Gossiping Gourmet: San Shi Go looking better than before

San Shi Go has been in Laguna for a long time and although the décor was never a draw, their fabulous ocean view provided all the visual satisfaction one needed. However, the restaurant has undergone a recent facelift and the old girl is looking good. Located high atop the Village Fair (on the third floor), featuring reasonably priced Japanese cuisine, the place seems to be buzzing all of the time.

We have always found the cooked food superior to the sushi and our latest visit reconfirmed our opinion. We also recommend ordering a few dishes at a time to enjoy a leisurely meal. Service is very attentive and you won't find yourself waiting.

Starting with simple hamachi sushi, we were underwhelmed by the quality of the fish… not bad but not special either. We moved on to the seaweed salad and were duly impressed. The bright green crunchy wakame was enhanced by the beautifully balanced, sweet and sour dressing and given variety with shredded carrot and sesame seeds. If you've never tasted a seaweed salad, try it — you'll like it!

We've always found that San Shi Go excels in agé dishes (deep-fried), so we ordered an old favorite, soft-shelled crab. One very large, golden-crusted crustacean arrived with two sauces, a spicy aioli and a light, lemony ponzu sauce. It was as good as we remembered. We alternated dipping between the delicate ponzu and the zippy mayonnaise. The sweet, luscious crab was coated with a crunchy, nearly greaseless batter and most importantly, the fry oil tasted very clean.

We tried two different ahi preparations, the tuna tartar and the spicy tuna roll. The tartar itself was rather bland but it came with a very tasty sweet and salty sauce and a topping of surprisingly good caviar, all presented on a shiso leaf, which is distinctive and delicious, itself. Much more interesting was the spicy tuna roll with the rice composed around a puree of smoky tuna with zesty mayonnaise. Texture came from toothy gobo root, cucumber and radish sprouts.

Our neighbor at the next table was munching on a bowl of very appealing looking tempura on top of udon noodle soup and she said it was as good as it looked. After ordering it, we agreed completely. The light, excellent tempura batter coated three large shrimp and a wide variety of garden vegetables: yam, broccoli, carrot, squash and onion. The shrimp were as sweet and fresh as any we have tasted. We rescued the crisp tempura before the soup made it soft and then proceeded to slurp up the perfectly cooked chewy udon noodles and the lovely broth. (We've never understood the Japanese propensity for putting deep-fried food into soup, which can only render it soggy.) This was our favorite dish of the evening.

All complete dinners come with house salad and miso soup. The salad is of the standard romaine, red cabbage variety but the pleasant rice vinegar dressing with shredded daikon makes it very Japanese. The miso soup had a nice broth but the miso flavor was too subtle. There are two black cod preparations, one with mushrooms and teriyaki sauce and the other with miso sauce, which we chose. They both come with a lovely and generous side of tasty stir-fried mixed veggies. The fatty cod was velvety and juicy but the miso, sweet wine sauce though flavorful, was a bit heavy for the delicate fish.

Desserts are rarely a focus in a Japanese meal. San Shi Go is no exception, offering ice cream in three guises: regular, mochi and batter fried.

This local favorite and family friendly spot has been consistently serving Japanese cuisine at affordable prices and the new refreshed décor makes it an even more pleasant place to dine.

ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at m_markowitz@cox.net.

San Shi Go

Where: 1100 S. Coast Hwy., Suite 303

When: Lunch: Tuesday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Dinner: Monday through Thursday, and Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.

Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

Prices:

Appetizers: $3.50 to $10.95

Sushi and Rolls: $3 to $13

Entrées: $6.95 to $16.95

Desserts: $1.50 to $4.50

Wine:

Bottles: $21 to $57

By the glass: $5.50 to $12

Sake: $3.80 to $90

Information: (949) 494-1551 http://www.okidokirestaurant.com

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