Mister Sushi Mixes Hip Decor, Japanese Cuisine

A new Encinitas eatery offers banks of television sets on the walls, "Cajun" seafood on the menu and contemporary rock on the radio.

This combination sounds almost ordinary until you consider that the name of the place is Mister Sushi, and that, for all the high-tech effects, the restaurant serves a menu reasonably faithful to traditional Japanese preparations.

Some Japanese cooking styles and dishes have been around so long that they honestly can be called antique, which makes the contrast with the decor all the more sharp.

This convenience center restaurant looks to have been designed by a performance artist, or at least by someone with a mania for mixed media. In addition to the silent TVs (playing network dramas and Japanese game shows, reiterated mercilessly from screen to screen) and the blaring radio, there are the cooks, at work behind the granite-topped sushi and teppan bars that line opposite walls.

Both the overall look and mood are stark, which, for better or worse, puts them in the same camp as a growing number of ultra-contemporary, self-consciously chic, big city restaurants.

Mister Sushi is the first North County outpost of the tiny but well-regarded San Diego chain that comprises the original Mister Sushi in Pacific Beach and Mister Noodle (Japanese pastas and soup noodles) in Kearny Mesa. The menu is surprisingly broad for a place of moderate size, and, in addition to a comprehensive sushi list that features many house creations, it includes steak, shrimp and chicken dinners cooked on the teppan grill as well as a variety of kitchen-prepared entrees.

At its most clever, the sushi list offers a specialty called the rainbow roll that mirrors the high-tech tone of the restaurant. Except for the misfortune of the surimi (a fishy-tasting, fish-based product that supposedly resembles crab) salad stuffing, this roll is first-rate, and consists of a coif of seasoned rice topped with overlapping slices of avocado, shrimp and raw fish, sliced and arranged in a snaky shape that makes the colors arc in rainbow fashion across the plate.

A sushi roll or plate makes a successful opener (although Japanese custom regards sushi as the main event, rather than as a first course), but there are quite a number of appetizers from the kitchen, including a relatively elaborate sunomono salad of shrimp, octopus, salmon and cucumber; smoked salmon, served in the Western style with capers and onions; banana tempura; clams steamed in sake and beef tataki . This last dish consists of very, very rare meat, rather than thoroughly raw as in Italian carpaccio; sliced rather thickly, it is a little off-putting at first, although the flavor is exquisite and the sweet, pungent, soy-based dip quite refreshing.

Full meals include a bowl of miso soup that, for whatever reason, is richer and better flavored than most, and a salad of iceberg lettuce decorated with a solitary, almost embarrassed-looking tomato wedge. But the salad is nice with the pungent soy-sesame dressing and nicer with the racy, slightly hot ginger dressing. These dressings seem to have American roots, and the cross-cultural influence is even more emphatic in the twin blobs of mayonnaise and "ranch" dressing plopped on the florets of broccoli that garnish entrees.

Except for a scallop saute and a shrimp "kebab," the entree list concentrates on tempura, beef, chicken and salmon teriyaki and breaded meats and seafood. The lightly breaded calamari steak, when all was said and done, was a calamari steak plain and simple, as emphasized by the tartar sauce that joined it.

The same breading applied to the pounded chicken breast in the katsuretsu worked to better effect; this was a rather tasty version of fried chicken, and as unlikely as this may sound, the red cocktail sauce offered for dipping made a happy contribution. Even better, however, was the much more traditional, sticky-sweet katsu sauce.

Mister Sushi

111 N. El Camino Real, Encinitas

Calls: 944-2800

Hours: Lunch and dinner daily

Cost: Prices vary widely; entrees from $7.50 to $18.95

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