I found Zen purely by serendipity when I was looking for something else, which is exactly the way that followers of Zen Buddhism are supposed to find enlightenment. One evening, I ventured out to the Del Martian wilds near the fairgrounds, searching for a joint named Axis, reputedly owned by a former chef from Chive whose work I'd liked. Reaching the address, we found a mini-mall with a roofed arcade, and where Axis should have been, a near-new restaurant called Zen. A staffer trotted up the short staircase to greet us. "Axis went out of business around August," he said. "We bought them out." He handed us a menu. One glance, and we heard the sound of one hand clapping. "Count us in," we said, and headed for the dining room.
En route, we admired the attractive roofed-over patio, with its comfy leatherette booths. On the other side of the restaurant, there's another patio, unroofed, with fire pits. But it was a bone-chiller of a night (maybe not to an Alaskan, but we've gotten spoiled), so we rushed inside to cozy up to the sushi bar. It's next to a larger drinking bar. On the opposite wall are leather booths and shelves of Buddhist art and craft goods, mini-tanks of solo Siamese fighting fish, and pagoda lamps overhead. Behind the bar is a rainbow wall of bubbles half concealing a peek-a-boo kitchen that you can see into from certain angles. Zen aims to be a little piece of Los Angeles in Del Mar, offering a scene as well as food. The noise level early on a weeknight was just right -- lively, not loud. Later in the evening, the volume often amps up with DJs or a live band. And on Thursdays, "industry night," the kitchen keeps working until the wee hours, mainly serving the happy-hour menu, so that local restaurant crews can drop in for post-shift noshing.
There are two menus in one folder -- a long one for the sushi bar, a shorter one for the fusion dishes. The latter changes frequently and includes several house-made desserts. Wherever you sit, you can get anything on the menu. It's worth arriving early for the weeknight special happy-hour menu, which offers tasty grazing at half price, as well as half price off on certain drinks. Although some of the regular entrées can run a bit steep, the happy-hour option makes Zen a great value if you're struggling with post-holiday credit card bills.
Fresh, hot edamame lightly sprinkled with kosher salt arrived gratis, while bowls of miso soup warmed us up. Soothing and mild, the soup was decorated with nori strips and silken diced tofu (no scallions) -- a middle-of-the-road miso adapted for Americans, not challenging but satisfying.
We started our sushi splurge with uni (sea urchin) and at first bite found ourselves blissfully grinning -- we'd happened into a good place. The generous portion was fresh, with no hint of iodine, and the rice was just-right sweet, with perfect texture, stuck-together but not clumpy. A spicy scallop hand roll confirmed our delight. Large sea scallops and crunchy veggies ran all the way through the tight wrap of freshly toasted nori seaweed. While not the absolute best we've ever had, it was oh, so close.
Looking over the list of specialty rolls (a.k.a. futo maki or "party rolls"), we were pleased to see fewer than usual made with cream cheese (which I love on a bagel but consider an abomination in sushi). We chose a bushido roll because it's a local rarity, a riceless roll combining spicy tuna, crab, albacore, yama gobo (burdock root, which resembles daikon radish), avocado, regular Japanese mayo, and spicy mayo, all inside a panko-tempura finish. We found it harmonious, leaving a happy aftertaste of real crab, rather than the crab-flavored extruded pollack (tsurimi, a.k.a. Krab) that so many neighborhood sushi joints substitute. (Of course, Del Mar is not just any old neighborhood.) Some Japanese sushi chefs will tell you that only Japanese can make proper sushi. Don't believe them: At Zen, we were served by chef de cuisine Arturo Ramirez, a longtime veteran of Japengo. ("He knows more about Japanese food than the young Japanese guys I have working here," says executive chef Jim Holder.) His work puts the myth to rest. This was fine sushi, with beautiful craftsmanship highlighting sublime seafood.
It was still happy hour, so we took advantage of some of the half-price appetizers. A refreshing "Asian stacker" had a deep-fried wonton cracker as a base, topped with avocado, chukka salad (seaweed and jellyfish), and a slice of delicious edge-seared red tuna of well-above-average quality. Then we tried the creamy tempura shrimp and lobster. Whoa, Nelly! This was a livelier version of the standard "dynamite" gratin, with crackling-crisp surfaces on nuggets of tender seafood, lightly glazed with a chile-spiked cream sauce that made judicious use of fiery, flavorful habanero chilies. This was way better than standard-issue sushi house dynamite -- more interesting, with less sauce, brighter flavors, and great textures. It's already a candidate for "best tastes of 2007."
That evening the service was superb, with staffers on top of our every need, without being intrusive. When we returned a couple of nights later, service was still okay but closer to the standard San Diego "We'd rather be surfing" norm -- the pretty young things couldn't answer any of our questions without checking with the kitchen or the manager.
That time, we really meant to concentrate on the regular menu but couldn't resist more sushi bites. The uni was even better on a Friday than on a Wednesday, almost shockingly fresh and pillowy. The ama ebi, "sweet shrimp," were literally sweet, too, as they so seldom are. Chef James Holder (another Japengo veteran) knows his fishmongers and has obviously trained them to jump through hoops.
We began exploring the fusion menu with seafood spring rolls and ponzu. They were a little disappointing in contrast to the pristine raw fish, although good enough for us to clear the plate. The wrappers were delicately crisp and flaky, but the salty cabbage outweighed the seafood. The ponzu was even saltier, with its heavy dark-soy base. We also tried a starter of grilled diver scallops, featuring two large bivalves, grilled medium-rare and plated atop a sautéed mix of mangos and grilled bell peppers topped with "grilled lemon foam." How they make a grilled lemon into a foam is a mystery to me, but we found it delicious.