If you are eating sushi in Japan, issues of etiquette are considered very important in their traditional society; but in our easy going beach town, less formality prevails, especially at the casual and friendly locals hangout ... Hapi Sushi.
This storefront eatery features a sushi bar along the length of one side and three tables along a banquette on the other, so that you are always facing the chef.
There is a mural behind the bar that is a take-off on Japanese ukyio-e (woodblock prints). The opposite wall is painted with mountains and fish. If you get tired of watching the chef make sushi, there is a large big-screen TV in the corner.
If you are a first time sushi eater or have some questions, here are just a few basics to get you by.
Sashimi is chilled raw fish that is to be eaten with chopsticks. Nigiri sushi are pieces of raw fish on rice to be eaten in one or two bites as finger food. Temaki is a cone-shaped hand roll usually wrapped in nori that you eat like an ice cream cone. Maki, the long rolls, are to be eaten with chopsticks.
Accompaniments include: shoyu (soy) sauce, wasabi (Japanese horseradish) and pickled ginger. The ginger is a palate cleanser, meant to be eaten between orders.
Making a dipping sauce out of the shoyu and wasabi is an American custom.
The important thing is not to make a wasabi soup. The chef has carefully calibrated the flavors and hates to see them lost in a sea of shoyu.
When you do dip nigiri sushi, be sure to dip the fish side only. Rice soaks up too much sauce.
Maki doesn’t really need to be dipped at all as it is already fully seasoned and is often served with a special sauce.
Chef Sato presides over this tiny bar with humor and panache. He greets the mostly repeat customers by name and remembers their favorites. The printed menu has no prices and serves only as a preliminary guide. It lists a few appetizers and the rest are rolls and hand rolls. There are no other options here.
The night we were there, some people came in looking for other styles of Japanese food so Sato graciously sent them to Laguna Sushi down the street.
There is a blackboard menu above the bar with the specials and prices, which gives you an idea of what your meal will cost.
The best approach here is to put yourself in Sato’s capable hands. This is a traditional way to dine at a sushi bar and it is called omakase (chef’s choice). This allows him to be creative with the best ingredients of the day.
On our visit, toro and albacore tuna, crab and salmon were obviously the fish of the evening. With these limited choices, he delivered an amazing variety of tastes.
We began with a seafood salad comprised of super fresh buttery tuna and crunchy octopus mixed with sweet onion, cucumber and mesclun in a delicious spicy rice vinegar dressing accented with a sprinkling of sesame seeds.
Next came the rolls, beginning with one that was filled with tuna, crab, avocado, rice and spicy daikon radish, which had been delicately battered and fried.
It was served in a rice vinegar and sesame oil sauce. This was a well-balanced co-mingling of flavors and textures that certainly required no “wasabi soup.”
A very different roll was the delicately flavored salmon, albacore, avocado and rice roll in a soybean paper wrap garnished with fresh shredded daikon; comprising what he calls a “Japanese burrito.” Here, the subtlety of flavors and textures provided a completely different palate pleasing pastiche.
Our third roll was belly tuna, crab and avocado that had an undercurrent of sweetness. In this one, the excellent rice was particularly noticeable.
Making sushi rice is an art form in itself. When it is good it is very, very good and when it is bad, it is BLAND. Sato’s is definitely in the first category.
There are two secrets to properly cooked sushi rice, the first is timing it so that each grain of rice comes out like a little pearl and the second is that the sweet vinegar seasoning sauce flavors the rice without over or underwhelming it. It gives the rice a slight stickiness, which serves as the backbone for the sushi.
Less successful was the crispy gyoza, which was deep fried rather than pan-fried. Pan-frying gives some crispy skin and some chewy skin. Deep-frying creates a more uniform crunchy exterior, which is less interesting. In addition, the pork filling was non-descript and slightly mushy.
Monkfish liver is definitely an acquired taste. It appeared as a special on the menu board and the chef was slightly reluctant to prepare it for us until we assured him that we liked it. It is not dissimilar to foie gras in texture and flavor except it has a slightly fishy aftertaste and is somewhat less fatty.
Between courses we cleansed our palates with Sato’s pickled ginger. He has chosen a very good quality ginger that is less sharp and vinegary than many we have tried.
Wanting to taste one of his handrolls, even though we were quite full, we selected the scallop special, wrapped in nori and topped with a mayonnaise sauce. Maybe it was a bad choice to end the evening since, compared to the other dishes, this one was somewhat boring even though the scallops were very fresh.
Other menu choices that sounded tempting were the caterpillar roll with eel, avocado and strawberry and the California roll with the addition of halibut, mint leaf and lemon.
If you are in the mood for rolls, this is the place for you!