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).