With more than 50 rolls on the menu, Sushi Heaven is just that.
Thursday, October 30, 2003
During a relatively recent period of human evolution a sushi-eating civilization has arisen in Carmel-by-the-Sea. There are now seven Japanese restaurants in Carmel, compared to four in 1998. When I heard that yet another temple devoted to raw fish opened, I wondered what mutation the brazen Sushi Heaven could possibly muster to ensure its survival. I invited a friend and went to find out.
Sushi Heaven is the least casual of the group. That isn''t to say the air is formal--owner and chef, Soon "Sun" Huh warms up the place with a welcoming spirit and sense of humor.
A reputation is already beginning to gel around this three-month-old establishment. There was only one table available on a Wednesday in October at 8pm.
Sun dreamed of a place of his own for years while working locally at Mizu Sushi and Sapporo, and before that in several Bay Area restaurants. His brother Jin helps out as a cook and sushi chef, and his mother created some of the needlework art featured. Sun designed the bold, Euro-Asian interior himself with opulent orange walls and a sushi bar of dark oak. With cushioned booths and chairs, you could sink in for a long evening. Imagine moody hours of sake and idle chatter punctuated by the occasional arrival of a tasty tidbit, ordered one at a time to create a sensual dining rhythm. With 32 indoor seats and a few more on the pretty patio, good feng shui reigns.
A waitress in a beautiful kimono served us green tea and miso soup. Both tea and soup were served automatically and free of charge. Next, she delivered a small cucumber and crab salad, also gratis, that eased me effortlessly into the meal.
In addition to the interior design, it''s the rolls that separate Sushi Heaven from the pack. The beverage options are simple, the starter dishes are familiar, the hot entrees are straightforward Japanese fare, and there are several styles of ice cream (tempura, mochi, or plain) for dessert.
Sun says there are 50 rolls on the menu and 150 more in his head. Some are tight little taste bombs, some are florid and baroque, one is art museum-quality with a wrap of cool green cucumber and avocado around edible hues of red and gold and peach. Sun said he plans to add ten more rolls to the menu soon and offers to make us one of his as-yet-unnamed specials. We couldn''t refuse, although until I exhaust all the rolls I want to try on his menu, I won''t need any specials.
After my friend ordered a fine seaweed salad that I tried, we decided to do a spicy tuna roll tasting because there were four variations on that theme on the menu and a comparison seemed like fun. Our first try was the basic Spicy Tuna Maki, from the standard, non-specialty section. It was compact and bullet-like, a wonderful appetizer-size roll with almost invisible diced cucumber and heat from seven Japanese peppers. A very good start.
Then we tried the Tuna Tar Tar, a two-piece Gundan-style item. Each piece sported a large, toasted nori (seaweed) wrap with a base of rice and oozing-out-the-top chopped tuna with green onion, sesame oil, quail egg, and prodigious wasabi throughout (the menu warns of the wasabi content). It was perfect--my favorite.
The Tom & Jerry features spicy tuna atop fried rice topped by avocado. The rice was hard-packed without nori to hold it together, and crisp. It was my least favorite, but if you prefer to omit the seaweed and you like fried rice, there was nothing wrong with it.
Finally we tried a Hot Spicy Tuna Roll with cucumber, gobo (burdock root), kaiware (daikon radish sprouts), and kampyo (dried gourd). Don''t fear the unusual ingredients. It presents delightful flavors with some crunchy texture from the vegetable ingredients. Like all of the rolls, it had a favorable balance of seafood to rice.
I was surprised when the bill only came to $34, without alcoholic beverages or tip, because the evening had an extravagance to it that generally manifests in the final tally. Most specialty rolls cost $6.50 to $8.50--some less, some more--with most standard rolls priced at $3 to $6.
There will always be good reason to rotate dining among my favorite Carmel sushi spots and I''ll base the decision on the momentary desire for particular items I know, on matching my mood to the particular ambience of a place, and on convenience of location to where I am before dinner or need to be after.
When the excitement abated, we realized we had succumbed to the whiz-bang special effects of the action-packed rolls--only the quality of sashimi could indicate whether Sushi Heaven cracks under pressure or can play in the big leagues. But alas, I''m leaving this for my next visit, and for you to discover if you can resist a meal made entirely of rolls. As both a restaurateur and chef, Sun seems to have the proficiency and the moxie for a successful balancing act.
Dolores between 7th and 8th Streets, Carmel
Open Mon-Sat 11:30am-2:30pm and 5-9:30pm.