Review: Basho Japanese Brasserie

A tasty fusion of new and traditional Japanese fare
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  June 24, 2010
4.0 4.0 Stars

PHOENIX ROLL This inside-out roll — with salmon and flying-fish roe wrapped around a crab stick — is a dandy.

Basho is the Japanese word for space or place; Basho Matsuo was the great 17th-century master of Haiku. Weirdly situated in the Fenway, this large restaurant from the owners of Back Bay's Douzo conveys an immediate sense of space well apportioned, with the minimalist fascination of the best haiku. It's the brasserie part I don't entirely get, since a French brasserie used to be a brew-pub, and even now is an informal and convivial sort of restaurant.

BASHO JAPANESE BRASSERIE | 1338 Boylston Street, Boston | 617.262.1338 | | Open daily, 11:30 am–1 am | AE, DC, DI, MC, VI | Full bar | Validated parking at 1330 Boylston Street garage, $4; valet parking, $16 | Sidewalk-level access
Basho has only a few bottles of mass-market Japanese beer, no microbrews, and hardly any French fusion food. It is informal, and has a lot of small plates, in the style of Japanese café-bars called "izakaya." So "brasserie" must be an attempt at translation, though I am not sure why "tapas" or even "mezze" wouldn't have carried the idea more clearly.

In addition to lots and lots of sushi and sashimi and the tempura-by-the-piece fun carried over from Douzo, the new restaurant is even more visually arresting, and has a whole menu of robata-yaki (charcoal-grilled skewers).

We started there with three vegetable skewers: shiitake mushroom ($2.25), Japanese eggplant ($2.25), and kabocha squash ($2.25), which arrived together on a cunning plate with notches to hold the wooden skewers. The three slices of eggplant topped with a kind of barbecue sauce were the most substantial; the winter squash developed a slight curry-like flavor in place of the usual sweetness in the no-flame charcoal grilling. The mushrooms were just terrific. A meat skewer, spicy duck with mushroom ($6.25), was a trio of sate-like morsels.

The izakaya dish I can never resist is miso black cod ($10.75), here with a little sweet citrus accent in the glaze. Black cod is the sable fish (usually smoked) of the Jewish delicatessen, but the Japanese method brings out even more richness to the white fish, always in a small portion, always enticing, and deeply satisfying.

On another visit, a vegetable platter sampler ($9) was visually exciting but rather bland in taste. Like its sister restaurant, Basho compresses the steamed spinach and dresses it with a mild tofu purée instead of the usual sesame-soy. Too subtle for me. Another square little dish of steamed broccolini florets with fried tofu bits and a tangy dressing was more fun. And the third dish, three poached fresh bamboo shoots sliced like sashimi, with a couple of beech mushrooms as garnish, worked as Japanese minimalism does, to refocus the palate in a meditative way.

Tempura by the piece is not so meditative. We had to try green beans ($2) just to see what a two-piece order of fried beans looks like. Well, it looks like three long beans together — nice pieces to pick up and dip. Tempura avocado ($3) is, of course, fried slices of avocado. It's perhaps a little over the top on good fats.

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