I found Zen purely by serendipity when I was looking for something else, which is exactly the way that followers of Zen Buddhism are supposed to find enlightenment. One evening, I ventured out to the Del Martian wilds near the fairgrounds, searching for a joint named Axis, reputedly owned by a former chef from Chive whose work I'd liked. Reaching the address, we found a mini-mall with a roofed arcade, and where Axis should have been, a near-new restaurant called Zen. A staffer trotted up the short staircase to greet us. "Axis went out of business around August," he said. "We bought them out." He handed us a menu. One glance, and we heard the sound of one hand clapping. "Count us in," we said, and headed for the dining room.
En route, we admired the attractive roofed-over patio, with its comfy leatherette booths. On the other side of the restaurant, there's another patio, unroofed, with fire pits. But it was a bone-chiller of a night (maybe not to an Alaskan, but we've gotten spoiled), so we rushed inside to cozy up to the sushi bar. It's next to a larger drinking bar. On the opposite wall are leather booths and shelves of Buddhist art and craft goods, mini-tanks of solo Siamese fighting fish, and pagoda lamps overhead. Behind the bar is a rainbow wall of bubbles half concealing a peek-a-boo kitchen that you can see into from certain angles. Zen aims to be a little piece of Los Angeles in Del Mar, offering a scene as well as food. The noise level early on a weeknight was just right -- lively, not loud. Later in the evening, the volume often amps up with DJs or a live band. And on Thursdays, "industry night," the kitchen keeps working until the wee hours, mainly serving the happy-hour menu, so that local restaurant crews can drop in for post-shift noshing.
There are two menus in one folder -- a long one for the sushi bar, a shorter one for the fusion dishes. The latter changes frequently and includes several house-made desserts. Wherever you sit, you can get anything on the menu. It's worth arriving early for the weeknight special happy-hour menu, which offers tasty grazing at half price, as well as half price off on certain drinks. Although some of the regular entrées can run a bit steep, the happy-hour option makes Zen a great value if you're struggling with post-holiday credit card bills.
Fresh, hot edamame lightly sprinkled with kosher salt arrived gratis, while bowls of miso soup warmed us up. Soothing and mild, the soup was decorated with nori strips and silken diced tofu (no scallions) -- a middle-of-the-road miso adapted for Americans, not challenging but satisfying.
We started our sushi splurge with uni (sea urchin) and at first bite found ourselves blissfully grinning -- we'd happened into a good place. The generous portion was fresh, with no hint of iodine, and the rice was just-right sweet, with perfect texture, stuck-together but not clumpy. A spicy scallop hand roll confirmed our delight. Large sea scallops and crunchy veggies ran all the way through the tight wrap of freshly toasted nori seaweed. While not the absolute best we've ever had, it was oh, so close.
Looking over the list of specialty rolls (a.k.a. futo maki or "party rolls"), we were pleased to see fewer than usual made with cream cheese (which I love on a bagel but consider an abomination in sushi). We chose a bushido roll because it's a local rarity, a riceless roll combining spicy tuna, crab, albacore, yama gobo (burdock root, which resembles daikon radish), avocado, regular Japanese mayo, and spicy mayo, all inside a panko-tempura finish. We found it harmonious, leaving a happy aftertaste of real crab, rather than the crab-flavored extruded pollack (tsurimi, a.k.a. Krab) that so many neighborhood sushi joints substitute. (Of course, Del Mar is not just any old neighborhood.) Some Japanese sushi chefs will tell you that only Japanese can make proper sushi. Don't believe them: At Zen, we were served by chef de cuisine Arturo Ramirez, a longtime veteran of Japengo. ("He knows more about Japanese food than the young Japanese guys I have working here," says executive chef Jim Holder.) His work puts the myth to rest. This was fine sushi, with beautiful craftsmanship highlighting sublime seafood.
It was still happy hour, so we took advantage of some of the half-price appetizers. A refreshing "Asian stacker" had a deep-fried wonton cracker as a base, topped with avocado, chukka salad (seaweed and jellyfish), and a slice of delicious edge-seared red tuna of well-above-average quality. Then we tried the creamy tempura shrimp and lobster. Whoa, Nelly! This was a livelier version of the standard "dynamite" gratin, with crackling-crisp surfaces on nuggets of tender seafood, lightly glazed with a chile-spiked cream sauce that made judicious use of fiery, flavorful habanero chilies. This was way better than standard-issue sushi house dynamite -- more interesting, with less sauce, brighter flavors, and great textures. It's already a candidate for "best tastes of 2007."
That evening the service was superb, with staffers on top of our every need, without being intrusive. When we returned a couple of nights later, service was still okay but closer to the standard San Diego "We'd rather be surfing" norm -- the pretty young things couldn't answer any of our questions without checking with the kitchen or the manager.
That time, we really meant to concentrate on the regular menu but couldn't resist more sushi bites. The uni was even better on a Friday than on a Wednesday, almost shockingly fresh and pillowy. The ama ebi, "sweet shrimp," were literally sweet, too, as they so seldom are. Chef James Holder (another Japengo veteran) knows his fishmongers and has obviously trained them to jump through hoops.
We began exploring the fusion menu with seafood spring rolls and ponzu. They were a little disappointing in contrast to the pristine raw fish, although good enough for us to clear the plate. The wrappers were delicately crisp and flaky, but the salty cabbage outweighed the seafood. The ponzu was even saltier, with its heavy dark-soy base. We also tried a starter of grilled diver scallops, featuring two large bivalves, grilled medium-rare and plated atop a sautéed mix of mangos and grilled bell peppers topped with "grilled lemon foam." How they make a grilled lemon into a foam is a mystery to me, but we found it delicious.
An entrée of sugar-soy--coated salmon was tender and flavorful, cooked medium-rare. The thin steak was moist with a sweet glaze and came atop a chopped, stir-fried mix of Asian vegetables, which we liked a lot. Our Kobe beef and blue cheese roulades were less successful, but in any case, they're off the menu now.
The printed menu promised duchess potatoes with the salmon, and gratinéed potatoes with the beef, but both entrées came with plain, lean mashed potatoes. The previous dinner chef had departed less than a month earlier, and chef Holder has been changing the menu, with fewer luxury dishes and a stronger Asian emphasis. By now, they may have a new menu printed up, but if not, don't believe everything you read -- what you see on the old menu perhaps no longer matches what the kitchen turns out. Most nights there are specials representing the best seafood the chef got in that day. (That evening, alas, the special was halibut, far from my favorite fish.)
There's an enticing choice of desserts (including a sampler plate), but the temptation to enjoy one more sushi roll was greater. Our grand finale, a rainbow roll, did in our appetites beyond repair. But then, who'd want another lava cake or crème brulée when there's great raw fish to be had?
ABOUT THE CHEF
Last summer, an entrepreneur named Joe Conlin bought the space that became Zen after its previous owners purchased Delicias. Conlin decided that what Del Mar needed was, he says, "a combination of super-good high-end sushi, and also a non-Japanese chef for a kind of super-fusion mixture of food. When we first opened we had foie gras and a lot of eccentric stuff, but what we found was that everybody's walking through the door and sitting down and wanting sushi. When you have really good sushi, it's a problem selling anything else. So what we've done is we've shifted the menu a bunch -- it's actually changing and evolving on a weekly basis. It's still super-fusion, but it's more Japanese than it was when we opened last summer. We had an amicable parting with our opening chef, because he was more into French and Italian food, so it was just not working out for the eventual goal of what this place needs to be. Our sushi chef, James Holder, is the executive chef now.
"We have a lot of other things going on. We have a DJ and live music, and we do a lot of events -- a lot of birthday parties, huge Christmas parties buying out the whole restaurant -- 200, 250 people. Japengo had their staff Christmas party here. There are a lot of restaurants in Del Mar, but there isn't a lot of entertainment, so we want to do both."
Executive chef James Holder spent his first 21 years in Japan. "I'm half Japanese. My mom's Japanese, and my dad is Italian and German. He grew up in Florida. He joined the Navy and came over to Japan when he was in the service and met my mom. Her parents wouldn't accept him, because her father fought against the Americans in the war [World War II]. I didn't meet my grandparents on my mother's side until I was about 11 years old. Both my parents still live over there -- 60 years now.
"I was raised in a fishermen's village, and every day we would have fresh fish that the fishermen caught. Their wives would come by our house with the fish on ice in a wagon -- real old-school. Simple things like tofu, a guy would come around on his bike to the homes and deliver it fresh -- they'd make it every morning. I was in military school, and I would go after school to the beach and help the fishermen cut the fish, and they would pay me in fish. I'd take it home in my red Radio Flyer wagon, and we'd cut it and cook it or freeze it or dry it. Then I started to help my uncle, who ran a restaurant. I apprenticed with him. They would never put me in the front of the restaurant or sushi bar -- I looked too American.
"When I turned 21 I had to leave the country, and I came over here. I couldn't get a job anywhere, and I went to a Japanese restaurant, Katsu, which was in Escondido at the time. (Now it's in San Marcos.) They asked me if I could make sushi. I said, 'Oh, cut fish? I've been doing it since I was ten years old.' I got a job right away. I was opening chef there and stayed quite a few years. Then I went to Japengo as opening chef and stayed about 16 years. Arturo [Ramirez] was there a long time, too, maybe ten years. We created a lot of rolls together -- like the Tootsie Roll. I went from Japengo to Zen, because Japengo was becoming too corporate for me. It needed to change, keep up with the competition. I wanted to have entertainment -- I go out to Vegas and up to L.A. and see what's bringing in the crowds. I like to do my homework. I like chefs who study and learn new things and try to apply them to their work. That's what I try to encourage with my guys here.
"We're going to be doing a much more Asian menu starting the first of the year. We'll be changing a lot of the hot menu. I just got a wok. I feel we've been lacking in vegetables -- I like fresh vegetables, and in a wok, you cook so fast that the vegetables stay nice and crisp. And we're getting in some very good toro now, too -- it's best in winter, when the water is colder and the fish are really fat."
Errata: In the review of Addison Restaurant (12/28/06), the vintage year of a half-bottle of Mouton Rothschild was misidentified. It was not 2003 but 1961, one of the greatest postwar vintages of Bordeaux. In addition, a copy-editing error produced an incorrect depiction of the lamb entrée. It did not include a separate lamb shank, but rather, a crepinette made from shank meat.