Sushi Sam's San Mateo - cooked food >>> sushi but poor value
After not going to Sushi Sam's for I'd say close to a year or more, and finally returning for a dinner last Friday night, I came to a few obvious conclusions.
- Prices continue to skyrocket, with what two of us spent, we could have eaten elsewhere cheaper.
- we ordered a mix of cooked food and some sushi (bar seats were full) and yet still walked out a lot poorer (you'd think some cooked dishes would fill you up vs ordering a few pieces of white board sushi, but noooooooooooooo)
- Cooked food here is much stronger than their sushi
I'm not talking about cooked food from the standard menu of bento, teriyaki, tempura, unagi don etc etc.
There appears to be now at least three appetizer/cooked food menus. One next to the white board behind Sam, a small placard of standard but fairly interesting goodies, and a smaller menu near our table posted on the wall entirely in Japanese (unfair yes I know but if you can read a bit of kanji, it's not that hard to decipher).
I didn't see what was on the cooked food specials board next to the white board, but the placard specials on each table had a range of items including:
tachuio tempura (belt fish or scabbard fish)
anago tempura (tried and true, non marinated sea eel tempura batter fried)
wagyu suji (stewed/simmered Japanese style beef, meat by the sinews with rich strips of tendon)
On the white board Japanese only specials by the wall:
Kinki nitsuke - "hard head" a type of deep sea red skin fish white meat inside, stewed with soy sauce, mirin, sugar etc. Typical izakaya food.
Kinki (prepared another way, didn't notice)
Tai nitsuke - we got this, half a pretty big tai (red snapper) head. Had some gobo on top that soaked in the juices that was quite nice. Wish they de-scaled the thing a bit better
squid misoyaki (and prepared a few other ways)
some tofu dish I couldn't make out
ankimo appetizer - $7.50 (yikes! Used to be $2 cheaper not THAT long ago). For San Mateo best in the area, but no longer cheap.
Wagyu Suji - great. Less yam cake/noodle and daikon but daikon flavor is in the bowl itself. $6 ish mark. It's basically a small bowl of stewed beef slices with a flavorful rich broth.
Tai nitsuke - can't recall what we were charged for this, but I'm sure it was at least in the teens. Not bad, but the South Bay izakaya's would have done it better. For San Mateo I say pretty decent.
Sam's special (tempura handroll)
Chili dog (spicy tuna and wakame salad HR)
wild sea bass (suzuki) - garnished with yuzu juice and some sort of dried seaweed strip that wasn't hijiki but similar texture. Nice.
Kinmedai (alfosino) - disturbingly light more white-ish skin, not as sweet as Kitsho or
Sushi Zo's in LA, garnished with too much scallion and minced ginger (momoji oroshi)
Japanese saba - marinated a bit too long, not as smooth
Japanese unagi shirayaki - a bit too strong with the pepper dashes which is an authentic prep but I think the pepper sadly overpowered it. The unagi was overgrilled, seemed too dry.
Two dessert specials, made exclusively by Sam's niece (never got her name).
Yuzu mousse - Fantastic $6. Had several elements and flavors to it, including a small scoop of jelly (made with yuzu juice). There was a small ovular 3d shaped white chocolate "mousse" but the yuzu mousse itself was top notch.
chestnut mini cake, french style (forgot the name) - like a mini torte sitting on top of a amaretto like cookie.
Very nice plating! Sam's niece apparently spent time at Gary Danko, professionally trained from a pastry school in Japan and finished the schooling in SF.
Dessert menu changes once in a while, to keep the offerings new and interesting. Granted the same desserts would run more if elsewhere, but $6 each is not bad. You'd be paying simliar prices driving down to Satura Cakes for similar quality. Although the dessert does not match the interior/decor of Sam's.
The bad part....the bill for some reason hit around the $90 ish mark for two people.
Just sufficiently full too :-(
Bottom line is, the sushi was not center stage and doesn't seem to be anymore. But the cooked food offerings have seemingly extended beyond the basic ones, and are decent.
I will note that the sushi rice flavor just wasn't bold enough. A definite far cry from Sebo's and probably Ino Sushi's. Again as many have already said, these omakase style new preps of nigiri sushi, even happens with a la carte ordering, just seems overkill when too much saucing and condiments kind of ruin the overall balance of the fish, and coupled with a weak sushi rice receipe, just makes the typical purist rethink before hitting more orders again.
So Sam's is trying to be a sushi-ya and izakaya at once and maybe trying too hard to expand to boost the business and reinvent themselves.
Prices are not coming down anytime soon. It's nice that one can still have a good sit down table experience and concentrate on the small plates, but with those prices I wish I could have gone to the South Bay izakaya's or even Nami Nami instead, for a more intimate atmosphere (and updated digs to go with).
Insightful review. Generally I agree, but there are so few places that actually have great sushi rice in the Bay Area...it's hard to fault just Sam's. Not sure why sushi rice around here is so bad.
I'm just glad they are here trying to do interesting Japanese food. Living in San Mateo, I don't know of another sushi restaurant that puts it all together as well as they do (interesting ingredients, generally well executed small plates, etc).
Btw, the chestnut dessert is a Mont Blanc and I think it is better than Satura's by a good margin. Bravo to the new dessert chef!