Track of the Sushi Cat

Nozomi

3050 Pio Pico Drive, Carlsbad




It’s like that Bible story of Ruth and Naomi: “Whither thou goest, I will go.” Or that girl-group song of the ’60s: “I will follow him wherever he goes.” Change the last word of the first quote to “eat” and the last word of the second quote to “cooks,” and you’ve got me and sushi chef James Holder, a handsome, long-haired hapi-hapi (half Japanese, half American). The former Japengo top toque is one of the two executive chefs at Nozomi, a new restaurant in Carlsbad.

Yes, Holder’s personable, but that alone wouldn’t be nearly enough to make me trek all the way to Carlsbad. (Cats are pretty too, but I wouldn’t travel an hour just to look at one — unless it could cook.) I’ve been trying to catch up with Holder ever since he was chef at a little joint called Zen, hidden behind the Del Mar racetrack. Even though he had the night off when I ate there, I loved the food and raved about it in print. Holder soon quit and Zen promptly dropped dead, doomed by amateur owners.

Next I knew, he was at Ajiya in Flower Hill Mall. But it was winter and raining and I didn’t get there, and then he was gone again. Now he’s working at Nozomi in Carlsbad, a new sushi bar/fusion restaurant at the former site of Cafe Sevilla. He’s co-executive chef, along with Ken Lee, a veteran lured away from mighty Sushi Ota.

“Nozomi” means “hope,” and hope is universal: Nozomi Carlsbad is no relation to the Nozomis on Convoy Street and in La Jolla — which are also separate from each other, although both serve mainly Korean menus augmented by sushi. But there is a connection: The owners of the Convoy Nozomi gave the owner of Nozomi Carlsbad advice about opening a restaurant and also introduced co-executive chef Ken Lee. Nozomi Carlsbad is the brainchild of Derek Choi, a 28-year-old Korean-American from a prosperous La Jolla family. He’s obviously got a talent for the business. The physical renovations he’s made to the property are splendid, and both his chefs, when I spoke with them, sounded enthusiastic about working for him.

Sam and I, and his workmates Angela and Ryan, hopped on our camels and caravanned northward through the damned county-fair traffic in search of my elusive stray cat, chef Holder. Taking a break from the slow-oozing jam, we stopped to gather our scattered camels and meet up to enjoy drinks in Flower Hill Mall (about 20 minutes south of Nozomi), where we discussed the pressing question of man-made mammaries. That’s what you do in a Del Mar bar: you glance around and try to guess, “Does she or doesn’t she…only her surgeon knows for sure.” You also speculate about how much that shoulder-bag might have cost. You’re practically not allowed to do anything else, as they have city rules against nearly everything, except drinking pricey cocktails, shopping at boutiques, and enhancing your physical attributes by any means possible. You might as well buy a condo ruled by an uptight HOA. I’m only writing these gratuitous insults to Del Mar to set the stage for a later paragraph about Carlsbad — or maybe to get revenge for feeling vaguely dissed by the servers for being not the right “type” for that town, with my non-designer clothing and unperfected flesh.

Arriving at Nozomi, we’d never have guessed that the premises were previously a Spanish restaurant. They have been thoroughly transformed into a Japanese-aesthetic environment. Running along the base of the building is a narrow waterway with golden koi swimming; across the parking-lot driveway, the theme continues with a wooden Japanese bridge over the stream, a wooden gate, and a small waterfall. You reach the front entry by a short wooden stairway. Inside, another stairway leads down to a bar-lounge and restrooms and a serene indoor pool-garden populated by live turtles. (The parking lot offers direct entry into this room, making the premises wheelchair accessible. You can get the same food as upstairs, minus only the view of the chefs.) The main dining room and sushi bar, decorated to resemble a Japanese country inn, are up another set of stairs, with an open kitchen behind the sushi bar. The first floor, between the turtle pond and the country inn, has a full kitchen for the cooked dishes.

It’s amazing how much North County changes every few miles. Carlsbad is a wholly different story from the farther-south towns on the Gold Coast. I’ve never explored it much, but the town seems likable and down-home. It does not abound in exciting eateries, and the locals have clearly taken Nozomi to their hearts. On an ordinary Thursday, the dining room was SRO, with a diverse crowd encompassing at least four races, all adult ages (didn’t see any kids that night), and all styles, except glitzy. Not Del Martian: no obviously fake boobs, nor screamingly obvious designer duds. Just folks.

The menu is vast — four pages — but it’s printed in a legible typeface, and there was enough light to read it (even for a presbyopic Baby Boomer). There are soups and salads, tapas from land and sea, house-specialty tapas, entrées, and house-specialty party rolls. Plus, of course, regular nigiri sushi, hand rolls, and sashimi from all the usual maritime species, purchased from the same fish companies that supply Sushi Ota. The menu lists only krab (extruded crab-flavored pollock — yuck!) in the party rolls. But it turns out, if you ask for real crab-with-a-c instead, they’ll be more than happy to serve it. The fake-crab default, Ken Lee told me, is for diners with shellfish allergies and those who follow the kosher prohibition against shellfish.

We wanted to begin with sea urchin nigiri, which I always order first as a test, since it’s sublime when fresh and disgusting when old. Chef Ken Lee came out to our table to apologize: “We were not able to get good enough uni today,” he said, eyes downcast. (It was fresh but, as sometimes happens, had a bitter undertone and a few bits of grit from the shell.) With that burst of honesty and conscientiousness, I realized I didn’t have to worry about a thing. He suggested ama ebi (freshwater “sweet shrimp”), another of my favorite tests of a sushi bar. “Wow, these shrimp are ultra-fresh,” said Sam, when they arrived. The rice was in the style of Ota, small short-grains, neutral in flavor. Lee also had given us a choice about the treatment of the heads — fried, baked, or soup. We chose soup, a simple, warming miso broth with the heads cooked in. (The last time I had this version of ama ebi miso, at Samurai Sushi in Solana Beach, they obviously had extra heads to lavish on our soup, and they threw in clams, too. Have to say, Samurai’s was better.)

Next up: ankimo, monkfish liver pâté — a fabulous version, so richly smooth it was truly a maritime foie gras torchon. Thereafter, our meal mingled the raw and the cooked, the warm and the cold, all brought out in small groups — I can’t remember exactly the order of arrival, but the service was fine, only occasionally overwhelming us with more food than fit easily on the table.

Toro tartare on tofu has exquisite raw fatty tuna belly treated like the old-time raw-steak classic — minced, seasoned, and heaped up and topped with quail egg. It’s served over bean curd (substituting for blini). If you are sharing dinner with other foodies, you may want to order an extra portion, as it can arouse culinary greed. Mushroom-and-leek dumplings are steamed gyoza (Japan’s version of pot stickers, with the thicker, chewier dough-casings typical of that country’s rendition), filled with several wild-tasting types of fungi (shiitake, enoki, etc.) in a savory truffled miso broth. I didn’t actually taste truffles — canned black truffles from Italy — but it had good depth.

Misoyaki butterfish offered a small fillet of very rich fish (with a fat content similar to black cod) in a sweet miso broth, delicate and refined. A tapa called “Drunken King” offered another fine broth, a blend of sake and yuzu juice (a sour Japanese citrus) surrounding two pieces of king crab, one shrimp, one scallop, one tiny Carlsbad clam, and one petite black Carlsbad mussel. This is a difficult dish to share because of all the singletons in it. (We were all terribly polite to each other — “You first.” “Oh no, please take something.”) But the main thing is the broth, and any piece of seafood will do. I got the Carlsbad mussel, and I think they should serve a whole dish of those local mussels in this broth.

Hokkaido scallops with ceviche has thin slices of delicate, delicious raw scallop topped with a spicy mince of raw seafood imbued with a red sauce made from scratch with tomatoes, lemon and orange juice, lemon rind, jalapeño, and cilantro — that nonetheless tastes like cocktail sauce. Baby yellowtail tiradito offers thinly sliced hamachi “drizzled with a citrus-soy olive oil topped with truffles,” according to the menu. Once again, the truffles were bashful (I think in this dish it was white truffle oil), but the flavor was rewarding.

Most of the entrées are combination party sushi-sashimi-fusion platters. We chose the introductory course, called “Taste of Nozomi.” It included pristine salmon, tuna and yellowtail sashimi, and small tempura shrimp atop an organic garden salad dominated by radicchio. Miso-marinated sea bass was tender and fine. And there was a sample of the restaurant’s nuevo-wavo party sushi, a hula roll — a wild mixture of shrimp tempura, krab (boo!), avocado, and cucumber, topped with spicy tuna, then drizzled with spicy-sweet sauce and sprinkled with crushed macadamia nuts and “green tea crunchies.” It was hot and sweet, cool and baroque as chef-made sin. Heavy, too, but tasty. The chefs did something nice for us: Normally, this platter comes with three pieces of hula, but since we were four, they gave us four pieces. I think, by then, they might have noticed we were eating them out of house and home. After our long commute, we were making the most of our caravansary.

Finally — almost finally — the “Caviar Sizzler”: sushi rice cooked and served in a hot pot over charcoal, topped with tobiko (flying-fish roe), ikura (salmon roe), and (substituting for the unavailable uni) tiny, crackly black masago (smelt roe). The waitress tossed it all at the table with a slightly spicy butter sauce. After a few bites I looked at Sam (who’s Korean). “It’s a Japanese version of bi-bim-bap, isn’t it?” I asked, referring to the great Korean hot pot of sticky rice tossed with anything, everything, and hot pepper sauce, with chicken eggs mixed in. Here, it was fish eggs. “Yes, I can see the similarity,” Sam said.

Ryan had been longing for the hamachi kama, baked yellowtail collar (the base around the head, prized for its tenderness). They gave us the most gigantic collar I’ve ever seen — fit for the cartoon dog Marmaduke — and added a huge separate hunk of cooked yellowtail steak. By now, my own palate was plumb worn-out from all the flavors of the night. The fish tasted good, but I wasn’t tasting well. Ryan loved it, and by then he’d proven himself a hard-core foodie with taste buds and stamina.

The beverages are interesting. Nozomi has a good wine list, put together by restaurant manager Amy Kim, and a great sake list, cobbled up by Ken Lee. Although no sake expert, what captured my eye was the choice of three previously untasted brands of nigori (unfiltered sake, aka “Japanese fizzy water,” or, in Japanese, “crazy milk”). I’m very much a fan of this stuff; it’s like a low-carb boozy slushy. The cheapest brand ($11 for 500 ml) was almost neutral in flavor. The $13, slightly pink-colored brand had more character — if I could get it in my neighborhood, I would buy it eagerly as a treat, in place of my steady diet of the standard sushi-bar Takara from Berkeley. (To save you the trouble of asking: The Golden Hill boozeria that stocks Takara is Jaroco, right across the street from Luigi’s Pizza and just north of the Turf Club. Lots of Luigi-eaters have discovered that fizzy-water goes great with New York–style pizza.)

Then Ryan offered to treat us to the pinnacle, “the Nigori-lover’s Nigori.” That’s what the wine list says — it’s the $45 “Summer Snowfall” brand (a slightly larger bottle). Now, that bottling has character and depth galore — not just fizz but rich flavor. It’s even better than Momokawa Pearl, my previous top nigori pick.

Our huge meal didn’t even make a dimple in Nozomi’s menu. I didn’t love every dish, but I liked everything a lot and enjoyed the craftsmanship and fun in the food and the delightful atmosphere. If I lived nearby, I’d spend one whole evening at the sushi bar tasting Ken Lee’s classic, Ota-style nigiri and hand rolls; comparing the “fatty tuna belly” with the “super-fatty tuna belly”; and contemplating the sultry, dark-eyed beauty of Jim Holder-san. Then I’d spend another mealtime with a posse, working my way through the futo-maki (party rolls) and more tapas. And once the chefs recognized me as a regular, I’d do an omakase dinner (on a night when they have good uni). Aagh, Carlsbad — so far away! But if you’re heading to Del Mar, for the horse races, say, this would be a fine place to eat afterward, with barely any time on the freeway since all the congestion is farther south. Even if your pet nag went lame, at least you’d have a terrific dinner to console you — and if you’re really down in the dumps, the chance to eat next to a serene subterranean turtle pond.

ABOUT THE CHEFS

Ken Lee, soft-spoken and gentle-mannered, worked at Sushi Ota for nearly ten years before going to work at Nozomi. “I’m from Korea,” he says. “I came to Hawaii and then New York City, and I came to San Diego ten years ago. I studied civil engineering in New York, but I worked part-time as a server in a sushi restaurant there. And one night I helped the sushi chef to make some things. And that’s how I began to become a sushi chef. The major reason was that my mathematics was not really good enough to become a civil engineer. I liked making food better.

“When I was still single, I came to San Diego on vacation…and I liked San Diego. One day I stopped by a Japanese supermarket, and I asked the lady, ‘Where is there a good sushi restaurant?’ She said I should go to Sushi Ota. I was [still a beginner] and I went to Sushi Ota, and me and Ota-san sort of looked at each other and he hired me. He was my mentor and my teacher.”

I asked Lee how he and James Holder divided the work. “Everybody knows Jim because he was working at Japengo. He is not only a sushi chef, he is a friend to everybody. I’m watching him, and he is very good with relations to the customer. He likes to make the customers happy. He’s more fusion, and I’m more Sushi Ota–style. We combine together. He gets customers who like fusion, I get customers who like pure Japanese-style.”

Lee’s philosophy as a chef is always to remember what it feels like to be a customer, paying for the food. He tells his sous-chefs, “If you wouldn’t like to eat this, don’t serve it to the customers who are paying $20 a plate for it.”

James Holder spent his first 21 years in Japan. “I’m half Japanese,” he says. “My mom’s Japanese, and my dad is Italian and German. He came over to Japan when he was in the U.S. Navy and met my mom. Her parents initially wouldn’t accept him because her father fought against the Americans in [World War II].…

“I was raised in a fishermen’s village, and every day we would have fresh fish that the fishermen caught.… Then I started to help my uncle, who ran a restaurant. I apprenticed with him. They would never put me in the front of the restaurant or sushi bar — I looked too American.”

His parents still live in Japan, but at 21, Holder came to San Diego. Long accustomed to cutting fish (on the beach, at home, and then at his uncle’s restaurant), he found a job in a Japanese restaurant in Escondido. Then he worked at Japengo for 16 years, becoming top toque, but felt it was “too corporate” and left to go on his own, first working at Zen and then at Ajiya. At both the owners were, he says, less than professional and honest. At Nozomi, he feels he’s finally found a restaurateur who, although young, is serious enough and smart enough about the restaurant business to make it work.

Nozomi Carlsbad
**** (Excellent)
3050 Pio Pico Drive, Carlsbad, 760-729-7877, nozomicarlsbad.com (no menu posted yet).

HOURS: Monday–Thursday 11:30 a.m.–3:00 p.m., 5:30–10:00 p.m.; until 10:30 weekends. Closed Sundays.
PRICES: Soups, $3–$8; salads, $5–$11; tapas, $5–$18; specialty rolls, $13.25 (most $14.50); entrées and combinations, $14–$32. Omakase dinners, $60–$85.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Classic Japanese sushi, creative American-style sushi, and Asian-fusion tapas and entrées. Extensive wine, beer, and sake selections; full bar.
PICK HITS: Ankimo (monkfish liver pâté), misoyaki butterfish, mushroom-and-leek dumplings, “Drunken King,” toro tartare and tofu, classic sushi (in the style of Sushi Ota). Chef’s picks: hula roll (Ken Lee); creamy shrimp and lobster, Alaskan king crab up (James Holder).
NEED TO KNOW: Wheelchair accessible from parking lot to lower-level “turtle pool” lounge with full menu and service, restrooms. Stairs up to entrance; more up to main dining room. One vegan entrée, one vegetarian-adaptable entrée, nine vegan soups; salads, tapas, vegetarian sushi upon request. Real crab to substitute for “krab” (imitation) upon request, same price. Kobe beef dishes with Japanese Wagyu beef (not American-raised). Reservations strongly advised. Noisy (but not painful) when full in main dining room; lower levels quiet.

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