Next up: ankimo, monkfish liver pâté — a fabulous version, so richly smooth it was truly a maritime foie gras torchon. Thereafter, our meal mingled the raw and the cooked, the warm and the cold, all brought out in small groups — I can’t remember exactly the order of arrival, but the service was fine, only occasionally overwhelming us with more food than fit easily on the table.
Toro tartare on tofu has exquisite raw fatty tuna belly treated like the old-time raw-steak classic — minced, seasoned, and heaped up and topped with quail egg. It’s served over bean curd (substituting for blini). If you are sharing dinner with other foodies, you may want to order an extra portion, as it can arouse culinary greed. Mushroom-and-leek dumplings are steamed gyoza (Japan’s version of pot stickers, with the thicker, chewier dough-casings typical of that country’s rendition), filled with several wild-tasting types of fungi (shiitake, enoki, etc.) in a savory truffled miso broth. I didn’t actually taste truffles — canned black truffles from Italy — but it had good depth.
Misoyaki butterfish offered a small fillet of very rich fish (with a fat content similar to black cod) in a sweet miso broth, delicate and refined. A tapa called “Drunken King” offered another fine broth, a blend of sake and yuzu juice (a sour Japanese citrus) surrounding two pieces of king crab, one shrimp, one scallop, one tiny Carlsbad clam, and one petite black Carlsbad mussel. This is a difficult dish to share because of all the singletons in it. (We were all terribly polite to each other — “You first.” “Oh no, please take something.”) But the main thing is the broth, and any piece of seafood will do. I got the Carlsbad mussel, and I think they should serve a whole dish of those local mussels in this broth.
Hokkaido scallops with ceviche has thin slices of delicate, delicious raw scallop topped with a spicy mince of raw seafood imbued with a red sauce made from scratch with tomatoes, lemon and orange juice, lemon rind, jalapeño, and cilantro — that nonetheless tastes like cocktail sauce. Baby yellowtail tiradito offers thinly sliced hamachi “drizzled with a citrus-soy olive oil topped with truffles,” according to the menu. Once again, the truffles were bashful (I think in this dish it was white truffle oil), but the flavor was rewarding.
Most of the entrées are combination party sushi-sashimi-fusion platters. We chose the introductory course, called “Taste of Nozomi.” It included pristine salmon, tuna and yellowtail sashimi, and small tempura shrimp atop an organic garden salad dominated by radicchio. Miso-marinated sea bass was tender and fine. And there was a sample of the restaurant’s nuevo-wavo party sushi, a hula roll — a wild mixture of shrimp tempura, krab (boo!), avocado, and cucumber, topped with spicy tuna, then drizzled with spicy-sweet sauce and sprinkled with crushed macadamia nuts and “green tea crunchies.” It was hot and sweet, cool and baroque as chef-made sin. Heavy, too, but tasty. The chefs did something nice for us: Normally, this platter comes with three pieces of hula, but since we were four, they gave us four pieces. I think, by then, they might have noticed we were eating them out of house and home. After our long commute, we were making the most of our caravansary.
Finally — almost finally — the “Caviar Sizzler”: sushi rice cooked and served in a hot pot over charcoal, topped with tobiko (flying-fish roe), ikura (salmon roe), and (substituting for the unavailable uni) tiny, crackly black masago (smelt roe). The waitress tossed it all at the table with a slightly spicy butter sauce. After a few bites I looked at Sam (who’s Korean). “It’s a Japanese version of bi-bim-bap, isn’t it?” I asked, referring to the great Korean hot pot of sticky rice tossed with anything, everything, and hot pepper sauce, with chicken eggs mixed in. Here, it was fish eggs. “Yes, I can see the similarity,” Sam said.
Ryan had been longing for the hamachi kama, baked yellowtail collar (the base around the head, prized for its tenderness). They gave us the most gigantic collar I’ve ever seen — fit for the cartoon dog Marmaduke — and added a huge separate hunk of cooked yellowtail steak. By now, my own palate was plumb worn-out from all the flavors of the night. The fish tasted good, but I wasn’t tasting well. Ryan loved it, and by then he’d proven himself a hard-core foodie with taste buds and stamina.
The beverages are interesting. Nozomi has a good wine list, put together by restaurant manager Amy Kim, and a great sake list, cobbled up by Ken Lee. Although no sake expert, what captured my eye was the choice of three previously untasted brands of nigori (unfiltered sake, aka “Japanese fizzy water,” or, in Japanese, “crazy milk”). I’m very much a fan of this stuff; it’s like a low-carb boozy slushy. The cheapest brand ($11 for 500 ml) was almost neutral in flavor. The $13, slightly pink-colored brand had more character — if I could get it in my neighborhood, I would buy it eagerly as a treat, in place of my steady diet of the standard sushi-bar Takara from Berkeley. (To save you the trouble of asking: The Golden Hill boozeria that stocks Takara is Jaroco, right across the street from Luigi’s Pizza and just north of the Turf Club. Lots of Luigi-eaters have discovered that fizzy-water goes great with New York–style pizza.)
Then Ryan offered to treat us to the pinnacle, “the Nigori-lover’s Nigori.” That’s what the wine list says — it’s the $45 “Summer Snowfall” brand (a slightly larger bottle). Now, that bottling has character and depth galore — not just fizz but rich flavor. It’s even better than Momokawa Pearl, my previous top nigori pick.
Our huge meal didn’t even make a dimple in Nozomi’s menu. I didn’t love every dish, but I liked everything a lot and enjoyed the craftsmanship and fun in the food and the delightful atmosphere. If I lived nearby, I’d spend one whole evening at the sushi bar tasting Ken Lee’s classic, Ota-style nigiri and hand rolls; comparing the “fatty tuna belly” with the “super-fatty tuna belly”; and contemplating the sultry, dark-eyed beauty of Jim Holder-san. Then I’d spend another mealtime with a posse, working my way through the futo-maki (party rolls) and more tapas. And once the chefs recognized me as a regular, I’d do an omakase dinner (on a night when they have good uni). Aagh, Carlsbad — so far away! But if you’re heading to Del Mar, for the horse races, say, this would be a fine place to eat afterward, with barely any time on the freeway since all the congestion is farther south. Even if your pet nag went lame, at least you’d have a terrific dinner to console you — and if you’re really down in the dumps, the chance to eat next to a serene subterranean turtle pond.