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Sushi Sam's Downhill Warning

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I went to the hallowed Sushi Sam's in San Mateo today after six years of my husband telling me it had the best Sushi in Northern California. I couldn't help but think that he (and several other positive reviewers) must have been under the influence of something potent when I finally tasted Sam's cuisine. I ordered several a la carte selections including tekka maki, ume maki, kappa maki, futomaki, sake nigiri, maguro nigiri, saba nigiri, and several temaki handrolls. In short, they were all sub-standard. I would liken the quality to tired old clothes: everything looked and tasted as if it had seen better days. Into the bargain the bill was twice as much as many other superior sushi places. My husband agreed that things had gone significantly downhill since his last visit. We thought the restaurant might have changed ownership, but no, husband sighted Sam at the bar. Curious about the latest gossip, I trawled the internet when I got home and found several recent negative reviews, one emphatically suggesting that Sam had lost interest in providing quality cuisine and was now simply relying on his restaurant's good name to make money.

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  1. I don't agree... We go there once a week for the last many yrs, and Sam is getting more exotic fish than before, and they are as fresh as it gets. We don't order much cooked food, so I can't comment on that, but as far as the sushi and sashimi go, they definitely have one of the most interesting and fresh selection around.

    1. Sub-standard? Well, I'm old enough to know that anybody's sushi standard is probably a very subjective thing. If that's really how you feel, I can only say I'm sorry you didn't enjoy it as much as me. I've been going there for years, sometimes as often as every couple of weeks, and I always have to stop myself from eating more; while I've tried good or even better sushi in a few other restaurants (and who wouldn't expect that), I still haven't found a Spicy Tuna Roll or a Spider Roll that can compare to Sam's.

      5 Replies
      1. re: ablarapraprap

        Hmm..maybe I was just there on a bad day or perhaps I should have ordered some of the more exotic options ?? FYI, we had five in our party and four of those dining felt the same way as me. And all of us, save one Dane in our party, were born in the Asia Pacific region and virtually raised on Sushi.

        1. re: panpan

          I have to completely agree with you on the downhill part. I recently had the omakase there and was very disappointed. We use to always go for the exciting new fish but too many of the fishes were heavily sauced - you really can't taste the freshness of the fish or the natural flavor. When Sam first brought in his exotic fishes his sauces enhanced the fish but now it just overpowers and completely ruins everything. His O-toro is veiny and not worth the price. I have had some great meals there but after our last three experiences I will think twice before I go again for sushi.

          1. re: misspiggy

            I totally agree with you, the sauce on the fish "distract" the freshness and the sweetness of the fish. It's unnecessary.

            1. re: capriana94555

              Glad to know I'm not alone. My last two visits to Sam's within the last 8 months were less than stellar. Service was still great because I've known the senior waitstaff 10 years now, but the omakase isn't as brilliant as it was when I first had it 2 years ago.

              There are some sushi bars at Tsukiji Tokyo Fish Market that pre-sauce certain fish on nigiri and even the legendary Kyubei in Ginza does it as well (based on photos, book reviews/guides, and other people's reports), but at least it is done properly.

              While some of Sam's saucing is ok for certain items, the last time for me was a bit heavy handed; the sauce used was a bit overly salty that ruined the experience. For example the baby lobster tail which would have been fine as is with a dash of mayo, sliver of almond, tiny spoonful of tobiko...but the whole thing went south upon the splashing of the dash of the salty sauce...doh.

              One thing about Sam's is that he's definitely trying to innovate and experiment with something very different, to the point where it is a departure from the traditional style of nigiri sushi. When it works, it reaps benefits but at times that it doesn't it can be costly. I applaud him having upwards of 23+ kinds of fish on the white board, but unfortunately even when you order nigiri pairs from there a la carte and not omakase these days, you get the same omakase style prep (garnishes and sauces). There used to be a difference, e.g. you order tai nigiri a la carte and there's no garnishing. Now regardless you get the special sprout salad treatment on top. Maybe it is just me. Last time I had aji, they went beyond the addition of scallions and ginger, and had that sauce over it which made the fish taste out of whack.

              It doesn't help that prices go up every year or more frequently than that...

              1. re: K K

                I presume that if you request the dishes without the saces and garnishes that they'd be very happy to respect those wishes.

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        1. Couldn't disagree more. I've been eating at Sushi Sam's for more than six years, most recently twice in the past two weeks at lunchtime at the sushi counter. It's my belief that sushi chefs are defined by their ability to source a broad range of truly fresh fish and few match Sam's ability to do just that. Ariake on Geary in SF is pretty good in that regard too. Zushi Puzzle ranks high. So I don't agree that the standard dishes like kappa and tekka maki and basic fishes like maguro and sake are the measure. If a sushi chef can't get the basics right, then they shouldn't be allowed behind the counter. Great sushi chefs know how to get different kinds of uni, hard to get fishes like sea trout, butterfish, and so forth, and are creative in their presentation of those fishes. Sam's the best at sourcing fish that I've personally encountered.