For our latest trip to Saiko Sake & Sushi in North Park, San Diego I had a mission. I wanted to make sure we were sitting in front of Chef Anthony Pascale since he had recently returned from a trip to Japan visiting his wife and daughter, who are staying there for awhile taking care of Grandpa, as well as touring sake distillers and eating his way across, seemingly, the entire island.
Chefs, when they find time to travel, are always researching – checking out new flavors, combinations and ingredients. In fact, I highly recommend that next time your favorite chef has been on vacation, give him or her a month or so to get over the jet lag and experiment in the kitchen with the new flavors and ideas they collected and then go in and eat. You might be surprised at some of the cool new food they’ll be whipping up as specials or chef’s choice items.
This dinner was everything I expected and then some. While it certainly reflected the every day menu and the pretty flawless techniques and offerings that Saiko Sake & Sushi Bar is known for, all of the dishes we ate on this evening were first time specials by Chef Anthony.
Side note: First time specials are not always a good thing – you takes your chances and you takes your lumps. On this evening, the only lumps I had were in my throat as I quietly sobbed and choked back tears of joy.
The appetizer consisted of a “Play on Oysters” complete with edible oyster shell, bell pepper kimchi and a lemon scented oyster mousse topped with a light tobiko (flying fish roe) caviar. It was light and a perfect lead in to the next dish, which was a jaw dropper.
Sake & Soy marinated Big Eye Tuna would have been pretty impressive on its own, but the Enoki mushrooms marinated in a sake/gojujang sauce made this taste almost like a Korean BBQ meat dish, savory and succulent with the miniscule enoki mushrooms bursting individually and releasing a light briny flavor that married with the sauce to create umami perfection.
It sounds weird to consider a smoked dish a palate cleanser, but, somehow, this one was. The house smoked scottish salmon was fatty (which is where all the flavor is) with a delicate smoke that was beautifully counterpointed by a miso mustard glaze.
Usually, when served two different pieces of Nigiri on the same plate, the chef will indicate which should be eaten first. Often, the one that the chef says to eat last will be the better bite of the two. Along came a plate with a piece of Hatchet Scallop Nigiri, topped with Bluefin belly (toro) and Bottarga, a salted, cured mullet roe on the left side. To put this in context, it’s like piling crab on top of lobster and topping it with caviar…but better.
On the right side was Octopus nigiri with bone marrow and preserved Yuzu, a highly aromatic citrus fruit that is rarely served in its natural form. Typically, in Japanese cuisine, Yuzu is used for flavoring other items such as vinegars or sauces. My personal favorite use of it is Yuzukosho, which is like a savory, salty pepper relish that is accented by the citrus fruit. Try some next time you’re having yakitori – you can thank me later.
So, Chef lays this out in front of us. We looked at the plate and looked at Anthony. He knew what we were waiting for – a little direction. Instead, he stood with a patient, wry half-smile on his face leaning slightly against the sushi bar.
After what seemed like a full minute, but was really more like an hour, I finally caved and asked, “Which one first?”
His response was, “Doesn’t matter.”
Really? So, you’re trying to tell me they’re both so freakin’ good and compatible, that no matter which I eat first, I’m gonna like the second one better?
Normally, I would have eaten the Scallop second, only because I knew what a flavor explosion the Bottarga was going to provide multiplied by the fatty tuna belly and backdropped by the light sweetness of the scallops. Not only that, Octopus always worries me. Not because I don’t love it, but because if I get one that’s not good, I’m going to hate it and then I’m going to bitch about it for the next month or so.
But, the gauntlet had been thrown. He knew which one was gonna be better and he knew I thought I knew. There was no way I was giving him the satisfaction of doing what I thought he thought I was going to do. So, I made a big show of slowly picking up the Scallop and savoring every chew. It was better than I thought it would be.
Crap. That better be some damn fine octopus, my friend, and even then, there’s no way it’s better than what I just had.
Never, and I do mean NEVER, have I had a piece of octopus literally dissolve on my tongue. This thing has me doubting my ability as a writer, as I can barely find the words to describe the tender touch of feathery lightness, smooth as a glass texture and delicate flavor that married with the buttery bone marrow to slide down my tongue like a glycerin coated, slightly briny, mildly fish flavored shot of lighter-than-air deliciousness, leaving only the faintest whisper of citrus behind to let me know anything had ever happened.
I looked back up, speechless and slack-jawed, and Anthony started to describe how he found out the hard way he’s got a severe allergy to Daikon radish. His allergy is so severe that, if he handles a daikon without gloves, the skin will start to peel off his hands. At some point he figured that if the enzymes in the daikon were strong enough to do that to his hands, they might make a good tenderizer for octopus.
All that was left was the mic drop…
…but, there was more. Now, we were getting into some hot dishes. Here’s a tip for finding out how good your favorite sushi chef is – try his hot dishes. While I think that raw dishes are the epitome of cooking, only because you’re dealing with tiny portions and precisely placed ingredients without the ability to mask and blend flavors using heat and tons of spices, I think the measure of any great sushi chef lies in their ability to translate that skill into his hot dishes.
That theory was proven correct, once again, by this miso marinated black cod served with farmer’s market fresh roasted corn, fava beans and squash. It was flaky, delicate and had the difficult to achieve light miso overtone without becoming a Miso bomb.
It was gut check time when a hunk of Crispy Pork Belly arrived. My thoughts are that it was completely oven roasted, low and slow and maybe thrown on the plancha or in the deep fryer at the end to crisp it up. It had a bit of density to it, not fall apart tender, but that was actually a bit of a relief after the trio of delicate dishes that had preceded it, giving us something to sink our teeth into. The red miso plantain puree provided a nice balance of sweet to the savory flavor of the pork belly.
I’m pretty sure Anthony contacted some mutual friends before we came. If not, he and I think scarily alike. For years, uni or honeymoon oysters (usually a mix of fresh oyster, toro, roe, uni and a medley of other great ingredients) have been my go to dessert after a sushi meal. They’re fresh with lightly sweet, crisp flavors and somehow seem to purge the fish flavors from the palate without erasing the memories.
Unbidden, Anthony placed these honeymoon oysters in front of us with a healthy dose of Black Pearl Caviar and Stone Crab added. The caviar was smooth and briny, lacking the familiar crispness of more traditional caviars, but in the best possible way. The rest of the bite, well, it was a perfect cap to a pretty dang special meal.
After all of the aforementioned rambling about the food, it was really the sake selection and collective knowledge here at Saiko Sake & Sushi that blew me away. Evan Bennett, Anthony’s partner, along with Anthony not only own the two Saiko locations (this one in North Park and the original in Coronado), but are two of only three certified Sake professional currently in San Diego. There is a fourth on the way, an employee who has passed the the test and is currently awaiting his certification.
During the meal, Evan provided us a beautifully choreographed sake tasting that danced with and around each course. Continuous training and a heavy emphasis on sake at the North Park location means that you can have a great experience here by simply interacting a bit with your server. They know the right questions to ask and the nuances of the sake in a way that actually puts this place higher on my list for chilling and drinking sake than for sushi, strictly because of the uniqueness of the sake experience.
FYI, if you’re looking for something special to do this month, keep an eye out on Saiko Sake & Sushi’s Facebook page for their upcoming Sake Brewer’s dinner on May 12th. At the dinner, five sake brewers are flying in from Japan to present the pairings. This promises to be a special and unique event, especially given my latest experience, and I will most definitely see you there! Here’s the lineup of brewers and breweries that will be represented:
Mr. Doi (Takatenjin, Soul of Sensei/Sword of the Sun)
Ms. Miho Fujita (Yuho, Eternal Embers/Rhythm of the Centuries)
Mr. Sato (Ginga Shizuku, Divine Droplet)
Mr. Igarashi (Tensei, Song of the Sea)
Mr. Sato (Chiyonosono, Sacred Power/Shared Promise)
Here’s the Rundown on Saiko Sake & Sushi:
Saiko Sake & Sushi is located in busy North Park San Diego. Parking – just find the closest pay lot and hoof it a few blocks. Leave yourself 5 or 10 minutes walking time. It’s a roomy establishment with plenty of space even at the sushi bar to spread out a bit. Servers are on point, well trained, and knowledgeable about all of the offerings. Empty plates vanish into thin air and water glasses are of the infinity variety…never empty.
There’s plenty of beer, local and imported, tap and bottled, but that’s true for most San Diego establishments. Do try the sake here. Even for those that are not familiar with this Japanese rice beverage, the menu is full of everything from easy to drink to complex choices and is broken down into a unique menu system that groups sakes by their characteristics. The sushi, well, it pairs well with the sake. Expect a well rounded experience here and, if you trust your server, you can pretty much pair yourself into heavenly oblivion.
Expect to spend $25-$60 per person depending on how hungry you are when you arrive. Sake flights are reasonably priced as well. Parking in the area ranges from $3-$10. If I had a third thumb, they would get that one up, too. Cheers, my friends!