For months before it opened, Mukashi seemed like a presold hit: Everyone who ate at Avenue 5, just across Nutmeg Street, could see the sign in the window, announcing a new sushi bar with a fish shop attached. Sushi, sure, but sushi-grade raw fish at retail — whoa, Nelly! The ads and coupons went out in early May. I’d already made a date to eat there the first week of June but luckily checked the website the night before. The restaurant wouldn’t open until June 12. And even now, the fish store is still a dream, with no sign of arrival.
Mukashi’s name means “One day, long ago” — possibly inspired by a classic anime, Nihon Mukashi (One Day Long Ago in Ghostly Japan). Now that it’s open, it’s an attractive restaurant with shiny-enameled wooden rectangular tables, soft brown cloth napkins, and one wall occupied by a sushi bar, staffed the night we were there by multi-ethnic chefs (one young Asian-American, one long-haired American, and one midlife Hispanic-American — probably the head chef, John Paul Zamora). There are huge TVs behind the sushi bar, but happily, with the Olympics over, they were all turned off that night; instead, ’80s soft rock played on the sound system.
It was a Thursday, and only one other table was occupied, along with one spot at the sushi bar — an East Coast guy (by his accent) who seemed to be in the restaurant biz and was gossiping about other sushi chefs. (You heard it here first: Taka-san, the sweetie who founded Taka in the Gaslamp and the later eponymous restaurant in La Mesa, has gone back to Japan for his retirement. Sayonara, Taka-honey.) But when I called to fact-check the next night, on the Friday kickoff of the Labor Day weekend, the joint was jumping, voices roaringly audible even though the call was taken at the hostess stand on the street, just outside the open front door.
Our waiter was sweet, and we got there just in time to snag a few happy-hour specials before the witching hour. A tempura eel roll had light, greaseless batter around thin, wide rounds of sticky rice, featuring centers with minced eel and only a tiny waft of cream cheese. Very pleasant. But our other happy-hour choice was less rewarding. In the salmon skin roll, the rice was clumpy, sticking to the fingers, as though it had sat a bit too long after cooking. (All the rice here is neutral in flavor — no problem, that’s Ota-style.) In the center were chopped carrots, celery (or was that cuke?), and the salmon skin, more veggie than fish. After the first cautious bite, I made up a soy-wasabi dipping sauce. I don’t always. With great chefs, sushi is often perfect “as is.” I’d be needing the dip here.
The proof of that came in the ama ebi, “sweet” shrimp (raw freshwater shrimp). The meats were good, satiny, fresh (and would be even better on the weekend, when the restaurant gets in live shrimp). But there were no seasonings on the rice. This is one of the factors that differentiate great sushi (e.g., Ota, Samurai, Kabuto, Taka, Nobu) from the corner sushi bar — the subtle, distinctive seasonings that serious ita-mae (sushi masters) apply to their creations. Those aren’t just wasabi and soy (and the sweetened sushi vinegar gently flavoring the rice) but also various citrus juices or rinds, herbs, Japanese spice blends, etc. (Order ama ebi sometime at Samurai Sushi in Solana Beach. Feel the shivers up your back.) Given the lack of any chef-devised seasoning, I dotted the rice under my shrimp with wasabi and it was better for it. The flash-baked heads were fine. Not sure, but there might’ve been a touch of hot pepper on ’em.
Had to try a hand roll, too — spicy scallops, in honor of my late boyfriend (and sushi sensei) who, when they were good, was crazy about them. These were decent, with fresh, chopped scallops swathed in hot sauce and Japanese mayo running all the way through to the tail and overflowing the top — but there seemed to be nothing more than scallops (no cuke or scallions or shiso or whatever) to lend interest with contrasting, cooler flavors and crisper textures.
I looked over the long list of futo maki (“party rolls”) and spotted the usual suspects — California, rainbow, caterpillar, Philadelphia, et al., not seeing anything very original. I should have focused in on the “Banker’s Hill Roll,” the most popular roll here, and possibly an original (shrimp, crab, avocado, eel sauce, tempura crumbs, etc.) but, oops, I didn’t. We went with Cheryl’s choice of a soft-shell roll. It wasn’t the fat, exuberant extravaganza that I expected but was nearly as slim and tight as the nigiri — basically just a regular sushi roll run longer. I wouldn’t have been able to guess what species was in there if I didn’t already know. That is, there were carrots and other veggies and a modicum of soft-shell meat. It could have been any crab. Even Krab. If I had to do it over again, I’d order the Banker’s Hill and either a rainbow or a caterpillar. Sometimes convention is on your side.
Moving into sashimi, Cheryl and I liked the “rainbow tartare” plate, a trio of mounds of chopped salmon, yellowtail, and maguro tuna, each subtly dressed in a different sauce (lemon juice, balsamic, soy) and a different garnish (kaiware microgreens, fried leek shreds, chives). Sam found the sauces too subtle — nearly imperceptible. He had a point. None of us could tell what they were until Cheryl asked the sushi chef. Once we knew, we could taste them.
It’s so rare to find uni (sea urchin) as a sashimi that we had to try it. Sam challenged me before the first bite: Would I be able to tell what grade the uni was? (The grade is determined when the soft meats come out of the shell, before anything else happens to it — it’s a natural-born thing.) I said that, without being an expert, as far as I understood it had to do with both firmness and flavor: firm but melting like a marshmallow on the fire is top class, while mushier is lower. Briny-sweet and vibrant is tops, over more neutral flavor. (Mushy, neutral uni is fine for making sauces and some soups. Uni that tastes distinctly of iodine — either naturally or, most often, because it’s been held in the refrigerator until it’s too old to eat — is bottom class, really no use for anything.) When restaurants order uni (most here buy it from Catalina Seafood in the Morena district, which also sells retail at certain hours), they can specify grade according to the price they want to pay. Then we tasted the uni sashimi: it was fresh (no off-tastes, no iodine) but quite mushy, starting to fall apart when lifted by chopsticks. The flavor was pleasant, not blow-your-head-off. Hence, maybe B-plus grade. At $16, it seemed overpriced, as there was not very much of it.
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.]