San Diego "Crudo" seems a risky name for a restaurant, just begging for nasty puns. But in Italian, it merely means "raw" and refers specifically to the Italian version of sashimi enjoyed in Venice for snacks and antipasti. Items such as raw swordfish marinated in lemon juice and carpaccio di salmone are menu staples locally at upscale eateries like Coronado's Primavera and Del Mar's Osteria Pescatore. But this traditional genre exploded into the ultimate in Manhattan chic in 2004, when chef David Pasternack started featuring top-quality seafood in delicate raw creations at Esca, a seafood restaurant owned by famed chef/entrepreneur Mario Batali. The idea seemed to unleash the creative juices in chefs all over New York, who've been devising increasingly bold and imaginative spin-offs -- dishes like raw tuna topped with sea urchin foam, or live scallops bedded on truffled green papaya salad. By now it's become a raging fad in San Francisco, too, such that renowned Bay Area chef Joyce Goldstein is featuring it in her next cookbook.
Has crudo moved to San Diego? Well, a touch of it. I was hoping that our Crudo would be a shameless Esca copycat, which would at least be something new and different here. When Crudo opened, co-owner Joe Busalacchi (of Busalacchi's, Po Pazzo, etc.) told San Diego Magazine, "We're going to...serve Italian sushi with a Chinese flair, like P.F. Chang-type food. In Sicily, where I'm from, there's a lot of fish, even raw fish, and there's a place in Milano that serves Italian sushi, with oils and garlic. That's what I want to re-create here." But his partner in the venture is nightclub maven Mike Viscuso (founder of E Street Alley, On Broadway, Red Circle, and Deco's in the Gaslamp). When it comes to the disco crowd, Mike is all about Fats Waller's lyric: "Find out what they want, and how they want it, and give it to 'em just that way." Viscuso brought in executive chef Jon Gamora, a veteran of Japengo and Sushi on the Rock. Now three months old, Crudo is not turning out exactly as advertised.
It certainly looks slick. Outside there's a well-heated roofed dining patio flanked by a serene Buddhist-style fountain. Enter, and your eye lights on a striking kimono hung on the wall above the hostess station. The reddish wall along that side, edged with booths, sports a large hammered-copper Thai Buddha profile -- similar to the one at the downtown Lotus Thai, but facing the other way. To the left is a large, bright sushi bar, with a fluorescent "Crudo" sign behind it. The partly screened-off adjoining bar/lounge/disco has multiple TV screens -- several running videos of tropical fish -- and multicolored moving lights that shine onto the dance floor.
This is, as far as I know, the first nightclub in rapidly condo-fying Little Italy. It seems designed as a more civilized alternative to the Gaslamp's frenetic underground clubs and "meet markets." At 8:00 o'clock on a Wednesday evening, the dining room and sushi bar began to fill rapidly with couples ranging from their mid-twenties to late fifties. The hostesses greeted many of them familiarly, so evidently the disco is developing a core of regulars, with an older and more neighborly demographic than the Gaslamp's weekend bridge-and-tunnel cuties. Having a few bites before the disco opens ensures a good table in the lounge with no cover charge.
The menu turns out to be neither Italian crudo nor "Italian-Chinese." It's divided into a double page of appetizers (mainly seafood), a page of sushi and sashimi, and a final page of entrées and desserts. The fusion style of both hot and cold dishes is along the familiar, Japengo-esque line of Japanese basics with fruit and sugar added. Italian ingredients, so far, make tiny cameo appearances. The drink list includes cocktails, beers, a handful of wines from California and Italy, and a good selection of sakes sold mainly by the bottle. The shortage of sake choices by the glass and the extreme markups are surprising: For instance, Momokawa Pearl dry nigori (unfiltered fizzy sake, which the Japanese call "crazy milk") is available only as a full 725 ml bottle at $19 (versus about $8 retail if you can find it). A 325 ml half-bottle of the popular, sweeter Sho Chiku Bai nigori made in exotic Berkeley, California -- $3.69 at Jaroco Market in Golden Hill and $6 at most sushi bars -- is shockingly priced at $23 and change, though it's no Pearl at any price.
My partner and I started with a few sushi rolls -- our usual opening order of uni (sea urchin). The urchin proved a grade-A specimen -- bright orange, firm-tender, and clean flavored. Sushi is all about rice, and I quite liked this version: The rice, barely sweet, held together perfectly, leaving no grains clinging to our fingers. A week or so later, we ordered the uni again, but this time it was a day older and a trifle mushy, with a mineral edge -- still acceptable, but not glorious.
A spicy scallop handroll was less amusing. Despite having the goodies (cuke, scallops, sauce) running all the way from top to bottom, it was rolled too loosely, and we needed to grasp it firmly to keep it from falling apart at the seams. The scallops were flaccid, and the roll needed more mayo for textural contrast to the not-too-spicy hot sauce.
The Green Hornet is one of the few futo maki rolls here that's free of both cream cheese and eel sauce. It features lobster, asparagus, avocado, wasabi green peas, scallions, and wasabi cream. We enjoyed the zesty, harmonious combination. It emboldened us to try the signature Crudo Special roll, with eel sauce, spicy mayo, spicy scallops, tempura shrimp, asparagus, avocado, puffed seasoned rice, and a soy-paper coating. To our delight, it proved an exuberant admixture of textures and flavors: Even the eel sauce succeeded, because its sweetness near the top of the roll was balanced by the pool of hot sauce infusing the bottom. "This reminds me of the party rolls at Sushi on the Rock," my partner observed. (We didn't know yet that Crudo's chef is from Sushi on the Rock.)