The baked black mussels in "special sauce" are actually that sushi-bar cliché, "dynamite" (swathed in a sauce of Japanese Kewpie mayo, citrus juice, and Asian hot sauce). Here, imitation "krab" enters the mixture, and I wish it didn't, since the shreds harden into tough strings that fight the creamy mussels. Broiled salmon misoyaki brings a modest piece of a small Norwegian salmon, marinated in miso and sake and seared on the grill. Our piece tapered sharply, with a tender center and a slim tail end that, for better or worse, was charred through.
The entrée choices are, alas, of the "cookie cutter" style that afflicts so many local Japanese (and other ethnic) restaurants in Southern California -- you see the same dishes on nearly every menu. Here, the selection consists of the usual tempura, katsu, teriyaki, sukiyaki, etc. Entrées come with miso soup and/or salad. The house salad offers spring greens and red cabbage in a tangy ginger dressing on the pleasing side of sweet.
We found the shrimp and veggie tempura bland and a little greasy. On the katsu (cutlet), where you have your choice of pork (our selection), chicken, squid, or beef, the panko-and-egg coating was heavy, as though the normally fluffy Japanese-style crumbs had been crushed to concentrate them into supermarket bread crumbs. The dipping sauce was a glutinous soy-and-plum mixture touched with citrus. Next night, as we were snacking at the sushi bar before meeting friends elsewhere, a neighbor ordered yosenabe. It was a huge bowl of assorted-seafood soup, and when its aroma wafted over, we realized that was the dish we should have ordered for our dinner.
Desserts are an assortment of exotic-flavored ice creams (green tea, ginger, plum wine), served naked, tempura-battered, or drizzled with fruit liqueur. We tried the interesting plum wine ice cream, which included chunks of candied plum. Its texture was icy and even thicker than gelato.
Sushi bars are coming to rival whiskey bars as neighborhood gathering places. Solana Beach must be the county's secret Sushi Central, offering more relaxing first-class alternatives to the long, crowded waits and high prices at the exalted Ota in Pacific Beach. Nobu's sushi was fabulous, but a mile or so east, Nobu's alma mater proved equally thrilling. Tune in next week for details.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Nobu looks years younger than his age of 71, despite cooking professionally for 55 years. "My family moved from Hokkaido, across from Russia, in the far north of Japan, to Tokyo. I finished high school then and had to find something to do next. I decided to become a chef, because that was the work that attracted me." I asked him if there was any pressure from his parents to enter that apprenticeship, as is often the case. "No, it was what I wanted to do in life," he answered.
"I went to work in restaurants and learned both in the kitchen and as a sushi chef. I loved Japanese traditional food. I came to the United States because a customer invited me to move to Los Angeles. I stayed there for 6 years. The owner of Samurai Restaurant tasted my food in Los Angeles many times and told me over and over, 'Come here and work for me.' So I moved to San Diego 28 years ago." After a dozen years at Samurai, he saved up the money to open his own restaurant about 16 years ago.
His chefs alternate between the kitchen and the sushi bar, so they all have the chance to experience both areas. The fish Nobu uses comes from the East Coast, Northern Europe, and Japan. Japanese-owned sushi bars are rarely "equal opportunity employers," given the extensive training required of aspiring chefs born this side of the pond. "All the chefs here are very experienced, trained in Japan," says Nobu. He's horrified whenever he sees chefs at newer sushi bars violating the stringent disciplines of the profession, which include cutting hair and fingernails rigorously short, in keeping with traditional rules of hygiene. "We are working with raw fish," he says. "If you are not perfectly clean, you can make people sick!"
At this stage in his career, Nobu can afford to take some time off. His passion? Golf. He recently abandoned the restaurant for a week to attend the Augusta National. "I'm just crazy about golf," he says.