For months before it opened, Mukashi seemed like a presold hit: Everyone who ate at Avenue 5, just across Nutmeg Street, could see the sign in the window, announcing a new sushi bar with a fish shop attached. Sushi, sure, but sushi-grade raw fish at retail — whoa, Nelly! The ads and coupons went out in early May. I’d already made a date to eat there the first week of June but luckily checked the website the night before. The restaurant wouldn’t open until June 12. And even now, the fish store is still a dream, with no sign of arrival.
Mukashi’s name means “One day, long ago” — possibly inspired by a classic anime, Nihon Mukashi (One Day Long Ago in Ghostly Japan). Now that it’s open, it’s an attractive restaurant with shiny-enameled wooden rectangular tables, soft brown cloth napkins, and one wall occupied by a sushi bar, staffed the night we were there by multi-ethnic chefs (one young Asian-American, one long-haired American, and one midlife Hispanic-American — probably the head chef, John Paul Zamora). There are huge TVs behind the sushi bar, but happily, with the Olympics over, they were all turned off that night; instead, ’80s soft rock played on the sound system.
It was a Thursday, and only one other table was occupied, along with one spot at the sushi bar — an East Coast guy (by his accent) who seemed to be in the restaurant biz and was gossiping about other sushi chefs. (You heard it here first: Taka-san, the sweetie who founded Taka in the Gaslamp and the later eponymous restaurant in La Mesa, has gone back to Japan for his retirement. Sayonara, Taka-honey.) But when I called to fact-check the next night, on the Friday kickoff of the Labor Day weekend, the joint was jumping, voices roaringly audible even though the call was taken at the hostess stand on the street, just outside the open front door.
Our waiter was sweet, and we got there just in time to snag a few happy-hour specials before the witching hour. A tempura eel roll had light, greaseless batter around thin, wide rounds of sticky rice, featuring centers with minced eel and only a tiny waft of cream cheese. Very pleasant. But our other happy-hour choice was less rewarding. In the salmon skin roll, the rice was clumpy, sticking to the fingers, as though it had sat a bit too long after cooking. (All the rice here is neutral in flavor — no problem, that’s Ota-style.) In the center were chopped carrots, celery (or was that cuke?), and the salmon skin, more veggie than fish. After the first cautious bite, I made up a soy-wasabi dipping sauce. I don’t always. With great chefs, sushi is often perfect “as is.” I’d be needing the dip here.
The proof of that came in the ama ebi, “sweet” shrimp (raw freshwater shrimp). The meats were good, satiny, fresh (and would be even better on the weekend, when the restaurant gets in live shrimp). But there were no seasonings on the rice. This is one of the factors that differentiate great sushi (e.g., Ota, Samurai, Kabuto, Taka, Nobu) from the corner sushi bar — the subtle, distinctive seasonings that serious ita-mae (sushi masters) apply to their creations. Those aren’t just wasabi and soy (and the sweetened sushi vinegar gently flavoring the rice) but also various citrus juices or rinds, herbs, Japanese spice blends, etc. (Order ama ebi sometime at Samurai Sushi in Solana Beach. Feel the shivers up your back.) Given the lack of any chef-devised seasoning, I dotted the rice under my shrimp with wasabi and it was better for it. The flash-baked heads were fine. Not sure, but there might’ve been a touch of hot pepper on ’em.
Had to try a hand roll, too — spicy scallops, in honor of my late boyfriend (and sushi sensei) who, when they were good, was crazy about them. These were decent, with fresh, chopped scallops swathed in hot sauce and Japanese mayo running all the way through to the tail and overflowing the top — but there seemed to be nothing more than scallops (no cuke or scallions or shiso or whatever) to lend interest with contrasting, cooler flavors and crisper textures.
I looked over the long list of futo maki (“party rolls”) and spotted the usual suspects — California, rainbow, caterpillar, Philadelphia, et al., not seeing anything very original. I should have focused in on the “Banker’s Hill Roll,” the most popular roll here, and possibly an original (shrimp, crab, avocado, eel sauce, tempura crumbs, etc.) but, oops, I didn’t. We went with Cheryl’s choice of a soft-shell roll. It wasn’t the fat, exuberant extravaganza that I expected but was nearly as slim and tight as the nigiri — basically just a regular sushi roll run longer. I wouldn’t have been able to guess what species was in there if I didn’t already know. That is, there were carrots and other veggies and a modicum of soft-shell meat. It could have been any crab. Even Krab. If I had to do it over again, I’d order the Banker’s Hill and either a rainbow or a caterpillar. Sometimes convention is on your side.
Moving into sashimi, Cheryl and I liked the “rainbow tartare” plate, a trio of mounds of chopped salmon, yellowtail, and maguro tuna, each subtly dressed in a different sauce (lemon juice, balsamic, soy) and a different garnish (kaiware microgreens, fried leek shreds, chives). Sam found the sauces too subtle — nearly imperceptible. He had a point. None of us could tell what they were until Cheryl asked the sushi chef. Once we knew, we could taste them.
It’s so rare to find uni (sea urchin) as a sashimi that we had to try it. Sam challenged me before the first bite: Would I be able to tell what grade the uni was? (The grade is determined when the soft meats come out of the shell, before anything else happens to it — it’s a natural-born thing.) I said that, without being an expert, as far as I understood it had to do with both firmness and flavor: firm but melting like a marshmallow on the fire is top class, while mushier is lower. Briny-sweet and vibrant is tops, over more neutral flavor. (Mushy, neutral uni is fine for making sauces and some soups. Uni that tastes distinctly of iodine — either naturally or, most often, because it’s been held in the refrigerator until it’s too old to eat — is bottom class, really no use for anything.) When restaurants order uni (most here buy it from Catalina Seafood in the Morena district, which also sells retail at certain hours), they can specify grade according to the price they want to pay. Then we tasted the uni sashimi: it was fresh (no off-tastes, no iodine) but quite mushy, starting to fall apart when lifted by chopsticks. The flavor was pleasant, not blow-your-head-off. Hence, maybe B-plus grade. At $16, it seemed overpriced, as there was not very much of it.
[June 2009 Editor's Note: Mukashi has since closed.]