3050 Pio Pico Drive, Carlsbad
It’s like that Bible story of Ruth and Naomi: “Whither thou goest, I will go.” Or that girl-group song of the ’60s: “I will follow him wherever he goes.” Change the last word of the first quote to “eat” and the last word of the second quote to “cooks,” and you’ve got me and sushi chef James Holder, a handsome, long-haired hapi-hapi (half Japanese, half American). The former Japengo top toque is one of the two executive chefs at Nozomi, a new restaurant in Carlsbad.
Yes, Holder’s personable, but that alone wouldn’t be nearly enough to make me trek all the way to Carlsbad. (Cats are pretty too, but I wouldn’t travel an hour just to look at one — unless it could cook.) I’ve been trying to catch up with Holder ever since he was chef at a little joint called Zen, hidden behind the Del Mar racetrack. Even though he had the night off when I ate there, I loved the food and raved about it in print. Holder soon quit and Zen promptly dropped dead, doomed by amateur owners.
Next I knew, he was at Ajiya in Flower Hill Mall. But it was winter and raining and I didn’t get there, and then he was gone again. Now he’s working at Nozomi in Carlsbad, a new sushi bar/fusion restaurant at the former site of Cafe Sevilla. He’s co-executive chef, along with Ken Lee, a veteran lured away from mighty Sushi Ota.
“Nozomi” means “hope,” and hope is universal: Nozomi Carlsbad is no relation to the Nozomis on Convoy Street and in La Jolla — which are also separate from each other, although both serve mainly Korean menus augmented by sushi. But there is a connection: The owners of the Convoy Nozomi gave the owner of Nozomi Carlsbad advice about opening a restaurant and also introduced co-executive chef Ken Lee. Nozomi Carlsbad is the brainchild of Derek Choi, a 28-year-old Korean-American from a prosperous La Jolla family. He’s obviously got a talent for the business. The physical renovations he’s made to the property are splendid, and both his chefs, when I spoke with them, sounded enthusiastic about working for him.
Sam and I, and his workmates Angela and Ryan, hopped on our camels and caravanned northward through the damned county-fair traffic in search of my elusive stray cat, chef Holder. Taking a break from the slow-oozing jam, we stopped to gather our scattered camels and meet up to enjoy drinks in Flower Hill Mall (about 20 minutes south of Nozomi), where we discussed the pressing question of man-made mammaries. That’s what you do in a Del Mar bar: you glance around and try to guess, “Does she or doesn’t she…only her surgeon knows for sure.” You also speculate about how much that shoulder-bag might have cost. You’re practically not allowed to do anything else, as they have city rules against nearly everything, except drinking pricey cocktails, shopping at boutiques, and enhancing your physical attributes by any means possible. You might as well buy a condo ruled by an uptight HOA. I’m only writing these gratuitous insults to Del Mar to set the stage for a later paragraph about Carlsbad — or maybe to get revenge for feeling vaguely dissed by the servers for being not the right “type” for that town, with my non-designer clothing and unperfected flesh.
Arriving at Nozomi, we’d never have guessed that the premises were previously a Spanish restaurant. They have been thoroughly transformed into a Japanese-aesthetic environment. Running along the base of the building is a narrow waterway with golden koi swimming; across the parking-lot driveway, the theme continues with a wooden Japanese bridge over the stream, a wooden gate, and a small waterfall. You reach the front entry by a short wooden stairway. Inside, another stairway leads down to a bar-lounge and restrooms and a serene indoor pool-garden populated by live turtles. (The parking lot offers direct entry into this room, making the premises wheelchair accessible. You can get the same food as upstairs, minus only the view of the chefs.) The main dining room and sushi bar, decorated to resemble a Japanese country inn, are up another set of stairs, with an open kitchen behind the sushi bar. The first floor, between the turtle pond and the country inn, has a full kitchen for the cooked dishes.
It’s amazing how much North County changes every few miles. Carlsbad is a wholly different story from the farther-south towns on the Gold Coast. I’ve never explored it much, but the town seems likable and down-home. It does not abound in exciting eateries, and the locals have clearly taken Nozomi to their hearts. On an ordinary Thursday, the dining room was SRO, with a diverse crowd encompassing at least four races, all adult ages (didn’t see any kids that night), and all styles, except glitzy. Not Del Martian: no obviously fake boobs, nor screamingly obvious designer duds. Just folks.
The menu is vast — four pages — but it’s printed in a legible typeface, and there was enough light to read it (even for a presbyopic Baby Boomer). There are soups and salads, tapas from land and sea, house-specialty tapas, entrées, and house-specialty party rolls. Plus, of course, regular nigiri sushi, hand rolls, and sashimi from all the usual maritime species, purchased from the same fish companies that supply Sushi Ota. The menu lists only krab (extruded crab-flavored pollock — yuck!) in the party rolls. But it turns out, if you ask for real crab-with-a-c instead, they’ll be more than happy to serve it. The fake-crab default, Ken Lee told me, is for diners with shellfish allergies and those who follow the kosher prohibition against shellfish.
We wanted to begin with sea urchin nigiri, which I always order first as a test, since it’s sublime when fresh and disgusting when old. Chef Ken Lee came out to our table to apologize: “We were not able to get good enough uni today,” he said, eyes downcast. (It was fresh but, as sometimes happens, had a bitter undertone and a few bits of grit from the shell.) With that burst of honesty and conscientiousness, I realized I didn’t have to worry about a thing. He suggested ama ebi (freshwater “sweet shrimp”), another of my favorite tests of a sushi bar. “Wow, these shrimp are ultra-fresh,” said Sam, when they arrived. The rice was in the style of Ota, small short-grains, neutral in flavor. Lee also had given us a choice about the treatment of the heads — fried, baked, or soup. We chose soup, a simple, warming miso broth with the heads cooked in. (The last time I had this version of ama ebi miso, at Samurai Sushi in Solana Beach, they obviously had extra heads to lavish on our soup, and they threw in clams, too. Have to say, Samurai’s was better.)