First time at Sakura (San Diego)
Tonight was my first time at Izakaya Sakura (Sakura 1 for anyone using Google Maps), and it was everything I'd hoped for and more. We went around 7pm (it's a Thursday). It got pretty busy, but never full. I called at 6:30 to ask if they even take reservations, and she recommended I make one, even though it was only half an hour away.
When I arrived she led me to a table, but I asked if it was possible to sit at the sushi bar, which was mostly empty, although some Reserved signs were up. She hesitated and asked "For next time?" and I smiled and said "No, I mean now" and she said maybe we could sit on the end. I confirmed that it would be OK and suddenly she was fine with it and showed me to two seats near the middle.
My friend hadn't arrived yet, but the server came over and was happy to recommend a sake and a couple appetizers: the albacore tataki, and the black cod and mushrooms baked in foil. Both were very tasty! I loved the brightness and ginger hint of the tataki, and the assortment of flavors in the mushrooms.
By now my friend had arrived and was digging in. We watched as the chef assembled a sashimi platter, but one shrimp kept falling off the plate. Suddenly we realized it wasn't falling, but jumping!
I've eaten a lot of sushi for a long time, but only at normal sushi bars I guess. I'd never eaten a live shrimp. Luckily my friend is a total goer and we quickly decided we had to try it.
Knowing how particular chefs can be, and having read some stories about Sakura, I was nervous to talk to the sushi chef. However, our helpful server wasn't around when the sashimi platter came, so I asked the sushi chef how to eat the shrimp. He gladly showed us how to pull the tail away from the body, and was very kind and friendly. I asked his name, and he was indeed Kazu.
The shrimp was by far the best I've ever had. So mild, and tender and sweet. After we ate that part, he offered to fry the heads. When the fried shrimp heads came we asked what parts we should eat. We quickly learned their constant answer to this question is "everything!" Thanks to Chowhound I went in expecting to eat fried fish bones, but fried shrimp shells was another thing. Of course we ate most it, and it was delicious!
Of course all the sashimi was excellent and melted in our mouths. The squid especially had perfect texture, with a little crunch as you bit into it but no chewiness. As we were eating, Kazu offered us a small piece of roe in a sort of square cake, with a piece of seaweed in the middle. I took this gesture as a very good sign! It looked a little like a sesame seed candy. He told us the roe sticks together like that on its own. It had a real crunch and great fresh flavor of the sea.
After we finished our platter, a server whisked away the aji carcass, which came back fried and in pieces with sauce. It had great fresh fried fish flavor and real crispness.
A really fun part of the night was the two people sitting next to us. It turns out one of them is a lunchtime server there, who came for dinner because she loves the food. It says a lot when the employees come back to eat off the clock! She is a college student, and the gentleman with her was an older man whom she said she was "doggie-sitting" for next week. I decided not to read into this.
Yuki was very helpful a couple times when we weren't sure what to do. She also insisted we try the green tea ice cream, and made shoveling motions and snorting sounds to demonstrate how much she likes it herself. Cute girl. Her doggie-sitting client then offered to buy us green tea ice cream, which was very kind. It was the most flavorful green tea ice cream I've ever had!
I couldn't leave without having some uni, because I knew it would be fresh here. My friend thought she didn't like uni, but of course that's because she had some bad uni once. Kazu's was extremely fresh and wonderful, so of course my friend realized she does actually like it. Sadly she ate both her pieces so I did get the extra one I was hoping for.
As we were eating the uni, Yuki's doggie-sitting client rushed over to show us how to dip ginger in soy and drape it over the uni. There are so many standard practices and points of etiquette that I don't know...
Kazu repeatedly insisted that we come back, and next time put ourselves in his hands. I'm a big fan of letting the chef choose my dishes, so I will. He said "Donovan, now I know you, and next time you come back I make something for you." I felt very honored, and can't wait to go back.
Besides having an excellent meal in a fun and inviting atmosphere, I really feel like I expanded my horizons tonight, by eating fish bones, live shrimp, and whole fried shrimp heads. The staff and other guests were a lot of fun and made for a great evening.
Thanks again to all you fabulous Chowhounders; you've never led me astray.
[Picture is our sashimi platter]
Speaking of cooked food, I totally forgot to mention that Yuki (the off-duty server sitting next to us) let us try her uni pasta. I had seen it on the specials menu but thought I wasn't in the mood for cooked uni, but it was very good! It had bits of sauteed uni in cream sauce over al dente spaghetti, with salmon roe. The creaminess of the uni and sauce combination was silky smooth, punctuated by the saltiness of the ikura.
And thanks, you've inspired me to learn to say "omakase onegaishimasu" for next time. I really was pleasantly surprised at how gracious Kazu was. We were certainly the whitest people there, but I think our openness and willingness ingratiated us.
Sounds great, I've been lucky enough to sit at the bar a couple of times with regular customers. You were brave to insist on sitting there!! :)
I love this place, we have been a dozen times now and I still feel like I am only beginning to understand it. I would really like to go there sometime with someone who is fluent in Japanese, so I could know what the specials are!!
Glad you liked. It's certainly a favorite of mine. And yes, Kazu is friendly and helpful. He also has a remarkable memory. Even though I have been eating there for 6 or 7 years, he still comes up with cooked dishes (or sometimes unusual sushi/sashimi) that I haven't had before. Of course, living out in the desert, I only get three or four dinner visits there each year.
As Josh says, the cooked food there is outstanding as well. Lunches are good too.
Since I don't read or speak Japanese, I often ask for what is new, special, unusual, different, or outstanding and just let him serve me/us. Of course, I eat just about everything, so I am not worried that something will be too weird.