Now we were ready to transit into a few fusion dishes. Our favorite was a special that evening of “ahi Napoleon” — a quartet of fried wonton skins topped with marinated ahi, avocado, onion, and a little Kewpie Japanese mayo. These were fine, reminiscent of the fusion flashes that chef James Holder (now at Nozomi in Carlsbad) used to do for happy-hour noshes at Del Mar’s Zen. And black cod bypassed the now-standard Nobu miso formula: instead, it came with teriyaki sauce and chive oil. The teri, we all agreed, was way too salty.
Kobe beef roulades were roll-ups of rare steak wrapped around mashed potatoes and Gorgonzola cheese. The cheese came in tiny cold chunks, unmelted, falling out of the wrap-ups. The beef was shockingly tough. “Well, the menu says Kobe,” Angela noted, “but it doesn’t say what cut. Could be chuck steak.” We chawed and we chawed. This is not the same Kobe you get at Quarter Kitchen, translucent with fat-marbling, falling apart on the tongue. This is just beef. Of course, it doesn’t cost nearly as much, but still, it’s pointless.
The menu goes on to fusiony entrées, but we didn’t. There’s a section of affordable Japanese noodle dishes, then a sharp escalation (into the $30s) for steaks and fish. Not only were we already full, but nothing we’d tried led us to believe that the kitchen was sufficiently inspired to justify those prices. What we’d eaten so far was more expensive and less exciting than the fare at the average neighborhood sushi bar.
Great sushi leaves an afterglow, a persistent craving for more. It’s not just raw fish that makes sushi (in fact, sushi isn’t the fish, it’s the rice — sashimi is the fish). But with great sushi it’s the other subtle flavors, the inspired artistry that makes it memorable and haunting. Great sushi reminds me of snorkeling — fully sharing the life of the sea, but through the palate rather than the eyes and skin. At best, it resembles the moment when the improbable (but real) banana fish brushes your leg as you hover over the reef — as the I Ching says, “shock, then laughter.” That’s why I never buy packaged sushi in delis or supermarkets or even Trader Joe’s. (If I want a fast fishy fill-up, I open a can of sardines or tuna, or a bottle of gefilte fish, with plebeian expectations.) I don’t insist on Ota/Samurai/Taka/Kabuto/Nobu quality and purity every time and everywhere — I can still enjoy the zesty creations at Lizard Lounge in Coronado, Surfside in PB, Zensei in North Park, the great uni sashimi at Zenbu in La Jolla, and the brilliant party rolls at Sushi on the Rock. San Diego is probably the best sushi destination in America, so there’s no reason but a convenient address to settle for less.
After I got back from dinner, I checked Google in hopes of finding a printed menu (no luck, the PDF file was hors de combat at the time) and to see what other people were thinking. The only blog reporting was Yelp, which usually I don’t much trust, as I’ve heard rumors that money is involved. (I’m more into Chowhound, Blurt, Mmm-Yoso, for their pure, dedicated eaters.) This time I found a surprising chorus of Yelping agreement, repeatedly likening Mukashi to a higher-price, lower-quality version of Sushi Deli and Ra, with one astute blogger noting it as, at best, a good place with nice decor to take a sushi-naïve date (especially if she’s paying).
The owner is named Mike Verzosa, and the kitchen is headed by master chef John Paul Zamora. (The only Google reference to him aside from Mukashi’s own website is Zamora’s son’s wedding invitation, which Dad catered — at Mukashi.) The way a sushi chef becomes a master chef is normally through a rigorous apprenticeship (in Japan, typically eight to ten years) and then a long journeyman stage, until a master-chef teacher finally dubs the student a master. I don’t know who trained Mr. Zamora and named him a master chef. Time constraints involving the Labor Day weekend (the restaurant was riotously busy Friday and Saturday, closed Sunday and Monday) and my deadline made it impossible to do a chef’s interview, which I really didn’t want to do anyway since I didn’t like the food very much. I very much liked the decor and service, and the seafood was certainly fresh enough, so it breaks my heart that the food seemed like competent, uninspired journeyman work rather than what I’d hope for from a master chef. (And, of course, I was deeply disappointed by the nonexistence of that fresh fish market.) But having eaten at so many great local sushi bars, I can’t pretend that Mukashi soars into the skies or dives deep into the coral reefs. It’s good, simply good — it’s not snorkeling among the banana fish, but simply earth-bound.
2706 Fifth Avenue (at Nutmeg Street), Banker’s Hill, 619-298-1329, mukashisandiego.com.
- HOURS: Lunch Monday–Friday, 11:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m.; dinner Monday–Wednesday 5:00 p.m.–9:00 p.m., Thursday–Saturday until 10:00 p.m.
- PRICES: Sushi, $7–$14; appetizers, $5–$15; noodles, $9–$12; entrées, $16–$34; desserts, $10–$15. Happy hour weekdays 5:00–7:00 p.m., selected nigiri sushi about $5.
- CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Sushi and fusion cuisine; serious wine list, sakes, Asian beers.
- PICK HITS: Tempura eel roll; ahi Napoleon (special). Popular favorite: Banker’s Hill Roll.
- NEED TO KNOW: Announced fish store attached to restaurant not yet operational or evident. Best nights for sushi: Friday and Saturday (more choices, fresher); reserve for weekends. Women’s restroom may be awkward for wheelchairs.
[June 2009 Editor's Note: Mukashi has since closed.]