Ian Pike noon, Dec. 13
Several months ago, a local incarnation of the mega successful family of L.A.-born Japanese eateries, Katsuya, opened up in the space vacated by Quarter Kitchen at downtown’s Andaz San Diego hotel (600 F Street). I was instantly interested in checking it out, but a busy schedule kept me from making my way to what was one of the most anticipated spots to open in San Diego this year.
Last Friday around 4 p.m., I found myself strolling about the Gaslamp with a growling stomach, and remembered hearing Katsuya had started serving a happy hour menu in their bar. Just three blocks from the Andaz, the conditions seemed right—a Friday, geographical proximity, a reduced price menu, and hunger—for an impromptu first visit. I took a right on F and, within minutes, was seated in the posh, contemporarily minimalist, nearly all white (with a bit of red thrown in for good luck) bar, perusing the Social Hour menu.
It’s available from 4 to 7 p.m. daily, and includes a dozen specialty cocktails (many of which have garnered awards and accolades in the spirit world) and seven small plate dishes, all of which are seven dollars apiece.
It was food that drew me to Katsuya, but not having a cocktail would have been wrong, especially after a tough week that even had me working on the Fourth of July (slaving on Independence Day…just not right). I started with a Katsuya Fresh, a cool refresher that, with its mix of lime and cucumber came across like a piece of key lime pie enjoyed as the finale to a spa treatment.
The KF did a great job of getting me into the TGIF spirit—or spirits. By the time I left, I’d had three more—a lemon and mint flavored Moonshine Smash, the fruity and pulp-rich gin-based Kiwi Envy, and a peppered citrus-infused Burning Mandarin. I enjoyed them all, though that last one didn’t taste spicy and was marred a bit by a sugar rim that would probably work were the drink higher on the Scoville thermometer.
Katsuya puts its bartenders through a very detailed and stringent training program. Everything is closely measured. Shaking is done at a certain angle and for exactly six seconds per drink. Katsuya has built a solid reputation for its adult libations, and these exacting measures allow drinks to be effectively replicated at each location. Considering how tasty, elegant and, most of all, balanced each of the drinks I had were, I’d say the program’s working. Most of the cocktails exhibited little to no trace of alcohol sting. But make no mistake, they will sneak up on you.
On the food side, A trio of crispy rounds topped with sesame-laced tuna had an Asian tostada quality and tasted fresh, vibrant, and altogether scrumptious (note: the flower they serve on the side is edible and, surprisingly, adds a bit of bitterness if a petal or two are chewed in tandem with the fish). Wings cooked on a traditional Japanese robata charcoal grill were plump, juicy, and sticky sweet. Domo arigato!
A duo of Kobe beef sliders were disappointingly bland and screamed out for a condiment of some kind to bring a level of moisture that caramelized onions fell short of providing. Meat of that quality shouldn’t be masked by seasonings, but salt would have allowed its exquisite character to shine. As it was, the kobe was quickly forgotten when I bit into a rectangle of crispy rice topped with spicy tuna. The flavors and textures were simple and just what one desires—fresh tuna with a light but lingering heat atop a block of rice kernels made exteriorly brown and crunchy.
The lovely, spreadably homogenous texture on the tuna was impressive and enjoyable. When the bartender told me about her favorite off-menu item, a tempura shrimp roll topped with more of the spicy tuna, I thanked her for the insider tip and promptly put my order in. It was terrific; one of those sushi rolls that's so harmonious it makes you wonder why they’re off-menu. Now that you know about it, consider it if you're like me and love spicy tuna with avocado and a little crunch on the side.
It was such an enjoyable happy hour, I’m examining the calendar to get myself back to Katsuya for a full-on dinner experience. If this was any indication of the regular menu offerings, it’s bound to be a good meal, and one worth making time for.