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 and Umami, whose identities are the best-kept secrets in San Diego.
Saiko Sake and Sushi Bar, 2884 University Ave., San Diego, CA 92104
Hours: Open daily from 4 pm to close. Industrial Night is on Mondays and Flight Night on Wednesdays. Happy Hour daily from 4 to 6:30 pm.
If there ever were a happier marriage than between quality sake and scrumptious sushi, then the sun doesn’t set over the Pacific and San Diego isn’t America’s Finest City.
The two perfectly matched ingredients are the stars of the show at Saiko Sake and Sushi Bar in North Park, a welcome new addition to the growing foodie scene in one of America’s hippest neighborhoods. Saiko North Park is the younger sister of Saiko Coronado, which is now a favorite dining destination in that charming beach community.
Over the past year, the Taste Buds watched as the owners – Anthony Pascale, who is also the Executive Chef, and Evan Bennett, who is also the General Manager -- transformed the drab site of a former labor center into a sleek, beautiful dining and drinking spot with soaring ceilings and spacious environs. Saiko opened recently without much fanfare, but deserves a marching band serenade for coming to North Park.
One recent evening, Saiko Head Sushi Chef Jim Bruce entertained the Taste Buds at the sushi bar with great conversation. He also shared his vision for the “progressive” menu, which he describes as an homage to traditional sushi but with contemporary flare. He has banned cream cheese and rejected some of the crunchy elements found at ordinary sushi joints. He doesn’t fear using local ingredients in addition to flying in fresh fish from around the world, and he has embraced the trend of creating gels and foams. “But the focus is on the fish,” he asserts.
Saiko North Park is as serious as a heart attack about promoting quality sake as a key part of the dining experience, a way of distinguishing itself from its older sister in Coronado. On its website, the restaurant writes:
“Saiko Sake & Sushi Bar is a recent addition to North Park’s eclectic dining scene. Our space is beautiful and contemporary with exposed ceilings, local artwork and a striking mural. Enjoy sunsets and all of the action on University Avenue from our outdoor patio. In North Park we are very serious about sake, and the owners are currently the only two Certified Sake Professionals in San Diego. We select only premium sakes from regional breweries in Japan to complement our progressive Japanese menu of appetizers and sushi. Our wild caught local fish is FRESH and hand-picked daily by the Chef.”
Sweet and Umami, the two Taste Buds who dined at Saiko North Park, were treated to a generous sampling of sake along with starters, sashimi, nigiri, rolls and dessert. Some of the dishes are on the menu, and others were designed on the spot by Head Chef Jim.
Chef started us out with the Land ($12) and Sea ($12) sake flights, a total of six samplings of various brands of the alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice.
The Land flight, labeled “Rustic & Robust” on the menu, featured:
● Seven Spearsmen – Shichi Hon Yari (Junmai), a complex taste with earthy notes tempered with a hint of grapefruit, and often called a whiskey-drinker’s sake.
● Red Maple – Komoizumi (Nama Koshu), a smooth but rich sake embodied with raisin and dried fried notes.
● Cranes of Dewa – Dewatsuru (Kimoto Junmai), a very nice sake brewed by ancient techniques with a full body and high acidity.
The Sea flight, labeled “Clean styled sake” on the menu, featured:
● Beautiful Lily -- Yuri Masamune (Honjozo), mild and traditional, hinting at nutty and fruity flavors.
● Tenth Degree – Izumi Judan-Dewazakura (Ginjo), nicely dry with a hint of juniper and suggestive of gin.
● Isle of Paradise – Ichishima (Honjozo), also dry and with whiffs of ripe banana skin.
To get started, we were served the Grilled Japanese Mushrooms ($9) and House Edamane ($4.50). Both were stellar dishes. The edamame, or green soybeans, were pumped up with salt, garlic and a few spices that wake up the taste buds. The mushrooms – including Maitake, King Trumpet and Enoki -- were quick grilled to bring out their woody flavors and mixed with a few ginger slivers in a remarkably simple dish that paid a spectacular tribute to the common fungus. Unami has never tasted mushrooms so delicious and could eat this dish every day.
Chef then sent out Local Yellowtail sashimi ($14.95). It was seasoned very lightly with black garlic, Tai basil oil, a sliver of jalapeño, and micro cilantro. The balance of flavors was a marvel, with the jalapeño adding a pinch of heat on the last bite.
Spanish Mackerel ($14.95) – from Japan – is on the fishy side and was flavored gently with a soy-ginger ponzu. It was served with an a Fried Fish Head (not on the menu but served upon request), which we pinched off pieces and ate like potato chips. Chew well!
Chef showed us a live Spot Prawn, a treasure found along the West Coast, including at Black’s Beach here in San Diego. He then served it up raw along with the fried head. The raw prawn, which also is not on the daily menu, was naturally sweet and delicious. The fried head -- we peeled off the legs -- contained sweet and juicy morsels worth the effort.
Also not on the menu were the New Zealand Salmon and the Smoked Scottish Salmon. The New Zealand version was drizzled lightly with white soy with a hint of wasabi and a touch of scallions. Sweet was impressed with how various flavors hit the palate at different times. The Scottish version had a smoky flavor tempered with Miso Mustard, a really nice and flavorful choice.
The Hawaii Tuna was marinated for 6 to 7 hours in a mix of sake, soy, mirin and more. Served with a sliver of jalapeño and a white soy sauce, the tuna leaves you begging for more. That was quickly followed by Spanish Blue-Fin Tuna, known for its oily flesh and flavorful nature. The “king of tuna” is also extremely pricey on the open market. This piece was so extraordinary that the tuna almost melted in the mouth. Unami is not a huge fan of tuna but is a convert after trying this dish.
Chef created a Kilroy roll ($12.50), featuring lobster, seasonal whitefish, avocado and tempura asparagus. He served it with micro cilantro and his special Szechuan Blueberry Gel. The unusual gel amazingly works with the roll, although Sweet wished that Chef had a heavier hand on the Szechuan ingredients. The tempura asparagus added the crunch.
As the Taste Buds were about to lapse into a food coma, Chef crowned the evening with spoonfuls of five ice creams and sorbets that are created in house. We liked the Green Tea, Lemongrass and Hoji Chat (roasted green tea) ice creams, were rendered breathless by the Ponzu sorbet that needed taming, and blown away by the Eel Sauce ice cream (salted caramel using soy, salt, mirin and other ingredients).
The Taste Buds plan to return regularly to Saiko North Park because it will become one of their go-to dining/drinking spots.