Sushi really means “rice,” not “raw fish.” There are two schools of sushi chefs: those who make rice as neutral-tasting as possible and those who add a little more sushi-su, slightly sweetened rice vinegar, to flavor it. Top local traditional sushi masters like Ota-san and Kazumi-san favor the neutral taste, because they garnish their creations with additional flavors suited specifically to the seafood on the sushi. (The soy-wasabi slurry dip is the diner’s own business. I’ll use it freely with sashimi, but with sushi, I’d rather taste first to see if the roll really needs these unsubtle extra flavors.)
Ikiru’s rice is neutral, and your order comes with numerous packets of Kim-Lan soy sauce, plus pickled ginger and dark green, oldish-looking wasabi — but forget about individual garnishes other than the sesame seeds that bedeck many of their rolls. My favorite here was a low-carb, rice-free fresh roll, wrapped in crisp cabbage leaves (the menu says it’s a soy-paper wrap) called the “Protein Roll,” with tuna, hamachi, salmon, tai, fake crab, gobo, and cucumber. Adding neutral rice to these fresh flavors would have been like inviting an old-maid chaperone.
The seaweed-wrapped salmon skin cut roll with avocado was pleasant but kind of boring, needing the soy-wasabi mix for interest. I didn’t love the ikura salmon roe nigiri — the roe was very salty and a bit tinny-tasting. Nor did I love the spicy scallop hand-roll. It did have scallops all the way to the bottom, spiced about right (medium-hot), but the mouth-feel was dry, needing more kewpie Japanese mayo — probably because all the crisp julienned veggies, barely embedded in the rice, flew right out of the roll at first bite. Another roll, featuring shrimp, showed signs of carelessness: In the pretty end piece, with julienned veggies and radish sprouts emerging like plumes, what looked like a carrot stick turned out to be an unpeeled shrimp tail.
Appetizers disappointed me, too. Ahi poke was far from the vivacious Hawaiian mix-up. Too-large chunks of greasy-tasting ahi were heaped over sweetly dressed julienned seaweed, radish sprouts, and sesame seeds, with a sliced pear alongside. Forget the pear — where’s the cilantro, scallions, roasted sesame oil? Agedashi tofu was caught in a no-man’s-land between crisp-fried and tender. And among the noodle dishes, shoyu ramen, my great hope for Monday night’s dinner, had a decent broth but minimal garnishes — a few slices of pork and bamboo shoots, one slice of seaweed, but no egg, no scallions. Certainly no spirit of Tampopo (another great Japanese film, this one a delicious comedy centered on a heroine learning to cook perfect ramen).
Prices are very reasonable, with dinner entrées ranging from $8–$12, including combination dinners that offer miso soup, salad, mixed tempura, a California roll, plus various forms of teriyaki, from tofu to beef. Lunch combos are a bit higher but more elaborate. Sushi and sashimi combos are $18–$24.
Red Pearl Kitchen
This Gaslamp restaurant’s menu covers all of Asia — Chinese dim sum, Thai spring rolls, Vietnamese lettuce wraps, and, yes, ramen. This is a great choice for vegetarians and vegans, with loads of veggie-centered dishes and veggie sides. I over-ordered ridiculously because my previous night’s Ikiru dinner had left me hungry for flavor, but also because I haven’t been here since it opened, and I know our paper’s capsule needs an update. Also, the menu made me greedy.
Shrimp siu-mai were near-fatally soggy after their two-mile journey, or maybe even before they made the trip (see Sushiya for contrast). They stuck firmly to their box and had to be scooped up with a spoon, not chopsticks. Big, sloppy, insanely spicy (red and black pepper), unlike any genuine dim sum, they came with a thick red sweet-sour sauce that bought off some of their heat. But no, just no to all that — really bad fusion, senselessly spicy like some frat-house version. Duck and shiitake in lettuce wraps had soft Bibb lettuce, much dryish shredded duck but little shiitake, and an amusing banana purée instead of the traditional hoisin that’s about to bedeck the leftovers. Shrimp summer rolls, large packets of translucent rice paper, were stuffed with shredded lettuce, carrots, cukes, rice noodles, a few mint leaves, and one medium shrimp each — for ten bucks! (In some rolls, the shrimp was halved, to make a fake two.) Dips were nguoc cham and a light peanut sauce, both nice. Strawberry-miso glazed spare ribs, held over from the opening chef, now have rather greasy ribs that taste braised, lacking crispness. The glaze (more of a sauce) needs acidity to combat the fattiness, but the basic problem is that the meat needs time in an oven or on a grill.
Ramen proved an odd hybrid of northern Chinese and Japanese. A richly flavorful stock made from Jidori chicken (and perhaps pork bones, in a traditional Chinese style called “high broth”) includes star-anise pods — and also enough hot pepper to sneak up and slap you. Tasty hunks of soft braised pork belly float on top, along with a perfect medium-cooked egg, still creamy in the yolk. But, oy, the noodles! — not fresh and soft, but skinny, twiggy, like undercooked refugees from Top Ramen packets. Definitely not Tampopo again, but the broth might make a good cold remedy.
Tender Kobe “shaking beef” is amended with fresh papaya, making it a fresh dish, not just a rerun (fusion that works). Caramelized prawns, large and tender, mingle with long beans and baby corn in a gently sweet sauce. (This dish was supposed to be spicy but wasn’t, versus the no-warning hot dim sum and ramen.) I liked both. These dishes wouldn’t lure me back to the Gaslamp to eat here again, but I might order another, smaller delivery sometime. Prices edge between moderate and expensive, with main dishes $15–$24; grazes (averaging about $11) can add up fast. This order ran a rather shocking $100, all told, double that of the two sushi bars — for a lot of food, yes, but not enough truly good food.