Mizu Sushi ups the ante for Carmel's Japanese restaurant scene.
Thursday, August 21, 2003
Photo by Randy Tunnell: Won''t Break The Bank: Mizu Sushi offers reasonable prices--for Carmel.
After 16 months and two owners, Mizu Sushi in Carmel finally has a buzz going. Since Tony Ventura purchased the Japanese restaurant four months ago, it seems to be attracting a high ratio of locals to visitors.
I went to check it out in June and have been back twice. It''s the kind of place you''d want to find an excuse to sit around in even if you weren''t hungry. The decor is contemporary and lovely and not at all stuffy (like some restaurants in upscale communities can be) with Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye and Miles Davis backing up the the reigning sushi chef of the evening, either Jin or Jason, who are the youngest, liveliest sushi chefs around. These two may lack many years of experience, but their dedication compensates well. Both seem to enjoy their trade and the banter with customers that ensues when the work level allows.
On our most recent visit, we--my family of three plus my daughter''s friend--sat at the sushi bar where we could watch the chef in action and enjoy looking at the spotted quail eggs, translucent cuttlefish, and gnarly, primeval octopus in the glass case. The bar''s L-shaped configuration encourages conversation, and we exchanged menu suggestions and random comments with strangers throughout the evening.
I''m not an expert on sake, the Japanese beverage that''s actually closer to beer than to wine because it''s fermented from a grain (rice), but I love to drink it here because they serve it in a traditional wood box if you ask. My daughter insisted that the lipstick mark on the rim of my box was there before I drank from it, but that unhygienic possibility didn''t dampen my enthusiasm.
For years, sake was served hot to mask the low quality of much of the production. As quality has improved across the board, most sake tastes best slightly chilled, though some is fine warmed. Sake can taste dry or sweet, so experiment and enjoy. I ordered the light and refined Sho Chiku Bai, a Ginjo sake, at the middle of the price range for $12.
The evening''s specials were written on a chalkboard and signaled an ambitious streak. Surf clam, amberjack, cuttlefish, sea urchin roe (uni), Spanish mackerel, and fatty tuna made up only part of the list. Ventura has expanded the menu with more hot entrees such as rice bowls, noodle dishes, and grilled seafood.
How to begin a meal at Mizu? There are salads, tempura, and a list of starters. The restaurant was out of my first choice, sauteed Japanese peppers (shishito), so Jin recommended agedashi tofu--deep fried tofu. This is just the kind of dull-sounding dish I appreciate as a test of cooking skill. The high-quality tofu couldn''t have been more delicately fried. A hint of bonito flakes added flavor without jerking my taste buds around. On another visit, Jason made the Tartar Duo, a truly exquisite starter of chopped raw tuna with red onion and peppers and, separately, house-cured salmon with dill and red onion wrapped in seaweed (nori). There are more ingredients, but I''ll leave you to discover the details.
I was delighted to try the Sansai Ika Salad--marinated squid on organic greens. Ginger added zing, as did some of the spicier greens. We also tried several orders of nigiri--not exactly a complicated recipe--but they were fresh, served at a cool room temperature, and held together well.
The menu features 22 rolls, $4 to $12--some play it straight, some are edgy. Those we tried were attentively constructed and fresh. I liked some more than others, but it''s a matter of personal preference. I prefer strong flavors such as hot spices, sesame oil, sweet sauce (as on unagi, cooked eel), or avocado. You may choose those with raw or cooked fish, or bold ingredients like macadamia nuts, roasted shitake mushrooms, tempura avocado or mango.
The Spicy Tuna roll is highly recommended as one of the best and, at $6.50, lowest priced rolls. The menu doesn''t mention that it contains avocado, so it comes as a surprise bonus for fans. We tried the Pebble Beach (just for the name) with spicy snow crab, shrimp, cucumber, gobo (burdock), sprouts and avocado. We also ordered the rainbow roll--a family favorite--that layers assorted fish over avocado, rice and nori. Normally I don''t care for tempura items in rolls because the fried flavor dominates every other flavor, but I tried the Tsunami Mame roll with calamari steak tempura and roasted shitake mushrooms because it sounded so good. I''d prefer it with sauteed calamari.
Dessert is a choice between green tea, mango, or pineapple-coconut ice cream, for a reasonable $2.50. Apparently, the owner''s wife searched for this brand for two years after trying it at a San Jose creamery. The owners wouldn''t tell her the brand name, but she finally found it and it''s no secret here: Loard''s from San Leandro.
Generally, Carmel''s Asian restaurants are havens of relatively affordable and casual dining that add welcome texture to a landscape of restaurants that primarily fall into three categories: old world rustic, old world fine, and modern American. While essentially Japanese, Mizu Sushi doesn''t duplicate anything else in town, but has a personality all its own.
Mission between 8th and 9th, Carmel
Open 5-10pm, Tues-Sun.