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Aug 18, 2012 10:13 PM

Akinori Sushi in Hillcrest

With pictures

If you can take your focus off of the live shrimp, you can hear Chef Aki talking to a regular about one of his signature items.

On my first visit to the recently opened Akinori Sushi, I was lucky enough to sit in front of Chef Aki on a Saturday night..and I do mean lucky, the man already had quite a following from his time at Surfside in pacific beach, and I can only see it growing now that he’s running his own place in Hillcrest.

Chef Aki starts with the freshest ingredients. Take these live shrimp for instance, still moving moments before being eaten. The amaebi body is good enough, but my favorite part is was the deep fried head where the salty crunch of the shell lead way to a surprising amount of sweet shrimp meat.

Fans of fried shrimp shell, will likely appreciate fried shad bones as well. Ask if they have any additional lying around from on the stunning sashimi platters.

Akinori sushi will pass the test of even the more discerning sushi palates. Beautiful cuts of toro, chu-toro, and aji were given proper amounts of freshly grated wasabi, while some of the best local San Diego uni I’ve tasted was simply crafted over loosely packed, slightly warm shari to accentuate the natural sweetness of the urchin.

Chef Aki displayed his skill further with his choice of accouterments on other pieces. Uni butter that topped a scallop so delicate it was almost creamy, a sweet umeboshi sauce for the snappy tako (another item that was still moving), and a combination of sea salt and ponzu for rich pieces of anago.

I rarely order rolls and often skip dessert, but I would highly recommend the softshell crab and could never turn town a scoop of green tea ice cream from a generous host.

The food alone warrants a visit, but Chef Aki’s humble demeanor and friendly staff make the trip all the more worthwhile. Chef Aki obviously prides himself not only on his culinary skill, but the experience he provides. If you’re looking for great sushi and an equally great interaction, Akinori Sushi has you covered.

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  1. May I ask how much your meal was?

    8 Replies
    1. re: ipsedixit

      Sure, it's a bit harder to gauge since I went with a friend who did not want to do the $60 dollar omakase - though the couple next to us did, and I would say it is definitely a steal.

      I didn't mention everything in the review - repeat items, all of my friends items, etc.

      here's a list of the items we had
      House Salad
      Seaweed Salad
      Sushi Sampler 1 ( tuna, yellowtail, albacore, salmon, hallibut)
      Sushi Sampler 2 chef selection (otoro, chutoro, uni, tako, spanish mackeral, scallop, amaebi)
      2pc order live shrimp
      2pc order uni
      2pc order anago
      fried bones
      2x green tea ice cream
      softshell crab roll

      ~100 w/ tax pre tip.

      I'll certainly be returning for the Omakase. The sashimi platter was stunning as I mentioned in the review and I spotted an amazing looking kobe beef dish.

      1. re: Rodzilla


        Have you ever been to Shunji, Mori and/or Zo up in LA? If so, how would it compare?

        1. re: ipsedixit

          No, sorry I've only been to Urasawa, Sugarfish, and shibucho in OC.

          If you're in LA, I wouldn't expect you to make the trip for it. But if you're in San Diego already it's a great option.

          1. re: Rodzilla

            I'll actually be in SD quite a bit, so appreciate the recs. Thanks.

            1. re: ipsedixit

              Well I've visited a few and I'm always looking to hit more, but I know sitting at the bar at Kaito or Akinori (depending on where you are in SD) are solid choices.

              I can't speak for the bar at Ota, but just from what I've seen walking into the place I don't care for the ambiance - very crowded, rushed, and appears much less personable - it may be different once you're seated but not from the reports I've read.

              1. re: Rodzilla

                I've been to Ota once. It is definitely crowded, but I thought the pace at the bar was at my own and the service is very friendly. I thought hte sushi itself was very good but not great, and I definitely still prefer Kaito in SD

                1. re: FattyDumplin

                  I remember reading about your visits :D

                  1. re: Rodzilla

                    You guys in SoCal are lucky. Lots of v good to great spots all over la / sd. Much better than in the bay area...

    2. Based on Rodzilla's recommendation, I decided I had to check this place out. Full review with photos:

      Walking into a new sushi bar can be like a first date - you may or may not know something about the chef/restaurant before and you're trying to figure out if it will work out, and the chef is also trying to figure out what might appeal to you for your dining experience. Sitting down for the first time in front of Chef Akinori Sato and saying "omakase," there was definitely one of those awkward silences where he tried to figure out if I wanted the good stuff or just a variety. He went with the polite question of, "Sushi or sashimi?" to which we responded, "A little of everything" before the entire journey kicked off.

      Akinori Sato is the owner and head chef of Akinori Sushi, which opened one month ago. Prior to opening his own place, Aki (as he is known by his regulars and staff) was the head chef at Surfside Sushi. When I asked him about his style, he said that it was grounded in edo style, but my take was that he has embraced more of a modernist take on sushi with a liberal use of sauces and blowtorches. However, everything is based in the fundamentals of edo style from the loosely packed small amount of rice to the fresh wasabi.

      I had Aki at somewhat of a disadvantage going in as the restaurant came highly recommended by fellow food writer Rodzilla and gastrobit regular Michelle. I had a good feeling that the journey through this chef's menu would be exciting, but I really didn't know how events might play out.

      sashimi platter
      Aki started us with a sashimi platter - as he was making the sashimi, I inquired to if he had anything from Tsukiji. He informed me that while normally he does have product from there, this week it was closed. Fortunately, it was prawn season in San Diego and he had some amazing product locally.

      amaebi (sweet shrimp) - San Diego
      The amaebi was from local San Diego waters and still alive when Aki killed it. You could tell because the legs were still moving on the head piece. You can see this in Rodzilla's video if you're interested.
      The quality of the amaebi was incredible due to the freshness and both the texture and sweetness of the shrimp was the perfect way for me to start the meal.

      hamachi (yellowtail) belly
      Next, I sampled the toro of the hamachi. This was an incredibly nice flavor and mouth feel from all of the fat in the hamachi.

      jack mackerel
      While Aki called this Jack Mackerel (I'm guessing this is the proper name), usually others call it Spanish Mackerel. This was a great fully flavored cut of the mackerel and had a great depth of flavor as well as freshness.

      blue fin kama toro (tuna
      )Aki explained this dish as just "blue fin toro" but when I asked if it was chutoro (guessing on the color), he informed me that it was in fact not from the belly. When I offered "kama toro?" I think that is when he knew that I was serious about my sushi.
      The toro melted in my mouth and was probably the best sashimi on the plate. However, it was only the best by the smallest of margins as everything on the plate was amazing.

      aoyagi (orange clam)
      The aoyagi was probably the best in terms of flavor and texture I've ever been served. Usually this was more of a delicate sweetness, but I found that this particular serving had a fuller sweetness in flavor.

      uni (sea urchin) - San Diego
      We finished with a nice piece of local San Diego uni. Aki was explaining that he had imported from Santa Barbara at the old place, but found that the local San Diego variety was even better.

      Prepared Dishes
      fried amaebi head
      The first cooked dish to come was the fried heads of the amaebi - the perfect way to finish off enjoying the shrimp. The head was fully flavored with the meat and guts still in the shells. I did have a small debate as to if I should suck the head raw, but ultimately decided to wait for it to get cooked.

      prepared dishes plate
      Since not all the items were cooked, I'll just go with these dishes as requiring some additional preparation beyond the sashimi. Where the sashimi plate was more about enjoying the natural flavors of the product, this is where we learned a little more of Aki's own style and how he likes to present his food.

      hirame - white truffle oil, ghost pepper salt
      Aki explained this dish as being a "boring" fish so he had to make it more exciting. I was a little afraid when I heard the ghost pepper, but this dish ended up really working well. The ghost pepper gave the spicy kick and was just enough to open the palate to accept the white truffle even more. The halibut was the perfect conduit for the heat of the pepper and flavor of the truffle.

      ika (squid) - tapiko (cod roe), shiso
      The squid was an excellent quality in the texture, and it was accompanied by the tapiko to add salt as well as an additional element to the dish. The shiso served as a lettuce wrap type vessel for the entire dish.

      uni tofu
      Aki described this dish as his take on uni as tofu. In addition to the uni itself, he actually did incorporate some tofu cubes as well to give a nice color to the dish. This preparation was just more great uni flavor.

      rock shrimp - green onion, gochujang, miso, mirin
      The rock shrimp was a big surprise. The shrimps were fried to perfection and tossed in Aki's special gochujang miso mix. There was a great balance between the heat of the gochujang to the crunch of the batter to the sweet flavor of the shrimp.

      waygu - portabello
      This was the best dish on the plate and of the evening. I didn't clearly hear what the top bit was but Aki made a point to say that it was "free". The waygu started out chilled, but Aki brought out the torch to give the dish a quick sear.
      The waygu literally melted in my mouth; in combination with the top portion that might have been Fowl, Osprey, Ibis, or Egret liver was an intense flavor explosion in my mouth. There was a duality of succulent rich flavors from the beef itself and the topping on top that combined into a deep complexity of flavor. The most welcome surprise was that in addition to these flavors the torch gave a nice smoky finish to the meat, which served to cut into the fatty flavors.

      miso marinated chilean sea bass - shishito
      The Chilean Sea Bass was good, but for me the perfectly fried shishito pepper almost stole the show. The cod was cooked nicely and full of flavor, but the flavor of the pepper really complemented the sea bass.

      Palate Cleanser
      seafood cocktail
      okinawa seaweed, hirame (halibut), hotategai (scallop) cucumber, caviar , chive
      Aki named this dish a seafood cocktail, and it served as the perfect palate cleanser between the previous dishes and the sushi. I loved the visual impact of the dish as it almost seemed like there was a plant growing out of the cocktail.
      The combination of the seaweed and cucumber was extremely refreshing. As it was a hot day, as I enjoyed the cocktail, I was actually feeling any lingering heat escape my body. My only tiny complaint of the dish was that I felt the hotategai was a bit lost in the dish. Really there could have been any protein and the dish would have been just as good.

      sushi plate
      As with any proper japanese meal, we finished with the sushi as the main event.

      saba (japanese mackerel) - konbu, ginger, chive
      This was the best sushi for me of the night. The saba was wonderfully full bodied in flavor and the ginger and chive really served as a great topping for highlighting the flavor. The konbu was a nice glue element to tie all the smaller elements of the dish together. I probably could have eaten 10 of these as they were so good.

      seared blue fin toro (tuna)
      Aki brought the torch to this dish as well, and topped it with another "free" topping. This time I heard that the topping was a terrine that Aki made himself - it may have contained a combination of Fowl, Osprey, Ibis, and Egret livers. The fattiness of the toro and the terrine was a perfect flavor complement. The flavors of the terrine really integrated well with the toro to introduce a new flavor that had great qualities of each.
      This dish drew a great contrast in relation to the waygu dish - both relied on the duality of fat flavors combining into something more rich and complex. I'm somewhat curious how this dish would have worked with ankimo as the topping to get a true surf vs turf comparison.

      uni (sea urchin)
      There was some slight disagreement to which piece of uni was better looking so I just decided to include both. Uni is always a great way to finish off a sushi meal. The only thing that is better is when it is followed by anago.
      This is why I was really surprised when the next dish was introduced

      salmon belly - katsuobushi (bonito shavings), olive oil pesto, balsamic reduction
      This dish was a great dish for showing off Aki's creative flair. The salmon was topped with bonito shavings to add some extra umami while the balsamic added some sweetness. The real surprise came from the olive oil pesto (hidden under the salmon). The pesto was actually made with shiso instead of basil, so it was more concentrated in flavor. The amount of the pesto included was the perfect balance to give a surprise in flavor, but not enough to overwhelm the flavor of the salmon.

      soba (buckwheat noodles) - sesame shiso pesto, tomato, asparagus, onions, shitake
      I was even more surprised when Aki liked that we enjoyed his pesto and wanted to show yet another use of it. In this pesto sauce, he used sesame seeds to thicken the sauce. The result was a great umami-filled sauce to go with the Jap-Italian pasta.

      As part of the omakase, guests are offered ice cream, but we declined as we were completely satiated.

      My experience at Akinori was a wonderful journey. In addition to the traditional sushi and sashimi, I really enjoyed the additional prepared dishes sent my Aki. By the end of the meal he offered me the fist-bump signifying that my initiation to regular was complete. The entire meal was an extreme high with almost no low points. I enjoyed Akinori so much that I'm already trying to plan an return trip. Aki said that he does expect a few matsutake mushrooms to come in during that season, so I'm excited to see what he does with them.
      Inevitably, I think the question will be if Akinori or Kaito is better. If I compare comparable preparations of dishes side by side, I feel that Akinori would win more often. However, Kaito's omakase offers more of a progression where the flavors of the fish build on top of each other in a crescendo, so Kaito is still the top for me by the slimmest of margins.

      1. I ate at Akinori Sushi for the first time last week. I opted for the 5 course omakase, and the meal itself was delightful both in flavor and presentation. A few highlights:

        - Crisp, slightly salty-sweet clam
        - Halibut with ghost pepper salt
        - Live shrimp
        - Luscious hamachi
        - Perfectly al dente soba noodles with a pesto sauce
        - Delicate miso soup with tiny clams in the shell-- a perfect finishing course

        Unfortunately, on my visit the service was a bit rough. It was later in the evening on a weekday and the restaurant was quiet, with a few other people sitting at the bar and perhaps two or three tables occupied at any given time. A server took my order at the bar, and she seemed uncertain about how to process my request that the chef guide the meal. When we arrived at the omakase listing on the menu, she asked (with perhaps a hint of skepticism) whether I was okay with the cost, the duration, and the amount of food.

        People with food allergies or strict dietary rules may wish to be cautious here. I communicated to the server that I do not eat scallops, and the chef confirmed this with me. However, one of my courses was originally presented with scallops (a "cocktail" of layered salty plum sauce, cucumber sauce, scallops, and salmon roe) and when I reminded him of this restriction I was a bit taken aback to watch his assistant carefully remove the scallops from the dish and simply replace them with pieces of squid.

        At some point in the evening one or both of the servers made a mistake that cost the restaurant money, and I sat awkwardly as the chef upbraided them at some length (albeit not unkindly) for the error.

        As I said, the food was excellent-- certainly on par with Kaito and quite reasonably priced given the quality of the ingredients and presentation-- but the service issues detracted somewhat from the evening. I hope it's just a temporary problem with less experienced staff and a fairly recent opening.

        2 Replies
        1. re: zare_k

          Thanks for the report!

          May I ask why you don't eat scallops? I am surprised to hear of their "replacement" style, and sorry to hear the service wasn't comparable to the food.

          I thought Aki was a good host, but I did have a dining companion and could see where things might be less enjoyable if eating solo and/or he was taking care of several parties.

          1. re: Rodzilla

            Well, not to put too fine a point on it but the couple of times I ate scallops as a kid I got rather violently ill afterwards. I don't have any reason to think that they had gone bad or were not prepared correctly on those occasions so I have just avoided them ever since. I have no trouble eating shellfish otherwise. My partner, however, is quite allergic.