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Oh, Crudo! My Fish is Raw!

— "Crudo" seems a risky name for a restaurant, just begging for nasty puns. But in Italian, it merely means "raw" and refers specifically to the Italian version of sashimi enjoyed in Venice for snacks and antipasti. Items such as raw swordfish marinated in lemon juice and carpaccio di salmone are menu staples locally at upscale eateries like Coronado's Primavera and Del Mar's Osteria Pescatore. But this traditional genre exploded into the ultimate in Manhattan chic in 2004, when chef David Pasternack started featuring top-quality seafood in delicate raw creations at Esca, a seafood restaurant owned by famed chef/entrepreneur Mario Batali. The idea seemed to unleash the creative juices in chefs all over New York, who've been devising increasingly bold and imaginative spin-offs -- dishes like raw tuna topped with sea urchin foam, or live scallops bedded on truffled green papaya salad. By now it's become a raging fad in San Francisco, too, such that renowned Bay Area chef Joyce Goldstein is featuring it in her next cookbook.

Has crudo moved to San Diego? Well, a touch of it. I was hoping that our Crudo would be a shameless Esca copycat, which would at least be something new and different here. When Crudo opened, co-owner Joe Busalacchi (of Busalacchi's, Po Pazzo, etc.) told San Diego Magazine, "We're going to...serve Italian sushi with a Chinese flair, like P.F. Chang-type food. In Sicily, where I'm from, there's a lot of fish, even raw fish, and there's a place in Milano that serves Italian sushi, with oils and garlic. That's what I want to re-create here." But his partner in the venture is nightclub maven Mike Viscuso (founder of E Street Alley, On Broadway, Red Circle, and Deco's in the Gaslamp). When it comes to the disco crowd, Mike is all about Fats Waller's lyric: "Find out what they want, and how they want it, and give it to 'em just that way." Viscuso brought in executive chef Jon Gamora, a veteran of Japengo and Sushi on the Rock. Now three months old, Crudo is not turning out exactly as advertised.

It certainly looks slick. Outside there's a well-heated roofed dining patio flanked by a serene Buddhist-style fountain. Enter, and your eye lights on a striking kimono hung on the wall above the hostess station. The reddish wall along that side, edged with booths, sports a large hammered-copper Thai Buddha profile -- similar to the one at the downtown Lotus Thai, but facing the other way. To the left is a large, bright sushi bar, with a fluorescent "Crudo" sign behind it. The partly screened-off adjoining bar/lounge/disco has multiple TV screens -- several running videos of tropical fish -- and multicolored moving lights that shine onto the dance floor.

This is, as far as I know, the first nightclub in rapidly condo-fying Little Italy. It seems designed as a more civilized alternative to the Gaslamp's frenetic underground clubs and "meet markets." At 8:00 o'clock on a Wednesday evening, the dining room and sushi bar began to fill rapidly with couples ranging from their mid-twenties to late fifties. The hostesses greeted many of them familiarly, so evidently the disco is developing a core of regulars, with an older and more neighborly demographic than the Gaslamp's weekend bridge-and-tunnel cuties. Having a few bites before the disco opens ensures a good table in the lounge with no cover charge.

The menu turns out to be neither Italian crudo nor "Italian-Chinese." It's divided into a double page of appetizers (mainly seafood), a page of sushi and sashimi, and a final page of entrées and desserts. The fusion style of both hot and cold dishes is along the familiar, Japengo-esque line of Japanese basics with fruit and sugar added. Italian ingredients, so far, make tiny cameo appearances. The drink list includes cocktails, beers, a handful of wines from California and Italy, and a good selection of sakes sold mainly by the bottle. The shortage of sake choices by the glass and the extreme markups are surprising: For instance, Momokawa Pearl dry nigori (unfiltered fizzy sake, which the Japanese call "crazy milk") is available only as a full 725 ml bottle at $19 (versus about $8 retail if you can find it). A 325 ml half-bottle of the popular, sweeter Sho Chiku Bai nigori made in exotic Berkeley, California -- $3.69 at Jaroco Market in Golden Hill and $6 at most sushi bars -- is shockingly priced at $23 and change, though it's no Pearl at any price.

My partner and I started with a few sushi rolls -- our usual opening order of uni (sea urchin). The urchin proved a grade-A specimen -- bright orange, firm-tender, and clean flavored. Sushi is all about rice, and I quite liked this version: The rice, barely sweet, held together perfectly, leaving no grains clinging to our fingers. A week or so later, we ordered the uni again, but this time it was a day older and a trifle mushy, with a mineral edge -- still acceptable, but not glorious.

A spicy scallop handroll was less amusing. Despite having the goodies (cuke, scallops, sauce) running all the way from top to bottom, it was rolled too loosely, and we needed to grasp it firmly to keep it from falling apart at the seams. The scallops were flaccid, and the roll needed more mayo for textural contrast to the not-too-spicy hot sauce.

The Green Hornet is one of the few futo maki rolls here that's free of both cream cheese and eel sauce. It features lobster, asparagus, avocado, wasabi green peas, scallions, and wasabi cream. We enjoyed the zesty, harmonious combination. It emboldened us to try the signature Crudo Special roll, with eel sauce, spicy mayo, spicy scallops, tempura shrimp, asparagus, avocado, puffed seasoned rice, and a soy-paper coating. To our delight, it proved an exuberant admixture of textures and flavors: Even the eel sauce succeeded, because its sweetness near the top of the roll was balanced by the pool of hot sauce infusing the bottom. "This reminds me of the party rolls at Sushi on the Rock," my partner observed. (We didn't know yet that Crudo's chef is from Sushi on the Rock.)

Where Crudo lives up to both its name and my hopes for it is in the sashimi -- most notably in the full-tilt boogie of the Crudo Plateau, a raw version of the cold seafood "plateaus" of French bistros. It's not exactly cheap (at $49 it's about $10 less than you'd pay locally for the Gallic version), but it's a light meal for two and a great shared appetizer for four. You know the joke about the Zen sage ordering a hot dog: "Make me one with everything." That's the Plateau. It consists of Crudo's six sashimi dishes, plus substantial tastes of all the evening's best raw seafood from the sushi menu. Each species has its own special treatment, and the treatments are fusion flavors: Maguro (dark red, silky tuna), for instance, is touched with whole-grain mustard ponzu, while scallops (still as slack as in the hand-roll) have a daub of balsamic ponzu. Hirame (halibut) wears a few drops of blood-orange misu, appropriately dainty. Just as good were the many little surprises from the fish case: Spanish mackerel (aji) slices were pickled in-house and tasted like deli herring. Giant clam (mirugai) needed no adornment to its crisp texture and natural sweetness. Thin octopus slices were tender-chewy, with a vibrant sweet-sour flavor, as though poached in sugared lime juice. Squid, firm and near crunchy, were rolled around nori and carrot centers. I didn't really care for the nama sake (salmon) with a cheeseless garlic pesto aioli (a combination of garlic- and basil-flavored olive oils). The salmon, a risky fish (prone to parasites), was suspiciously squishy, and it made us nervous when served raw by an American-trained sushi chef. Nor did we care for the hamachi's (yellowtail) harsh garnish of yuzu (a sour Japanese citrus) and jalapeño, which tasted a little -- crudo.

Since a solo honeymoon oyster shooter seemed spendy at $12, we chose oysters on the half shell (five to a plate for $13), dressed in Chinese chili oil, golden tobiko, and minced cilantro -- a spicy, bracing mixture.

Moving on to warm dishes, we had to try the lobster red miso soup. The liquid, which we loved, is intensely fish flavored from dashi (Japanese dried-bonito broth). Afloat in the clear red soup are thick shiitake slices, tofu cubes, nori seaweed rectangles, minced scallions and -- (ta-dah!) wonton-skin dumplings filled with puréed edamame and ricotta. Just don't look for lobster pieces in there -- my partner's portion held one small, spongy claw-tip, and that's all she wrote. Given its fierce fishiness, the soup's not for the faint of heart, but real seafood fans will lap it up.

A couple of warm appetizers were a good cop/bad cop act. The good: Butterfish with an apricot miso glaze was a fine fillet cooked translucent, finished off with a fluff of basil chiffonade and a hint of hot chili oil. But the chef seems to use the sugar shaker the way other cooks use a saltshaker -- we found this and most other cooked dishes swinging heavily to the sweet side.

Bonito-crusted scallops were another story. The trio of large Asian scallops (like those in the sashimi) offer a fainter flavor and softer texture than their pricier cousins from New England. The chef crusts them with rehydrated Japanese dried-bonito shreds, cooks them until translucent-firm, and drenches them in heavily sweetened yuzu juice. The coating has the texture of a coarse wet dishcloth -- an edible fish-flavored schmatte. The scallops are plated over soggy, sour Granny Smith apple slices pickled in, I'd guess, unsweetened yuzu, and garnished with crisped nuggets of pancetta and wisps of microgreens. I can envision this dish remade with panko on the scallops, Fuji apples (not Grannies) for natural sweetness, and yuzu straight up for tartness -- but I can't imagine how to solve the scallop problem. Fall back 15 yards and punt?

Entrées seem the weakest point of the menu, if those we tried are any indication. When I ordered the butterfish appetizer near the end of our first meal, the waitress evidently misunderstood me and substituted an entrée of filo-crusted white fish. It's a long fillet of mild-flavored fish coated with kataifi (fine-shredded filo). The fish tasted clean and neutral, and the crackly crust was tasty. But it sat atop a nest of overcooked Pad Thai noodles dressed in a sweet, sludgy, red-brown "ginger-soy-tomato sauce." The sauce waged war on the gentle fish and slaughtered it.

Katsu bleu turned out to be chicken cordon bleu crusted with panko instead of conventional bread crumbs. Tasting somewhat like a frozen entrée from the supermarket, it consists of deep-fried medallions of chicken breast stuffed with mozzarella, prosciutto, and spinach, served over buckwheat soba with a tasty cream sauce flavored with sun-dried tomatoes and miso. The chicken was tender, except for a tiny knob of gristle. (You'd think a sushi kitchen could fillet chicken flawlessly. I won't be ordering any blowfish here.) The filling was scant and dry -- short of melted cheese, above all -- so the chicken was only palatable when dipped in the precious few drops of sauce. The noodles were gray, thin, round, and sodden, with an unfortunate visual resemblance to a heap of worms.

The remaining entrées are equally baroque. For instance, the Kobe center-cut sirloin sounded as if it might be a winner, but mashed potatoes with satsuma tangerine juice and plum wine basil sauce struck us as a combination that we didn't want to pay $35 to sample. There are plans afoot for a few entrées with more purely Italian flavors (see interview below), which might provide some relief from the strenuous palate calisthenics of the current menu. Until then, I'd rather graze on the light dishes and bypass the main course.

We also skipped desserts, a short list of classics (crème brûlée, chocolate mousse, white chocolate cheesecake, ice cream sandwich), each with some creative twist. We'd already had our full complement of sugar -- and creativity -- in the appetizers and entrées. At a restaurant named Crudo, you mostly want your food raw and simple.

ABOUT CRUDO

"I wanted to bring crudo, Italian sashimi, to Little Italy. I knew there was an Italian sushi bar in New York but never thought about it -- I didn't know [Mario] Batali owned it when we came up with the idea for Crudo," says owner Joe Busalacchi. "Basically, we were going to start out doing some of the infusion of the Italian crudo with the raw seafood, and then we went the opposite way a little bit. But we're working on it now again. We just wanted to open up -- we were delayed about a year for permits and construction and so forth, so we had to do something really quick [because we have to pay the lease whether we're open or not]. We're working on a lunch menu now, and then we're going to be coming back with the 'Italian sushi.' We're probably going to start doing that at the end of next month. We've been pretty busy -- hectic -- so we just haven't had the time so far. Italians eat a lot of raw fish, so we're going to do some sea urchin pasta, some balsamic reductions on the fish, calamari stuffed with crab and avocado. We should've done that from the beginning. But I'm also busy taking over Voyage, down the block -- I must be crazy!"

Crudo's executive chef, Jon Gamora, is a San Diego native. After attending culinary school at a local business college downtown, he worked under Jim Paulberry and Amiko (Parallel 33) Gubbins when she was making her name as head chef at Japengo. He speaks at the same fast pace that a Benihana chef chops vegetables. "I was executive chef at Sushi on the Rock, and before that I was sushi chef at Japengo. I learned sushi in school. One of my trainers was the former owner of Taka. I started out in French cuisine in the early '90s, until I was offered a position to do sushi. I was at Japengo for about eight years. Then I ventured off, I opened the sushi bar at Peohe's, opened the sushi bar at Aubergine, and then I was at Sushi on the Rock for about four years and then worked at Ra Sushi. The cuisine that we do is on the sweeter side -- that's from Kyoto, the sweeter side of Japan. My baseline is a little of kaiseki -- a lot of intricate flavors, not too heavy, not too strong. I like to meet people halfway in their flavors. I can't please everybody 100 percent but I try." He met Mike Viscuso while working for him at On Broadway's Zen Cafe. "A lot of my mentors had worked for his corporation at one time or another.

"Right now we're pretty much doing neo-style Japanese, but the menu will be changing to where it's a little more Mediterranean and more seasonal. We're already using Mediterranean ingredients -- infused oils, cheeses. We have so many different ideas, it's just a matter of where we're gonna take it. It's a nightclub, but it's also a fine dining experience. I want to create memories in the people that come in here, so they'll say, 'Do you remember that dish we ate at Crudo?'"

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