301 Mission Avenue, Oceanside
Omakase: patrons sit down at the sushi counter, and the chef working it goes to town presenting dishes of his or her choosing, amped to share these items with anyone willing to put themselves into an expert’s hands. It’s a fabulous way to eat.
I recently turned my palate over to Rob Ruiz, the enthused and talented sushi chef at the top of Harney Sushi’s food chain. What followed were a dozen small dishes both traditional and original enough that, in some cases, I’d never tasted anything like them before.
First up were blistered shishito peppers. Who could have guessed that these would ever be ubiquitous? It’s getting to the point where I’m almost disappointed when I see them on a menu. I love peppers, but this variety can be boring, as is the will-they/won’t-they speculation of whether the skinny green seedpods will be spicy or blah. Charring them and sprinkling on salt does nothing for me. Fortunately, Ruiz (who has eight years’ experience and was named Chef of the Fest for creating the most-well-received dish at last year’s San Diego Bay Wine and Food Festival) ups the flavor, tossing the peppers in a soy-based sauce and adding bonito flakes. It’s an uncomplicated preparation but heightens an ingredient that’s becoming duller with each eatery that embraces it.
Turns out, the shishito treatment illustrates one of Ruiz’s major talents: developing and effectively implementing an outside-the-box approach to vegetables. The third plate that came my way featured a trio of deep-amber rectangular planks. They looked like parsnips or carrots but were in fact daikon slow-braised in a mixture of sake, soy, and mirin. The dish was a revelation. The braising liquid gives the daikon a taste similar to carrots plucked from grandma’s Sunday stew. I could make an entire meal of these tender radishes.
Also interesting were fingers of compressed sushi rice topped with tiny, roasted Specialty Produce baby carrots. These were secured with strips of nori and served atop a beet purée; Ruiz used his fingers to streak the purée artfully down the length of the plate. The dish was sweet and not as successful as the daikon or shishitos but won points for originality. I can envision a vegetarian enjoying it.
One of the bonuses of going omakase is communicating with the sushi chef throughout the meal. Over the course of my evening with Ruiz, I learned that shishito peppers contain more Vitamin C than an orange, and that daikon possess natural antibacterial qualities that protect the human body from seafood impurities. (I’d forgotten that last fact, so the reminder was as good as new information.)
On the fish front, Suzuki, a sustainable Japanese sea bass, was served nigiri-style with shaved onion, shiso (a Japanese variety of mint), and a squeeze of ponzu sauce. Nicely dressed, the touches of salt and spice lingered post-consumption, but the fish was the star, as it was meant to be.
Ruby red grapefruit–hued sockeye salmon was served in a similarly simple way, draped over rice and garnished with Hiwa Kai Hawaiian black lava salt crystals, plus a dash of fresh citrus. The result: an expression of the fish so pure that, if you’re a fan of gussied-up sushi, you’ll probably hate it. Purists, on the other hand, will go ga-ga.
Fatty tuna — a delicacy so special it was served naked, thinly and expertly sliced — was as clear-cut, fresh, and lovely as could be. Because Harney Sushi does so much business and goes through so much product, they have buying power when procuring their seafood. The result is high-quality fish and shellfish that stands on its own merits.
Warm dishes were an equally interesting part of the night’s experience, and every bit as tasty. Albacore belly tataki with tobacco onions (sadly, not as crisp as desired) in a garlic-jalapeño ponzu nicely balanced earthy, salty, and spicy flavors. A Carlsbad Aquafarm oyster was plump, warm, and rich, dressed with clarified butter and soy sauce. Bonito flakes added texture to a spectacular cooked-oyster preparation.
One of the most delicious dishes came as a surprise at the end of the meal. Instead of dessert, I was handed a bowl filled with thick slices of citrus-marinated, nicely browned black cod atop an island of rice. This was surrounded by a sweet-and-sour broth flavored with charbroiled pineapple, wasabi, and dashi. It was the closest a dish can get to a warm embrace. Comfort food at a sushi bar — who’d’ve thunk it?
Being a “chef’s whim” dining format, one can never be sure what Ruiz will serve up if you opt for the omakase experience, though there’s nothing wrong with requesting the oyster or black cod (you’ll be glad you did). That’s what makes it so exciting. For a food writer, formal dining can become predictable. My evening here provided serious rejuvenation — an impressive feat — but you don’t have to be a food writer to experience it.
Hours: Monday–Wednesday 11:30 a.m.–3:00 p.m. and 5:30–10:30 p.m.; Thursday–Friday 11:30 a.m.–3:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.–midnight; Saturday 5:30 p.m.–midnight; Sunday 5:30–10:30 p.m.
Fare: omakase consisting of ocean-fresh traditional and revamped sushi, plus warm seafood- and vegetable-based small plates
Vibe: spacious, bustling black-and-crimson den with kitchen-abutting sushi bar for culinary spectating