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DINING REVIEW: Akinori sushi in Hillcrest impresses the Taste Buds

San Diego Gay & Lesbian News has a regular dining-out column written by The Taste Buds, SDGLN's resident foodies. Today's review is by Sweet, one of our staffers who plan to keep his/her identity the best-kept secret in San Diego, and guest foodie Umami.

* 1417 University Ave. in Hillcrest.
* 619-220-4888
* Website: Akinori sushi
* Open for dinner: 5:30 to 10 pm Sunday through Thursday; 5:30 to 10:30 pm Friday and Saturday

Chef Akinori “Aki” Sato confidently creates his culinary works of art in full view of up to 12 wide-eyed patrons sitting at the L-shaped sushi bar at Akinori sushi in Hillcrest. A sharp blade slices through fresh fish steaks as Chef prepares masterful morsels ranging from sashimi and sushi to California rolls.

Using various ingredients at his fingertips, Chef Aki turns each dish into a thing of beauty, as appealing to the eyes as to the taste buds.

On a chilly, rainy night in San Diego, Chef warmly welcomes the Taste Buds and invites us to sit directly in front of him at the sushi bar so he that can show off his masterful skills. It is quite a show, and Chef shares his secrets.

Our dining experience begins with a hot towel to refresh ourselves, a first-class touch. A hot saki arrives to counter the chill in the air outside.

The deep red walls behind the sushi bar add warmth to the room as well. Diners can also choose sit-down service in another large room, a contemporary-décor space where tables or booths are spaciously separated from each other. Akinori is busy on this night of inclement weather, which speaks to the growing reputation of this new restaurant.

Daily specials are handwritten on a chalkboard menu on the wall behind the sushi bar. This day’s fresh fish, flown to LAX and transported to San Diego, included halibut from South Korea, big-eye tuna from Hawaii, monk fish liver from Maine, salmon roe from Alaska, shad from Japan and sea urchin from off the coast of San Diego.

First course

The first dish (seen above at top left) features four slices of yellowtail sashimi, each getting a slice of jalapeno (minus seeds). Chef then sprinkles pink peppercorn, Japan’s variation of diced scallion, smoked serrano pepper salt and a ponzu-sauce jelly. The final touch is a spritz of truffle oil.

Sweet says the dish is as good to eat as it looks, a beautiful starter. The yellowtail is very tender and almost melts in the mouth, and the flavors imparted by the added ingredients gives this dish a spicy and salty twang.

Umami likes the combinations, but finds the dish just a tad too salty: The jelly is made from ponzu sauce (soy and vinegar) and there is also smoked serrano pepper salt. Sweet loves the heat from the jalapeno, smoked Serrano pepper salt and pink peppercorn; but Umami prefers less spicy.

Chef says he initially created this dish for a special pairing with San Diego brew Monkey Fish, and that it was a hit during San Diego Beer Week. So he offers it during Chef’s Choice servings or by request.

Second course

The second course (seen above at middle left), served on an oversized gray ceramic plate, includes Spanish mackerel, yellow tuna belly, Scottish salmon and sea urchin. This dish is served with a small bowl of ponzu sauce.

The mackerel, aka aji, includes shiny silver skin that contrasted nicely with the gray plate. The skin and the fish texture are firm, a nice contrast to the previous dish.

The salmon is exceptionally delicate yet rich in taste.

The tuna belly is simply fabulous and flavorful.

The sea urchin rests on a fresh slice of lemon, and this delicacy truly melts in your mouth.

The fried fish head tastes like pork rinds, and both of us nibble at it.

Chef tells us that fish caught anywhere in the world can go from sea to plate in San Diego within 24 to 48 hours. Some fishers keep their catch alive, transported in containers in passenger jets.

Third course

Chilean sea bass is one of Sweet’s favorites, and is the star of the next course.

The bass is soaked in a miso bath for two days, Chef says, then grilled and placed on a small bed of Japanese squash puree.

Monk fish liver, shaped like a half moon, is covered with salmon roe and chives. Finishing off the dish is two cubes of unicake (tofu and egg mixture that is steamed).

Both of us think this dish is the least successful of the evening. The sea bass portion is too large to eat in one bite and the squash puree is too flimsy to pick up with chopsticks. Sweet says the squash overpowered the sea bass instead of creating harmony. Umami finds the morsel too oily as well.

The monk fish liver is nice. Umami quips: “As someone who doesn’t like liver, this is pretty good!” Sweet liked it with the red bell pepper puree.

Then there was the unicake. The flavorless tofu takes on flavors it is combined with, and in this case still didn’t have much taste. Even the puree didn’t impart enough flavor to elevate the dish.

Fourth course

Time to try the California rolls. Chef whips up Kill Bill (seen above at lower left), one of many humorous titles for his rolls.

This is a big hit with Sweet, but Umami thinks the heat is too much. OK, the roll has habanero hot sauce, jalapeno slices and salsa. Ole! Japan meets Mexico. There’s also avocado to counterbalance the heat. The roll has cilantro, sliced lime and salmon, shrimp tempura, eel sauce, fish eggs and more.

Sweet absolutely loved the explosion of flavor coming from Kill Bill, saying “this is fabulous.”

Fifth course

Chef introduces us to a new item, not yet on the menu, called Tokyo Bam-Bam. He constructs halibut with cream cheese, eel, avocado and chipotle sauce. Then he lights kitchen torch, browning the exterior of the roll and making the cream cheese ... well, creamy.

The cream cheese deftly counterbalances the heat of the chipotle sauce, and this dish is a hit with both Taste Buds.

Sixth course

Chef sends us each a bottle of Koshihik Ari Echigo, a flavorful Japanese craft beer that was named World's Best Rice Lager in 2009 at the World Beer Awards.

The final course is Godzilla, another roll that pleases Sweet for its spicy nature.

The spicy yellowtail tuna has jalapeno, garlic ponzu sauce and tempura crumbs for texture. Umami notes that the Godzilla is “hotter” than the Bill Kill, taking another sip of the beer to calm the taste buds. Sweet calls Godzilla a beast worthy of its namesake.