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A SLICE OF HEAVEN

Either they're uptight about wearing pajamas in public, or that salmon was the last friend they had, because the guys behind sushi bars rarely smile. They solemnly wield their knives like sculpting tools, quietly creating works of art and then handing them over like so much dead fish.

But then there's the slicer-dicer at Matoi, who's friendlier than a Porsche salesman at a convention of lottery winners. In fact, on both of our visits, Matoi owner/chef Isamu "Sam" Furuichi and his wife, Billie Ruth, were so welcoming that we had the nagging feeling we'd forgotten to bring a covered dish for the get-together. Ever the charming hostess, Billie constantly rearranged the table and explained the unfamiliar menu, while Sam kept popping in and out of the kitchen, tossing off stories about anything and everything.

Billie met Sam three years ago in the Matoi (pronounced "ma-toe-ee") restaurant he owned in Suwa City, Nagano, Japan. A teacher of English as a second language, Billie had ended a class across the street and stopped in for a little sake. Faster than you can say "made in Japan," they fell in love and started making plans to move to the United States. Says Billie, "It's always been Sam's dream to come here and open a little place."

"Little" is an understatement--a big one. Matoi, which opened in October, seats about twenty customers (if they're skinny). The place looks like an Asian student's dorm room--mementos from home, posters and hand-lettered signs cover every inch of wall space. Even the bathroom--the door to which is sandwiched between the kitchen sink and the refrigerator--is filled with tiny hangings and knickknacks.

We had a good view of everything from the stools that flank Matoi's diner-style counter. On top of it sat a chafing dish filled with soup; behind it stands a comical sake dispenser that looks like a cross between a hot-chocolate machine and a disposable wine box. Even stranger: The sake is made by Colorado's Hakushika. Naturally, we each ordered up a cup of the fermented-rice alcohol. It arrived with complimentary "sake snacks," cubes of yellowtail (a variety of snapper rather than true yellowtail, which is a rare fish also found off California's coast) steeped in a vinegary liquid.

As Sam worked behind the counter carving up each new course, he doled out tantalizing bits and pieces of his culinary history. A certified master chef, both as a cook and a teacher, he had fifteen years' worth of training in Japan--and fifteen years' worth of anecdotes--to draw from. "Two years washing dishes," he explained. "That's it. No food, no knife, nothing. Only dishes. Next two years washing rice. Then vegetables. Then knife. Hitotsu hitotsu." Step by step. After that, he could have used the experience working for someone else in a fancy sushi shop--but Sam longed to open a family-oriented restaurant that served isakaya, traditional home cooking. Enter the first Matoi.

When Billie and Sam moved to this country, they brought with them many of the secrets of Japanese cuisine--recipes for vinegary liquids, watery sauces and simple, pungent broths. We got a good taste of the last with Matoi's souplike oden ($5), which contained a hard-boiled egg, a hunk of daikon--which gave the broth most of its flavor--a fried bean-curd cake called atsu-age and a strange item with the consistency of tough gelatin that Billie told us was a type of potato named konnyaku. Further research unearthed the information that konnyaku, which translates to "devil's tongue," is actually a tuber that's more like taro than a potato. The konnyaku's true color is black, and it must be filtered and bleached in order to acquire its (sort of) appealing grayish hue.

Another first for us was the oyster nabemono ($8.50). Nabemono means "one pot," and the entree arrived in a fragile-looking metal cooker with a lighted Sterno can beneath a thick piece of paper that was too wet to burn. Billie explained that the nabemono would be ready when the broth inside the bowl had cooked down, leaving tofu, Chinese cabbage, a fish cake, a large shrimp and three oysters in what little liquid remained.

While we waited, we picked at our black tray combo ($14.50), a (what else?) black tray that looked like a Japanese version of a pu pu platter--without the fat. Even the tempura tidbits were airy and grease-free; the heavenly batter bubbled up, light and crunchy, around strips of green pepper, sweet-potato slices, carrots and shrimp. Also clean-tasting was the beef teriyaki, paper-thin strips of meat lightly glazed in soy sauce, sugar and sake and served next to two steamed, chilled potatoes. A pile of pounded chicken marinated in garlicky vinegar and two slices of an exquisite California roll rounded out the selection.

By now the nabemono was done. It was worth the wait, as was our other entree, the sashimi-filled tunadon ($9.95) covered with slips of seaweed. Sam capped off our dinner with a helping of homemade pickles, the standard culmination to a meal in rural Japan, as well as a dish of tart pickled plums, which his mother makes and periodically mails to him.

We toasted the start of our second visit to Matoi with another round of sake--this time the complimentary snacks were strips of beef teriyaki--and that day's appetizer special. The fried balls of ground chicken ($4.50) were on the chewy side but saved by a slightly sweet, chile-flecked brown sauce. More disappointing was the lackluster dish of noodles ($8.95) sauteed with three medium shrimp and none of the promised calamari; the soft noodles had been blanketed by a snowdrift of dried fish flakes that looked odd and tasted like nothing.

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