An entrée of sugar-soy--coated salmon was tender and flavorful, cooked medium-rare. The thin steak was moist with a sweet glaze and came atop a chopped, stir-fried mix of Asian vegetables, which we liked a lot. Our Kobe beef and blue cheese roulades were less successful, but in any case, they're off the menu now.
The printed menu promised duchess potatoes with the salmon, and gratinéed potatoes with the beef, but both entrées came with plain, lean mashed potatoes. The previous dinner chef had departed less than a month earlier, and chef Holder has been changing the menu, with fewer luxury dishes and a stronger Asian emphasis. By now, they may have a new menu printed up, but if not, don't believe everything you read -- what you see on the old menu perhaps no longer matches what the kitchen turns out. Most nights there are specials representing the best seafood the chef got in that day. (That evening, alas, the special was halibut, far from my favorite fish.)
There's an enticing choice of desserts (including a sampler plate), but the temptation to enjoy one more sushi roll was greater. Our grand finale, a rainbow roll, did in our appetites beyond repair. But then, who'd want another lava cake or crème brulée when there's great raw fish to be had?
ABOUT THE CHEF
Last summer, an entrepreneur named Joe Conlin bought the space that became Zen after its previous owners purchased Delicias. Conlin decided that what Del Mar needed was, he says, "a combination of super-good high-end sushi, and also a non-Japanese chef for a kind of super-fusion mixture of food. When we first opened we had foie gras and a lot of eccentric stuff, but what we found was that everybody's walking through the door and sitting down and wanting sushi. When you have really good sushi, it's a problem selling anything else. So what we've done is we've shifted the menu a bunch -- it's actually changing and evolving on a weekly basis. It's still super-fusion, but it's more Japanese than it was when we opened last summer. We had an amicable parting with our opening chef, because he was more into French and Italian food, so it was just not working out for the eventual goal of what this place needs to be. Our sushi chef, James Holder, is the executive chef now.
"We have a lot of other things going on. We have a DJ and live music, and we do a lot of events -- a lot of birthday parties, huge Christmas parties buying out the whole restaurant -- 200, 250 people. Japengo had their staff Christmas party here. There are a lot of restaurants in Del Mar, but there isn't a lot of entertainment, so we want to do both."
Executive chef James Holder spent his first 21 years in Japan. "I'm half Japanese. My mom's Japanese, and my dad is Italian and German. He grew up in Florida. He joined the Navy and came over to Japan when he was in the service and met my mom. Her parents wouldn't accept him, because her father fought against the Americans in the war [World War II]. I didn't meet my grandparents on my mother's side until I was about 11 years old. Both my parents still live over there -- 60 years now.
"I was raised in a fishermen's village, and every day we would have fresh fish that the fishermen caught. Their wives would come by our house with the fish on ice in a wagon -- real old-school. Simple things like tofu, a guy would come around on his bike to the homes and deliver it fresh -- they'd make it every morning. I was in military school, and I would go after school to the beach and help the fishermen cut the fish, and they would pay me in fish. I'd take it home in my red Radio Flyer wagon, and we'd cut it and cook it or freeze it or dry it. Then I started to help my uncle, who ran a restaurant. I apprenticed with him. They would never put me in the front of the restaurant or sushi bar -- I looked too American.
"When I turned 21 I had to leave the country, and I came over here. I couldn't get a job anywhere, and I went to a Japanese restaurant, Katsu, which was in Escondido at the time. (Now it's in San Marcos.) They asked me if I could make sushi. I said, 'Oh, cut fish? I've been doing it since I was ten years old.' I got a job right away. I was opening chef there and stayed quite a few years. Then I went to Japengo as opening chef and stayed about 16 years. Arturo [Ramirez] was there a long time, too, maybe ten years. We created a lot of rolls together -- like the Tootsie Roll. I went from Japengo to Zen, because Japengo was becoming too corporate for me. It needed to change, keep up with the competition. I wanted to have entertainment -- I go out to Vegas and up to L.A. and see what's bringing in the crowds. I like to do my homework. I like chefs who study and learn new things and try to apply them to their work. That's what I try to encourage with my guys here.
"We're going to be doing a much more Asian menu starting the first of the year. We'll be changing a lot of the hot menu. I just got a wok. I feel we've been lacking in vegetables -- I like fresh vegetables, and in a wok, you cook so fast that the vegetables stay nice and crisp. And we're getting in some very good toro now, too -- it's best in winter, when the water is colder and the fish are really fat."
Errata: In the review of Addison Restaurant (12/28/06), the vintage year of a half-bottle of Mouton Rothschild was misidentified. It was not 2003 but 1961, one of the greatest postwar vintages of Bordeaux. In addition, a copy-editing error produced an incorrect depiction of the lamb entrée. It did not include a separate lamb shank, but rather, a crepinette made from shank meat.