2321 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill
After looking over the interesting, many-page menu at Azuki, and after trying the miso soup and the first “test roll” (uni, of course) to the accompaniment of lilting Brazilian pop, I made a firm decision: This place deserves to live! Yeah, right, I’m the omnipotent food god of San Diego. Blame it on the bossa nova.
Samurai Jim discovered Azuki on a Monday-night happy hour, when it was nearly empty. We went there together for a Wednesday happy-hour pig-out — near-empty again, until a bunch of customers swarmed in around 7:00 p.m., just as the official happiness expired. There was plenty of unofficial happiness available at slightly higher prices. But I still figured that more people ought to know about Azuki. The menu is too much fun to stay a secret.
In San Diego, most sushi restaurants are actually Korean-owned. (I’ve got no problem with that, although many Japanese itamae do.) Azuki is Japanese-owned: The beautiful, long-haired Shihomi Boriloo oversees the front of the house, while her partner, “Nao” Ichimura, is the executive chef presiding over both the kitchen and sushi bar. It’s his second restaurant, her first. The other chefs and staff are an ethnic mix — Japanese, Latino, who-knows-whatskis. The restaurant is small and plain-pretty, with a Japanese fabric-hanging on one wall, many bottles of sake displayed behind the bar, and a slide show (huge photos of sushi, sashimi, a famous Japanese temple, Napa Valley vineyards, etc.) projected on an empty wall. The music all that evening was Brazilian, which was absolutely fine with me. What could make a happy hour happier than a hint of carnaval?
The night was cold, the moon was yellow, and the elaborate miso soup warmed us right up for just $2 a bowl. It’s loaded with sliced shiitakes, along with the usual tofu cubes and greens, and the miso flavor is very mild. It may be a “beginner’s miso,” but damn, it’s good!
I always start with an uni roll because it’s potentially the best and worst of all sushi toppings. Bad sea-urchin roe (kept too long, or worse yet, Grade B kept too long) turns into a mush of nasty iodine. Great uni is an airy puff of undersea heaven. Plus, uni doesn’t take to soy or soy-wasabi dip, as its flavor is sufficient on its own, so it’s also a good test of the sushi rice. Here the rice was fluffy, clumpy, neutral, competent, not heavily sweetened. The uni was fresh and tasty — perhaps not the most glorious I’ve ever sampled but thoroughly sound. I could relax.
Happy hour here doesn’t offer an across-the-board discount, but discounts on selected items. Plain sushi included in the plan are just $3.50 (reduced from $5), and you can choose them as hand rolls if you prefer. That’s another of my favorite tests. An incompetent hand roll is liable to fall apart, and a cheapskate or sloppy version has all the good stuff piled on top but devolves into plain rice halfway down the cone. Here, a spicy scallop hand roll proved the chef’s skills and the management’s generosity. The nori cone was crisp and tasted freshly toasted, and it was generously loaded with good, fresh-tasting scallops well over halfway down, with a fine balance between Japanese Kewpie mayo and Japanese hot red pepper. (For reasons I can’t fathom, Kewpie mayo, like the mayo of many other countries, tastes more neutral than American mayos, free of the faint sour, greasy undertones that even our best commercial mayos exhibit.) The crunchy veggies (cukes, radish sprouts, etc.), along with the seasonings, went all the way to the bottom.
Jim and I couldn’t confine ourselves strictly to happy-hour specials in the face of the long, interesting menu. Knowing I’m an oyster freak, even though he’s not, he pointed out the raw oysters — a choice of Kumamotos, Hama Hamas, or both. Jim confessed he wasn’t sure of the difference, so that prompted an order of the combo plate. Hama Hamas are big, briny, a little coarse, in pale-gray shells; Kumamotos are tiny, sweet, velvety, in black shells, and to die for. (They’re foie gras to the Hama Hamas’ chicken liver.) Both are garnished here with tart yuzu juice, hot pepper, miniature citrus slices, and tiny diced carrots — livelier and more interesting than standard mignonette.
Our waiter, a shaven-headed gaijin (white guy) named John, clearly knew the menu well. He recommended the evening’s killer dish, Pon Hama, a sashimi of yellowtail (hamachi) in thin, succulent slices, each topped with a slim slice of jalapeño and a flower of parsley, in an exquisite wash of yuzu juice and Japanese powdered red pepper. The balance between hot, tart, and textural velvet was so perfect it gave me chills of joy. Now that Molly’s is closed and chef Tim Au’s riveting citrus and herb-cured ahi is out of reach, this will have to substitute — it has a similar thunderclap visceral impact. John also recommended (as his top favorite) Amaguru Tataki, a lightly seared tuna dish. Our chef, Jason, regretted he didn’t have the makings for it that night, but given the fabulosity of the Pon Hama, I’d bet on it to be a winner.
To make my happy hour happier, I was drinking nigori, fizzy unfiltered sake, just $5 for a “large.” But the serious, well-described wine list includes a lot of Western temptations — for instance, an affordable Santa Barbara Roussanne (available by the glass) I’d have jumped on if there were no nigori to tempt me; it’s a buxom, fruity grape that plays well with seafood, yuzu juice, and hot pepper.
Party time! Now we had to try a few fusion appetizers and “party rolls” (futomaki). Tostaditas are deep-fried wonton skins, light as air, topped with three seafood mixtures, garnished with micro-greens and similar amusing culinary frou-frou. These were on the happy-hour menu but at the same price as on the regular menu (three for $8). Albacore tuna is the most successful, resembling in taste and texture the perfect tuna salad you always wanted to make but couldn’t quite manage. Yum for that. The second topping has salmon cubes that are lightly smoked, tender, and pleasant (but instantly forgettable), with seasoned cream cheese beneath. The third topping, spicy lobster, has a serious problem: The finely chopped mince offers no lobster flavor at all, touched with masago roe but overwhelmed by hot pepper. I suspect the lobster is what the trade calls “knuckle meat,” the stuff that’s vacuumed out of the swimmerets and the tight corners of the lobster carapace, after all the good claw and tail meat has been removed for better purposes. After tasting it — which means, not tasting it — I changed my mind about ordering any other lobster-based sushi.