For our first inside-out "party roll," we chose one of the imaginative house specialties, "stuffed tomato," which features spicy scallops and rice wrapped in ruby-red tuna. The flattened globe (cut into handy quarters) looked like a stuffed beefsteak tomato. The ahi was silky, the rice at the center topped with black masago (smelt roe) for crunch and good looks. Next up, we ordered a "rainbow roll" -- a California roll (with sweet crab and avocado at the center) wrapped in slices of ahi, salmon, yellowtail, and avocado. Zensei's version is gigantic and delicious, though standard.
"Isn't it odd that so many sushi chefs in San Diego are Mexican?" Ms. Ponytail asked Hugo. "There's a lot of communities here with a mix of Japanese and Mexicans, like Chula Vista," he answered. "So every day, more and more Mexicans are learning to make sushi."
When I posed the same question to Jo-Jo, he said, "The majority of sushi chefs have to pay their dues. They start off as dishwashers, and if they show that they're interested, then they have to prove themselves and work their way up. That's how a lot of Mexicans get into making sushi...But it doesn't matter to me what race the chef is, because at Zensei, we're not trying to be traditional. Our chefs are really personable and make it a nice atmosphere. You should come in on a Friday -- it's a party! We just want to give people good food and a good feeling."
Our final bites were actually two gulps -- one for each of us -- of a dish called "honeymooners." This combination of reputed aphrodisiacs includes some of my favorite flavors: a raw oyster, a quail egg, a lobe of uni, and a scattering of wasabi-tobiko (flying-fish roe, stained green and flavored with Japanese horseradish). The method for assembling these ingredients differs from chef to chef, but in all versions, the diner is supposed to make a single huge, melty-crunchy mouthful of it. Hugo mixed the ingredients like a cocktail in a wine glass, then drenched them in spicy ponzu sauce. Using chopsticks to get the mixture moving up the glass, we poured the potion into our mouths. The liquid tasted like spiced champagne -- a glorious after-dinner drink that warmed us all the way home.
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Coronado has no shortage of restaurants, but when an "institution" becomes a sushi bar, it's news. The Lizard Lounge is an age-old saloon, dating from the days when lounge lizards in leisure suits roamed the earth. Over the years, the pleasant restaurant attached to it (currently Bistro d'Asia) has undergone numerous changes of ownership, name, and format, but the Lounge has endured as a quintessential Coronado watering hole, drawing a convivial Navy-heavy crowd of regulars. But this lizard can change its color, and a reader named Jade recently e-mailed me to say that the Lounge now includes a good sushi bar. She sounded as if she knew her sushi, and as it turned out, she did.
Friends and I arrived early one weeknight and discovered that the streetside end of the traditional wooden bar had been converted to a short fish counter, where Tim Manley heads the operation. Most of the barstools were already occupied, with something of a blue/red division: Younger folks (under 65) ate nigiri or futo maki at the left (sushi) end, while retirees slurped noodles and Scotch on the right. But the atmosphere is friendly wherever you sit. A lanky blue-eyed lady wearing a watch cap volunteered to move over one stool to give our trio room to sit together. "I've been to almost every sushi bar in the city," she told us, "and I like this one the best. I come here several times a week." I asked what roll she favored. "I always get the hamachi," she said. She was working on her dinner's grand finale, a California-roll variation topped with albacore and lemon slices. "I just wanted one piece of this," she said. "Help me out. Take the rest of it." How could we refuse? Lean white albacore is far from my favorite fish, but this combination was refreshing.
Eighteen or so rolls are listed on the menu, but additional choices are available for the asking -- just tell Tim your desires. You can also order dishes from the restaurant kitchen, the source of both the other-end-of-the-bar's noodles and our own golden, cloudy (and satisfying) miso soup.
Tim grew up in San Diego. "I started out bussing and then waiting tables at a sushi bar and became interested in getting behind the counter," he says. "I've always been sort of artistic -- I love to draw and paint -- and I just loved that creative part of sushi. So I started asking the chefs a lot of questions. Then I apprenticed at Hayama in Mission Valley for a number of years. I worked for a few years at Zao in La Jolla. I've been at Lizard Lounge since the owners added sushi over two years ago. A friend of mine was a waitress here and told me they were looking for somebody."
We began again with uni. The urchin was Grade A -- fresh, sweet, with a pillowy texture -- and this chef, too, was generous. Although the rice was slightly loose (in all the rolls we tried), it was freshly cooked and flavored with a just-right amount of sushi vinegar. Next, we tried nigiri, a warm and savory eel. The sweet brown "eel sauce" was less cloying than the average version.
The Lizard's spicy scallop hand roll was a near-paragon of the form, its spiciness zingy but not painful, balanced by cucumber, avocado, and Japanese mayo (a little bland, once again). These ingredients, along with fresh-tasting scallop pieces, ran all the way through the roll. The mixture seemed almost sweet, like a spicy fish-flavored ice cream cone -- and I mean that in a good way.
Ama ebi were set atop rice dressed with wasabi, their heads stuck into a sweetened wasabi dressing. The heads were too heavily floured for my taste, but the shrimp themselves were distinctly sweet.