) at Kru, when they could choose to eat anywhere around Sacramento."
Ngo, 24 when Kru opened, was a bit star-struck as he served sushi to the movers and shakers of Sacramento dining: "I was super-excited to see them when I first opened. These are the people I idolized when I started going to culinary school. It was like ... affirmation."
Pure, passionate good luck
Ngo hopes foodies will flock to Red Lotus as well. "Red" is for the Chinese traditional good-luck color while Buddhists consider the lotus sacred, with connotations of purity and passion.
Ngo could have used a little extra luck getting through some Red Lotus red tape. Transferring and securing the liquor license has taken much longer than expected. "(Red Lotus) was supposed to open last August, then it was January," Ngo says with a laugh. "Then March, then April. But this time it's for real."
He has started training the staff and fine-tuning the menu. Look for Wagyu beef fried rice, chili rock shrimp, Peking quail and other small plates, most under $13.
"(The small plates) are my interpretation of dim sum," says Ngo. "We're not redoing a dish, making the same chow mein and charging more. It won't be like the food on Stockton Boulevard, and it'll be different from P.F. Chang's, too. We want to set ourselves apart."
Ngo is meanwhile building his reputation as a restaurateur. He admits he can sometimes be a tough boss, but his success with Kru and his management savvy led to a consulting deal with Paragary and nightclub maven Bob Simpson for the opening of Roseville's Sake House.
"He did everything from A to Z: the menus, the recipes that go along with them, the training of personnel, helping with plateware, silverware, tea service," says Paragary. "He's a talented administrator as well as being a fantastic cook."
As for Kru, Ngo has plans. He wants to move the restaurant to a new location, one with a kitchen that's not so cramped. He plans to keep the original site but tweak it with a new restaurant concept.
Amid the openings and the consulting work, you're still likely to find Ngo in the place he loves best: behind a sushi bar. (Look for him on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at Kru.)
He'll get you started with a mound of wasabi root that'll make your mouth like dragon's breath, then offer you an ocean of sushi opportunities.
"Being a sushi chef, I still love that so much," says Ngo. "Making sushi, the knife skills, getting good rice - it is a fine art."
Where: 2516 J St., Sacramento
When: Open 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday, noon-11 p.m. Saturday, 5-9:30 p.m. Sunday
Information: (916) 551-1559; www.krurestaurant.com
By Catherine Warmerdam
Conversation Piece -- Inside Publications
Published June 2008
At age 26, Billy Ngo could be called a culinary wunderkind. As executive chef and owner of Kru restaurant in Midtown, Ngo serves up contemporary Japanese cuisine to loyal customers who appreciate his fresh ingredients and creative dishes. On June 10, Ngo will represent the Sacramento region in the state SushiMasters competition held at the Sacramento Convention Center. In this interview, Ngo reveals food experiments that fizzled, the one meal hell never forget and what youll find him noshing on when hes not working.
Where do you seek culinary inspiration?
Anywhere and everywhere, from going to Asian markets to regular supermarkets to TV shows on the Food Network. Even when I go back home and have my mom cook dinner.
When did you start cooking? Who taught you?
I didnt really cook at home. I just talked to my parents all the time. They had a Chinese restaurant before. When I was young, my sister would pick me up from school and I would hang out at the restaurant a lot and do my homework in the office.
How old were you when you got your first restaurant job?
I was 15 1/2 with a work permit from high school.
Describe your most memorable meal.
That would have to be at The Kitchen. When I turned 21, my boss at the time, Taka Watanabe, bought me dinner there. That was my first real fine-dining experience. I was really young. A lot of the Kings players were there, Tyra Banks was there. It was during the playoffs when they were playing the Lakers. Dinner was supposed to start around 7:30 or something but they kept pushing it back and I didnt know what was going on. Then all of a sudden, all of the Kings players came in. They had just come back from Arco. It was a blast.
How does it feel for Kru to be a popular dining destination among local chefs?
I love it. Im so happy. It makes me feel very good when I have my peers or other chefs come to my place to eat.
Its been said that there are too many sushi restaurants in Sacramento. What do you think?
I agree 100 percent. Theres way too many sushi restaurants. But I think were a little different, and I knew that opening the restaurant. I wanted to bring something different, more small plates, more actual dishes instead of just rolls like most other sushi restaurants are doing.
How would you describe your approach to sushi? What makes your preparations stand out?
The difference is in how much people love our fish. They always talk about how fresh our fish is. We probably get our fish from the same places, but instead of just ordering it a couple of times a week, I order a little bit every day. Its a lot more work for me and my sous chef, cutting all the fish. But it comes in that morning, we cut it and we serve it. If we run out, we run out.
Whats your favorite item on the Kru menu?
I dont have one favorite. I love everything. Im more of a small-plates person; thats how I like to eat. So Ill go out and get five small plates and share them. And small plates is the main focus at Kru.
Have customers tastes changed since youve been in the business?
Not really. Im the one always changing. We have a lot of regulars who come into the restaurant, and I like to surprise them a lot and give them something new every time.
What inventive creation did you come up with that was a flop?
We always play around with things. You always have to experiment. A lot of things go wrong and then you learn how to fix it. I went through a little foam phase, but we never incorporated it into the menu at the restaurant.
Whats it like competing in the SushiMasters contest? What do you do to prepare?
I am kind of a slacker and a procrastinator. I didnt do much preparation for the Sacramento regional competition. We figured out what we were going to do about two weeks beforehand. But for the statewide competition coming up, thats a little different. I really want to win for Sacramento. San Francisco and Los Angeles have already won in past years, so hopefully I can bring it home. I go and check out the competitors by going to their restaurants.
Where do you like to eat when youre not working?
I eat everywhere. I eat everything from burgers and fries to sit-down meals.
What do you do to relax when youre off work?
Im never off of work. Im constantly watching food shows. You should see my room. Its full of cookbooks, magazines. Im constantly eating out. When I go on vacation, thats what I do, go and check out other restaurants.
What do you cook at home?
This is funny. When Im at home, I dont cook. I eat sandwiches, microwaved food, quick stuff, because I dont want to work when Im at home. So I eat Hot Pockets and ramen noodles [laughing].
Whats always in your fridge?
Ive always got butter, Ive always got cheese. And lots of fruits.
What food is your guilty pleasure?
Foie gras. Oh, I love foie gras. Everybody who knows me knows I could eat that with everything. For breakfast, Ill take a bagel, put some cream cheese on it and some foie gras on top.
From Sacramento Magazine
Retrieved February 2008
BUU "BILLY NGO
2516 J St., Sacramento; (916) 551-1559
Ngo is Sacramentos youngest star chef, but hes appreciated by chefs twice his age. Ngo was born in Hong Kong to Chinese-Vietnamese parents who brought him here as a baby. For a time, his parents ran a restaurant. (Thats where he did his homework.) By age 15, he was working at Fuji Restaurant on Broadway, where he learned to make classic sushi. From there, he went to Mikuni, discovering its OK to put fish on the outside of the sushi roll. Next up: a stint at Takas Sushi in Fair Oaks, where he created specials and experimented with shellfish. For the finishing touch on his education, he enrolled at California Culinary Academy in San Francisco for a two-year dose of Cordon Bleu training and an externship at The Kitchen with Randall Selland. Kru opened in 2005 (as an expansion of Takas); customers ranging from midtowners to culinary colleagues come to be amazed by this shy mans ability to whip up a list of ingredients based on a customers impulse. Mushrooms? Ngo is ready with matsutake, the truffle of Japanese cuisine. Duck? Hell nod, smile and quietly present little skewers of pan-seared duck breast topped with a fluff of microchives.
First kitchen job: Busboy at Fuji Restaurant
Food style: Contemporary Japanese with French-Japanese technique
Inspiration: His parents and TVs "Iron Chef"
Culinary philosophy: "Know the rules so you can break them."
On the menu: Matsutake mushrooms sautéed with shallots, garlic, soy sauce, Marsala and sake, served over soft tofu
Favorite ingredient: Butter
Signature dish: Sashimi "tapas" of five mini fish presentations on one plate: three raw, two cooked, each with a different garnish
You wont find this here: Sushi rolls that are way too big with too many ingredients stuffed in them
Who youll see in the dining room: State Sen. Deborah Ortiz; Rick Mahan, Patrick Mulvaney, Randall Selland, Mason Wong, Ali Mackani and Chris Nestor; Sac Bee sports columnist Aileen Voisin
Favorite food memory: Visiting the San Mateo fish market at 3 a.m. "I saw how they cut up the fish and repackaged it all in about three hours."
Where he eats: Ink, 55 Degrees, Ella, Masons, The Waterboy
Last meal on earth: "A good pizza."
From MSN City Guides
Retrieved 15:07 PM PST Friday, Aug. 31, 2007
2516 J St.
A slick black-and-red color scheme and trickling water fountain create a modern yet tranquil environment. Here, the traditional and contemporary balance one another in harmony. This balance is also reflected in the menu, with classic Japanese favorites offsetting bold, inventive creations. Diehard sushi-lovers will find a selection of fresh sashimi and nigiri, while the more adventurous can opt for one of the signature rolls or request a custom-designed roll. Small plates include such varied offerings as asparagus tempura, scallops on the half shell and grilled lamb chops, while mains include Kobe sirloin, five-spice duck breast and Asian bouillabaisse.
By multiple columnists
Published 16:15 PM PST Tuesday, Nov. 08, 2005
Here are summaries of restaurant reviews that have previously appeared in Mike Dunne's "Dining" column, which primarily covers fine-dining restaurants and appears in Sunday Ticket; and Allen Pierleoni's "Counter Culture" column, which covers casual lunchtime places and runs in Friday Ticket. All reviews are done on a four-star scale for quality and a four-dollar sign scale for price.
Kru - contemporary Japanese
2516 J St., (916) 551-1559: Avant-garde setting calls for avant-garde food, and owner Taka Watanabe and executive chef Buu "Billy" Ngo deliver with daring Japanese dishes often accented with European culinary traditions.
***/$$-$$$ - M.D.
By Mike Dunne -- Bee Restaurant Critic
Published 2:15 AM PST Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2005
Five sushi bars we rely on for consistently fresh and well-handled sushi:
Akebono, 8685 Auburn-Folsom Road, Granite Bay, (916) 791-2722: During its current refurbishing, Akebono looks worn on the outside, but inside it's as bright, clean and cheery as ever. The menu is extensive and diverse, with the traditional nigiri sushi supplemented with rolls imaginatively conceived and affectionately executed.
Kozen, 2310 Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento, (916) 641-8880: The old Fish Emporium is the city's prettiest new fish emporium, where pristine seafood is prepared in an array of creative ways and presented in a setting whose naturalistic and bold design includes a sushi bar of polished granite.
Kru, 2516 J St., (916) 551-1559: Though better known for its bold and artful take on contemporary Japanese cooking, Kru also offers an enticing range of exquisite nigiri sushi as well as several rolls, some mainstream, some inventive.
Mikuni Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar, 1530 J St., (916) 447-2111: Sushi reigns at Mikuni, where chefs at three bars serve it in a wide range of creative and intricate ways, most of them rolls with catchy names: Marilyn Monroll, Kaiser Roll, Rolls Ville.
Mirai Japanese Restaurant, 620 W. Covell Blvd., Davis; (530) 758-4560: Mirai's menu runs eight pages, with guests likely to spot something to catch their fancy long before they get to the sushi. The patient diner, however, who keeps turning pages until he arrives at the "sushi man's omakase" will be rewarded with 16 exquisite pieces of seafood, all cut big and fetchingly, all tender and fresh-tasting, and all draped over the best-balanced sushi rice in the area.
By Writers choice
Published September 29, 2005
Best new restaurant
Sacramento's restaurant scene is enjoying a real boom, making it extra-tough to name a single spot that's the best of the year. New and ambitious places are springing up all over town (some so recently that we couldn't try them before press time). From Moroccan small plates in Midtown to a quirky wine bar in Davis, the choices for area diners have never been so eclectic and enticing. Of Sacramento's new offerings, our favorite has to be Kru, where sushi, Japanese-inspired small plates and well-executed entrees mingle on an exciting menu that makes sharing with a group practically mandatory. The fish is excellent, but other items are more than an afterthought: There's a fantastic warm mushroom salad and wonderful fried tofu, and even that old warhorse chicken teriyaki is stylishly and thoughtfully presented. The design is hip, the drinks are cool, and the food is great, all of which makes Kru stand out in a crowded field. 2516 J Street, (916) 551-1559.
By Mike Dunne -- Bee Restaurant Critic
Published 2:15 AM PST Sunday, Sep. 25, 2005
We've been doing this fall dining guide for three years now, and the timing couldn't be better. Just as we are about to go to press - presto, all kinds of restaurants either open or announce that they are about to open.
This year is no exception. Pick your dining category - Japanese, Italian, Chinese, French, Thai - and you don't have to look far to find a new player. After all, the fall and winter entertainment season is under way, and restaurateurs like to introduce their latest venture at this time to accommodate people eager to be out on the town.
Are there any trends in the local dining boom?
Yes. Steakhouses are surging in popularity. Several successful restaurant families are expanding through the region. Japanese and Thai restaurants continue to proliferate at a dizzying pace.
Which raises another question: Is the local dining market close to being saturated, particularly in downtown and midtown Sacramento, where much of the recent growth is concentrated?
Competition is keen, but both corporate and independent entrepreneurs continue to stake claims throughout the area, including downtown and midtown.
A couple of seasoned restaurateurs, however, grouse about escalating real-estate prices in the region. If not for that discouraging development, they suggest, there would be even more new places to write about.
We'll know a year from now whether higher property values are slowing the debut of restaurants. In the meantime, here's a look at some key restaurants opening now or in development for the new year, as well as some which recently opened:
2516 J St.
The first of the new wave of Japanese restaurants in Sacramento, wherein sushi takes second billing to a more inventive interpretation of cooking as inspired by the traditions and ingredients of Japan, Kru is a smart and sassy addition to the midtown dining scene.
Owner Taka Watanabe and executive chef Buu "Billy" Ngo have developed a daring menu that marries the visual artistry of Japanese cuisine with culinary traditions and provisions generally more closely identified with Europe.
By Mike Dunne -- Bee Restaurant Critic
Published 2:15 AM PST Sunday, Aug. 28, 2005
Now we know. The "J" in J Street stands for Japanese. In recent months, two ambitious and artful Japanese restaurants have opened within a few blocks of each other along J, and at least one more is coming. Let's drop in on the newcomers.
The lobster tempura comes with aioli. Foie gras accompanies the scallops. Balsamic vinegar dresses up the seafood spring rolls. Such terms as "tapas," "salsa," "tartare" and "carpaccio" appear here and there across the Kru menu.
And we haven't even gotten to the sushi rolls, the branch of Japanese cooking in which chefs take the most liberties.
By comparison with the rest of the menu, however, the sushi at Kru - a twist on the French "cru," for "raw" - is pretty tame.
Chefs Taka Watanabe and Buu "Billy" Ngo call their food "contemporary Japanese cuisine," but that's an understatement. "Euro-Japanese" would be more like it.
With confidence, boldness and flair, they're adding to the complexity of Japanese cooking without sacrificing the cuisine's traditional wholesomeness and eye-catching artistry.
Both in range and gumption, the "small plates" form the heart of the menu. Guests who have had their fill of sushi rolls or who aren't up for one of the heftier main plates - grilled lobster, charbroiled lamb - can easily build a varied and filling meal from the selection of small plates and salads.
A long platter of beautifully arranged sashimi tapas was our favorite ($14). Each night's selection of five is up to the chef. This evening, the assortment included luscious hamachi (yellowtail) topped with slivers of nori (dried seaweed) and tingly wasabi prepared fresh, looking and feeling - though not tasting - like pickle relish; seared scallop spicy with black pepper and sweet with mango; and seared slices of rich sea bass. Each piece was thoughtfully cut and arranged to be shared by two.
The warm mushroom salad was a close second ($10). At least four kinds of Japanese mushrooms - shiitake, oyster, enoki and trumpet, the latter of which tasted not unlike fine veal - were draped about a huge assortment of mixed greens finished with a pointedly salty dressing. Mushrooms may not pack many calories, but with this treatment they didn't lack for interest and liveliness.
Nuggets of lobster tempura were light and crisp, their lemon-and-garlic aioli brightening the meat ($12), while a finely minced nest of rich and spicy snow crab enlivened husky chunks of fried lingcod ($10).
The most impressive main plate was a strikingly big and deep bowl of silken butterfish sweetened with a miso glaze and arranged prettily atop fat, flavorful udon noodles in the sort of resonating bonito broth that makes you wish this would be one Japanese restaurant that served a rustic bread ($19).
Tender slices of duck breast on a marvelously rich ragout of Japanese mushrooms were glazed with just enough teriyaki to sweeten the meat without overpowering it ($17).
Not all of the kitchen's artistry was as successful. Tempura of shrimp and vegetables suffered for dull asparagus, though the red pepper was sweet and assertive ($6).
And I hope never again to see Kru's appropriation of the classic Italian salad caprese ($8). While ribbons of the aromatic green leaf shiso added a kind of cinnamon accent to the composition, the tomatoes were listless and the tofu was no substitute for the heft and sweet creaminess of mozzarella.
Desserts ranged from over-the-top wedges of tempura cheesecake with green-tea ice cream ($6.50) to a creamy and smoky lychee crème brûlée whose most diverting attraction was the fresh lychees on the side, their red pebbled skin looking sturdy enough to be made into cowboy boots, their fruity and gelatinous flesh tasting both floral and spicy ($7). One bite of the fruity and cinnamony apple spring rolls provided a quick trip to the bake shops of Apple Hill ($6).
Service slowed at times, but was persistently solicitous, engaging and helpful. The setting is a fittingly artful backdrop for cooking that walks a fine line between tradition and innovation. There are plenty of strengths on both sides of the spectrum to continue to attract a largely young and hip clientele.
2516 J St., (916) 551-1559
3 stars / $$-$$$
FOOD: Avant-garde setting calls for avant-garde food, and owner Taka Watanabe and executive chef Buu "Billy" Ngo deliver with daring Japanese dishes often accented with European culinary accents.
AMBIENCE: A veritable grove of various kinds of bamboo, contemporary Japanese art, flickering candles and roomy tables add up to a setting that is modern, fetching and comfortable.
HITS: Extensive, daring and helpful sake list. Alluring if eccentric wine list. Exceptional stemware and generous pours for wines by the glass. Most artistic T-shirts on any servers in town.
MISSES: On busy nights the restaurant will be too loud for some guests. In its softness, ripeness and oak, the Martinelli gewürztraminer is more a parody of the varietal than a serious effort to seize its vivacious fruit. High pitch of phone is irritating.
HOURS: Open daily, 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. for lunch, 4-10 p.m. for dinner.
By Kate Washington
Published Thursday, June 30, 2005 -- Sacramento News & Review
Kru Restaurant ***½
2516 J Street in Sacramento, (916) 551-1559
Dinner for One: $10 - $20
Sacramentos love affair with (read: glut of) sushi restaurants has become such that its hardly worth mentioning. We have everything from humble takeout sushi joints to gleaming hot spots, and more are slated to open this summer. Kru, one of the first of this new wave, opened in late spring in the spot formerly occupied by J. Lee Bistro and Sushi Bar and definitely has positioned itself on the hot-spot side of the spectrum. The question is whether it can keep up this status in the face of stiff competition.
On a recent Saturday night, our group arrived early. By the time we left, the waiting crowd was filling up the sidewalk outside. The attraction of the restaurant is plain to see. Not only is the design hip, featuring lots of red, water cascading over rocks on a wall fountain, and graceful bamboo on one side, but also the ever-popular sushi is complemented by a long and inventive list of small plates and main dishes--what the menu calls "contemporary Japanese cuisine." Translated, that means everything from white-asparagus tempura to an array of raw-fish dishes like a Hawaiian-inspired poke trio of spicy tuna, hamachi and octopus. The wine and beverage list isnt long, but its well-priced and interesting. There are selections like a delicious Dr. Loosen Riesling from Germany, plus plenty of beers and crisp, tart Two Rivers pomegranate cider.
Its a tossup whether its better to go with a big group, so you can try more of the intriguing small plates, or just a couple of people, so you can get more of each thing. With five in our party, we fell somewhere in between. There was much discussion of how to order, and in the end we just went around the table naming the dishes we wanted--a haphazard method that yielded just the right amount and variety of food.
One of our first dishes was age-dashi tofu, golden-fried and custardy cubes of tofu in a salty, fishy soy broth. Simple as it was, this was one of the dishes I wanted much more of for myself.
Similar in looks, but not in flavor, was Chilean sea-bass kara-age, also fried in chunks and offered with a vinaigrette enriched with shreds of snow crab. I know all about the reasons why one shouldnt order Chilean sea bass, and because of the overfishing crisis, its become rarer on many menus. I felt guilty getting it, but it really is far too delicious for its own good.
Less appealing was a tempura of white asparagus, which was tough yet stringy (the stems hadnt been peeled) and oily. This was the least successful of the dishes we tried, and it was the only one where the kitchen didnt show a light enough touch with the deep fryer. Crisp-fried, tiny calamari with spicy breading and a creamy dipping sauce were much better.
We attempted to balance out all that tasty fried food with Krus warm mushroom salad, a huge bowl of greens topped with savory sautéed mushrooms in a mix of types. Their deep, meaty flavor and texture contrasted nicely with the greens, and the kitchen made even this visually challenging dish look dramatically appealing by topping it with a spray of antenna-like white enoki mushrooms.
One person in our group didnt eat fish, and she ordered teriyaki chicken from the entree menu. It was juicy and gingery, served with a bright array of vegetables, plus rice and miso soup. Other options on the main-dish menu include steak with truffle-butter teriyaki sauce, rack of lamb and even a teriyaki duck breast, meaning that those who prefer meat to fish wont go hungry. Vegetarians, however, may have a tougher time. Even many of the salads are garnished with shavings of bonito, so inquire before ordering if youre concerned.
With all these options before us, it was almost easy to forget about the sushi, despite the presence of a sushi bar front and center and the fact that the restaurants name plays on the French word for "raw." The sushi list is nicely restrained, emphasizing simple presentations of nigiri and sashimi, plus a short list of well-conceived specialty rolls. Alas, advanced pregnancy means that Im currently enjoined from sampling raw fish, especially tuna, but my friends assured me that the spicy liz roll--incendiary tuna plus cucumbers topped with coral-colored slices of salmon--was flawlessly fresh, as I looked on enviously. I could try the restaurants take on a caterpillar roll, which included tempura shrimp, avocado and grilled eel. This lovely combination was thankfully not as over-the-top as many sushi restaurants creations.
Of the three desserts available, I was simultaneously intrigued and repelled by the idea of tempura cheesecake. The latter impulse, and my friends preferences, won out. We instead sampled a subtle green-tea-poached pear, sprinkled with matcha powder and accompanied by vanilla-bean ice cream, and an excellent if simple crème brûlée, with a tiny spoonful of mango chutney. The pear was surprisingly good, given that the fruit is distinctly out of season at this point.
Kru is run by the same team that owns Takas Sushi in Fair Oaks, and its experience and commitment to freshness shines through in this new Midtown spot. Sacramento might not seem to need another sushi restaurant, but the excellent and inventive small plates, the alluringly simple sushi menu, and the cool and attractive interior should bring in the crowds--and keep them coming back for more.
By Mike Dunne -- Bee Food Editor
Published 2:15 am PDT Wednesday, May 4, 2005
Summer is more than a month away, but the Sacramento dining scene already is heating up as another round of restaurant openings commences.
Here's an update:
Kru, a potentially hip sushi bar being put together by Taka Watanabe, Peter Kwong and Bill Ngo, is to open Monday. The restaurant's beer-and-wine license may not be in hand, but the partners have the rest of the place ready to go and plan to open regardless. Watanabe and Kwong are partners in Taka's Sushi at the Almond Orchard in Fair Oaks, where Ngo is a chef. Kru is at 2516 J St., quarters most recently occupied by J. Lee Euro Asia Bistro and Sushi Bar.
By Bob Sylva -- Bee Columnist
Published 2:15 am PDT Saturday, April 9, 2005
On a fish scale, Bill Ngo is a minnow. He has been making sushi since he was 16. And learned his art from the best chefs in town.
Today, a little bit older, full of fresh ideas, plus a costly diploma from the California Culinary Academy, Ngo is preparing to open Kru, a takeoff of the French word for "raw."
Kru is at 2516 J St., a deep-blue space that earlier swamped J. Lee Euro-Asia Bistro.
Kru represents a dream. And a risk.
Whatever else its culinary hunger, Sacramento has no shortage of sushi places. The city is practically swimming in fish.
Just downtown, there's Kamon, Zen Toro, Nishiki, and, of course, Mikuni, the big maguro.
Does the city really need another sushi bar?
Especially a place that intends to feature fish, not fanciful rolls stuffed with sprouts, avocado, mango, mayonnaise, cucumber, chocolate, or a litany of concoctions that effectively disguise the actual content?
Kru may call the city's bluff: Do diners here really savor the taste of raw fish?
"There are so many sushi places out there now," Ngo concedes. "Most are following in the footsteps of Mikuni. They are all doing exactly the same menu. I'm going to do things differently. I like an artful presentation. I like sauces. I like colors on the plate. But I want to keep it simple."
Kru is a partnership among Ngo, businessman Peter Kwong and sushi master Yutaka "Taka" Watanabe, a native of Rio de Janeiro, who opened up Taka's on S Street in 1998.
He recently sold that restaurant to a partner and operates Taka's in Fair Oaks.
Ngo is his protege. "He is the most talented boy I have seen in my 27-year career," Watanabe declares.
Such praise for a kid who once detested fish.
On a bright morning this week, Ngo is giving a tour of Kru, which is expected to open later this month. That may be optimistic.
The place is a shipwreck, and most of the remodeling is being done by Ngo and a handful of his friends. Early June seems more likely.
Buu "Bill" Ngo is 23 years old. He is slim, soft-spoken, clad in baggy jeans and a gray sweater. His polished shaved head is newly flecked with black stubble.
He is anxious, nervous, quiet. He may be glib with a sharp knife, but expression pains him.
Ngo was born in Hong Kong, but grew up at Center Parkway and Valley Hi Drive. He knows little of his parents' exodus from Vietnam, and struggles to speak to them in Chinese. He has four older sisters, all of whom pitched in to help groom what was expected to be "the golden boy." The prince was a disappointment.
"There was pressure on me," he says. "All my sisters went to college. I was the black sheep. I worked in restaurants. My parents were never happy."
He got his first job at Fuji's. He was a busboy, then a dishwasher. The chefs there, Shigetoshi Yoshimaru and Doug Sakamoto, asked him if he wanted to learn how to make sushi.
Sure, he lied. "Just the idea of eating raw fish," he says, making an ill face. "I would put some in my mouth, chew it, then spit it out."
But he grew to love fish. After three years at Fuji's, he moved to Mikuni, where he befriended the outrageously imaginative Taro Arai and Michael Teng. Both were major influences, especially Teng, who later opened Nishiki.
In 2003, he enrolled in the culinary academy in San Francisco, where he studied French cuisine.
On weekends, he would drive home to work at Taka's.
He did an internship at The Kitchen, and refined his skills under the tutelage of Watanabe.
At Kru, Ngo will work alongside his friend and culinary academy roommate, Adam Schubert.
He lives with his parents in Elk Grove. He is still burdened with family expectations, and now a $49,000 college loan.
So, at Kru, Ngo better be fabulous.
"I don't know, I don't know," he cries, full of hope and apprehension. "Just come and try it."
Raw fish. Raw fear.
By Mike Dunne -- Bee Food Editor
Published 2:15 am PST Wednesday, February 9, 2005
Sacramento's burgeoning community of Japanese restaurants is to get another new player in April with the opening of Kru, which is to move into J Street quarters occupied most recently by J. Lee Euro Asia Bistro and Sushi Bar.
Kru is to be a collaboration involving Taka Watanabe, Peter Kwong and Bill Ngo. Watanabe and Kwong are partners in Taka's Sushi at the Almond Orchard in Fair Oaks, where Ngo is a chef.
Watanabe no longer is affiliated with his namesake restaurant, Taka's Japanese Cuisine, at 18th and S streets in Sacramento. Several months ago, he sold his interest in the restaurant to partner Benny Hom, who recently completed a stylish makeover of the quarters.
"Kru" is a takeoff on the French word "cru," for "raw."