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.
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."