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Art on Rice

Samurai Japanese Restaurant

979 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach

As every good chef — and good mom — knows, we eat with our eyes. Food is both a visual art and the artful combination of flavors. In traditional sushi, the visuals are vital. Sushi isn't raw fish, but art on rice — literally, edible sculpture. Drawing on discipline, talent, and creativity, a well-schooled sushi master makes art, from the finely proportioned geometric abstracts of nigiri (plain rice rolls), to the fanciful creatures, bouquets, and landscapes of elaborate "party rolls." It's an evanescent beauty, demolished in two bites (food for Buddhist meditation).

What separates Samurai (and last week's Nobu) from run-of-the-mill neighborhood sushi bars are their classically trained sushi chefs, who are mindful of this vanishing art of the nosh. Samurai is tucked like a jewel into a corner of a mall, the Japanese fountain at its entrance demarcating a world apart from the realm of cars endlessly parking, parked, and debarking. The interior is divided into several rooms. A spirits bar in red and black looks very Vegas. A Teppan room includes several mini-bars surrounding flat, electric-powered Japanese grills, where chefs cut and sizzle their patrons' chosen entrées. In the three private Tatami rooms, groups sit on straw floor mats to enjoy traditional multicourse Kaiseke dinners.

The main dining room greets you with a vivid samurai banner and a maze of booths; wooden barriers create a feeling of intimacy at each table. The sushi bar runs along two walls and is reputedly the longest in California, seating 50 and attended by as many as 12 chefs at a time. Mural-size reproductions of Hokkusai paintings decorate the walls (Mt. Fuji here, a Hokkaido Island "surf's up!" seascape there). Over the bar, scores of paper lanterns float, inscribed with graffiti inked by gratified patrons.

We arrived at 6:00 on a Monday night to beat the crowd; by 6:30 six chefs worked the bar as the regulars poured in -- a family crowd similar to that at Nobu. We received a warm, damp washcloth and two bowls of nibbles: fresh, well-salted edamame (boiled soybeans) and a cabbage-carrot salad swamped in mayo. The washcloths and free snacks are among the indications of a top-class traditional sushi bar.

Our chef, Ken, was in his late twenties, already deft and swift. The uni was superb -- clean-tasting, with a melt-in-the-mouth texture -- and the seasoned rice was balanced between sweet, sharp, and neutral. A spicy scallop hand roll, constructed in a flash, was only gently spicy but beautifully composed, wrapped in freshly toasted seaweed as crisp as a cracker. Toro (bluefin belly, at $10 market price) was a wow -- fatty and silken, with cross-hatched scoring on the meat and a smear of wasabi atop the rice.

Two large, wiggling freshwater shrimps, one in each of chef Ken's fists, auditioned for our de rigueur ama ebi of the evening. Swinging a metaphorical samurai sword, Ken turned away to decapitate them, then served the bodies nude atop nigiri touched with a little lemon juice, with a ramekin of fierce ponzu sauce for dipping. He held up two disembodied heads. "These are not your shrimps," he said. "We have extra heads from people who order the shrimp cooked. Do you want fried, or do you want soup?" "Can we have both?" we asked. In the first treatment, Ken split the heads in half, then stuffed them with spicy tuna dotted with fresh red pepper. They were then flash-fried and draped over more moist meat extracted from the head-shells. Since the shrimp were large, their shells were thicker than usual, a good reason to split them. "I invented this," said Ken, as he handed us the grand finale: shrimp heads simmered with manila clams and ribbons of softened nori (seaweed) in a delicious miso broth. Hurrah for three courses of two-headed shrimp!

We felt obliged to try one "fancy roll" and, based on its name, chose the Samurai Special Roll, an inside-out roll of rice sprinkled with sesame seeds, surrounding a sheet of nori filled with salmon, cucumber, imitation crab, avocado, and -- aagh! -- cream cheese. Sorry, Philly goes fine with lox on a bagel, not with sake (salmon) on rice.

Meanwhile, chef Ken and a colleague were creating striking seafood arrangements for a couple a few seats down. These customers were enjoying an omakase ("chef's mercy") on the theme of scallops. One plate that Ken passed along the bar looked like a Cartier jewelry ad, all onyx-black nori, white rice, pearly scallops, and glistening jet beads of masago (smelt roe). I didn't just want to eat it, I wanted to wear it.

We were too sated to continue (that accursed cream cheese is so filling!) but managed a few last bites when we each received half an orange, hollowed out and refilled with a swirl of chilled fresh orange sections and kiwi slices. We swore we'd come back soon to fling ourselves on our chef's mercy.

When we returned at lunchtime, chef Ken was working in the back, probably helping itamae (head sushi chef) Makoto Ishihara sort through a delivery of fresh fish. When we specifically asked for him, Ken must have ducked into a phone booth, because he soon exploded out (ta-da!) in his sushi chef costume. We told him that we'd admired his scallop compositions on our previous visit and would like three or four beautiful dishes -- his choice.

He placed a large clamshell in the center of a plate, lined it with lemon slices, and topped them with strips of giant clam (mirugai). Then he sliced ocean scallops, slit their edges into fringes, and arranged them along one-half of the dish's edge. He sprinkled the seafood with masago and -- off to the other side -- arranged a mound of daikon shreds and dark romaine leaves. It was a sparkling combination, playing the briny, chewy clams and crunchy roe and salad off the sweet slickness of the scallops.

Ken repeated the two-headed ama ebi but this time made it even nicer. He presented one shrimp, butterflied tail-on, stuffed into a hollow lemon shell, as though the living shrimp had dived inside. He sprinkled orange tobiko over the other two bodies set on the nigiri rice cakes. He gave the fried heads a squirt of a delicious sweet-hot mustard sauce, then decorated the plate with flowers carved of lemon and scattered with red sesame seeds. The same soup was served, but in two bowls with two spoons (versus one of each the previous meal).

Next, he produced tender fillets of sheepshead fish (a relative of sculpin), marinated in sweet miso sauce, then broiled until just translucent. He topped the fillets with raw kaiware (daikon) sprouts, crunchy seaweed, and sautéed shiitake strips, the latter's texture reminiscent of scallops. Ken magicked up a handful of bright-red, flash-fried tiny whole sand crabs, and scattered them over the plate. "Eat them whole," he told us. Their crunchy texture and subtle taste resembled Champagne crackers. To finish? Ken and I simultaneously asked, "Uni?" This time he gave us a double-high load of the luscious urchin.

Duty required me to try a full dinner from the menu. A secret truth: I'm crazy for sushi but tepid about Japanese cookie-cutter restaurant dinners. But dine we did. Full meals include salad (mostly iceberg) in a spicy ginger dressing, the house miso soup (served plain, sans clams and shrimp heads), plus steamed rice and veggies. Keep these extras in mind when you order, because the appetizer plates are more than generous.

Samurai's kitchen staff includes two chefs specifically in charge of making dim sum (little bites that originated in China, e.g., pot stickers and egg rolls). Our order of shumai (steamed crab dumplings) was huge -- ten little wraps, the same quantity you'd get in a frozen-food package from Trader Joe's, and enough to take two nibblers halfway through the Super Bowl. They were pleasant, if ordinary, and came with a thick, tasty soy-based dipping sauce. An appetizer of chicken yakitori (also available as an entrée) offered standard white-meat cubes brushed with sweet teriyaki sauce and grilled on skewers.

The cooked entrée list runs to the usual suspects. Our deep-fried dishes tasted very much like those we'd eaten at Nobu Restaurant, for good reason: Nobu used to be Samurai's head chef, supervising the current chef. His influence remains -- at both restaurants, tempura are thickly battered and tonkatsu (pork cutlets) are heavily breaded. The frying medium is cottonseed oil, which has a near-neutral flavor that, to my palate, tastes greasy.

The main reason to go to Samurai is for sushi -- done "the old-fashioned way" by chefs rigorously trained in Japan. The downside of sushi bars multiplying into neighborhood-pub equivalents is that the sushi can slide into just another type of pub grub. When you're chomping up your zillionth California roll-variation at the corner bar, where a local-born, locally trained journeyman presides, it's easy to forget that this food genre has a keen aesthetic base. Samurai also offers a "neighborhood family scene," but here the chefs (and patrons) know what sushi should be. Along with Kabuto, Nobu, and Ota, this is one of the county's greats.

ABOUT SAMURAI

In 1976, Korean-born restaurateur David Song arrived in the US and bought a little coffee shop in Leucadia. Three years later, he closed the cafe and opened Samurai Japanese Restaurant on Highway 101 in Solana Beach. It was the first sushi restaurant in North County and gained immediate popularity. In 1982, his son Charlie Song, the current owner, joined him at the restaurant, and they worked side by side until David's passing in 1992. Meanwhile, a fire destroyed the original premises in 1986, and Samurai reopened a year later in its current location inland, a block east of the Lomas Santa Fe Drive/Solana Beach freeway exit. "At the old location," says Charlie Song, "we had more people coming in late to drink -- a lot of young people, more of a crazy party, more problems. We moved here, and it's a family crowd now. It's better for a quiet dinner.

"Nearly all our sushi chefs are Japanese. Our head chef, Makoto Ishihara, has worked here 23 years. He moved to the US in 1974, I think. He worked in Little Tokyo in L.A., but when he married and wanted to settle somewhere, he moved to San Diego in 1983. He was a young man -- now he's 55 years old and talking about retirement. Five more of the sushi chefs have worked here at least 10 years. We have 12 sushi men altogether, five kitchen chefs, and two dim sum chefs. Seven years ago we started hiring from here, and we've started teaching them."

Charlie does have one Korean chef, but he prefers sushi chefs who have a Japanese background, preferably with some initial training in Japan. "The culture is different. A lot of people these days open Japanese restaurants, sushi bars, but those aren't real traditional Japanese restaurants. They're thinking fusion-style. Sushi means shari [pronounced SHAH-dee], the traditional rice with vinegar, sugar, all mixed up in a certain way. Shari with raw fish or other things on top -- that's sushi. But a lot of people just cook the rice plain, with no seasonings, and put the fish on and then bake it with some sauce on top. It's fish-market style, like oysters Rockefeller, stuff like that. Or a lot of fusion sushi -- it's all [party] rolls, you know, 'Sexy Roll,' 'Tootsie Roll,' they make up all the names and you don't know what's in there, but the rice tastes just plain. They use frozen fish and bake it, and it tastes okay, you know. Six or eight pieces each roll, it makes full inside the stomach, but it's not quality. Some places don't even have nigiri (seasoned rice with fish on top) on the menu -- it's all rolls, 12, 15 different rolls."

Samurai uses four different seafood purveyors, two with locations in L.A. One is a giant company whose proprietor also owns the Empire State Building; fresh fish arrives from every ocean in the world. Another is a major Japanese fish company, Showa Marine. Its seafood comes from Japan, Hawaii, Pacific, Boston -- whatever is fresh and fine. "Our restaurant, we have tuna, halibut, yellowtail, kampache [baby yellowfin tuna] -- 80 percent is all fresh fish. We get it airmail, overnight delivery on ice. We cut it and we season it. We pay $30 or $40 for toro, we sell it for $8 or $10 for two nigiri, but people recognize the quality and don't mind spending the money. We buy local uni from Catalina Offshore Seafood downtown [Morena district]. They sell 80 percent to Japan, but they let just a few restaurants here buy from them -- Nobu, Ota, me."

I asked him about chef Ken. "He's originally from near Tokyo. He was working at a small restaurant in Oceanside. I taste sushi all over San Diego, and I saw he had a lot of skill. I gave him my card, and 'Oh, I heard about Samurai Restaurant! Give me a chance!' So he came here in 2000. He's been learning from my head chef, and he's really good. He's only 27 or 28 years old, part of my young group for the future, five people. He's really doing good."

Although Samurai and Nobu share the same small town, Song feels no rivalry. "Nobu was my head chef and moved with me here after the fire. In '91 his wife's family sponsored him to open his own place. It's traditional in Japanese restaurants, when you're getting older, you want to open your own restaurant and be the boss. He'd been working hard and was already an old man, and I never felt we were in competition. We're still good friends. I go to his restaurant, he comes here. Nobu tutored my chef, Makoto-san. They worked together in L.A. for ten years. Makoto learned a lot from him. In the San Diego area, there are so many Japanese restaurants, but the traditional sushi is mainly Samurai, Nobu, Ota in Pacific Beach, and Kazumi-san in Hillcrest. Kazumi-san worked at Samurai when it first opened, 1979. Ota is a good friend too. He was working at Mr. Sushi in P.B. when we opened. I think that may be all. Everybody else is doing fusion or some kind of mixed style."

4-1/2 stars for sushi, 2 stars for the dinner menu.

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