Slow Your Roll
Take time to enjoy all the inspired Japanese cuisine at Oh! Sushi.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
After parking on an uninspired stretch of Fremont Street between the highway and Casa Verde, I discovered my destination at a new Japanese restaurant was inside an ordinary Travelodge, during, as we all know, the worst economic crisis in 79 years, and on this night, in the rain. The evening could not end well. I was way off.
Near a gurgling pond, the door opened into an overly illuminated gallery of Japanese ceramics. Upon entering the dining room, I saw something that thoroughly disarmed me. A shelf of about 50 lacquered boxes contained chopsticks, each with a customer’s name on them. I liked these people already.
A friend and I sat at the 18-seat sushi bar. Only a handful of the 20 or so tables were occupied, but more customers arrived in time. The owners of Oh! Sushi hail from Oxnard, where they have a restaurant of the same name, and they have clearly put some money into this new location. Everything is clean and new. Sleek, dark wood furnishings, large plasma TVs, and a separate karaoke room are elements in a casual place that isn’t fancy nor design-y, but is very comfortable.
A fashionable couple sat down near us and I flushed with envy at their hairdos, youth and personalized chopsticks boxes. They said they discovered Oh! Sushi a few months ago and have developed a habit of coming on Monday nights for football and 50 percent off beer and sake.
I couldn’t stop sipping my Sho Chiku Bai Nigori unfiltered sake (375 ml, $9.99). It was chilled, as good sake should be, and had a slightly sweet richness that would complement the grandiose spicy rolls we’d be ordering soon. We began with simple sushi before assaulting our taste buds with those and also vowed to base our choices on the Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program’s new sustainable sushi guide.
The staff was so friendly, they made dining fun, and I became paranoid that they knew about my secret mission. Then I noticed my neighbors were also treated well and received a complimentary dish as we had (a good reason to sit at the bar). Our chef, Tim, was not only skilled, but bilingual, translating for his co-chefs who spoke Japanese– a good indication of authenticity.
Though there are many hot dishes, the massive menu is mostly cold, raw sushi and has 80 photographs. They’re too small to be too practical, but are likeable in their sincere desire to be helpful. Hotties include rice bowls, udon, soba, teriyaki, short ribs, sesame chicken and dinner combos. Rugrats under 12 can order a platter for $7.50. Most of the 16 lunch specials cost $9.50 or $10.50.
The actual plates are leagues beyond the photos, with pretty tendrils of vegetables and cool shapes of this and that. There are small, gratis extras in the elaborate garnishes, and in general, each item included more than we expected in quality and quantity, so you may not need as many items as you typically order. A free cucumber salad that accompanied the wasabi and ginger tray was so refreshing with its paper thin slices that I bought another ($4.95) and my companion had a large tender seaweed salad that was all dolled up with a side of orange segments and lettuce ($5.95).
The Pokky Salad, a house special that is always offered, could be a standard opener for me– mesclun with angel hair wisps of daikon, carrot, beet and onions with bits of various raw fish ($8.95). Well-chilled with a feisty “special house” dressing, I wondered why every restaurant that has a sashimi appetizer does not make a raw fish-vegetable salad like this.
Nigiri sushi costs $3.50 to $9.50 for two pieces. The albacore was generously draped way over the rice for $4.50– fresh and very chilled. Tim served us unctuous uni that oozed freshness ($7.50), and it would be unforgivable to serve anything less. Long ago, when I developed a taste for uni, no one bothered to tell me it was sea urchin gonad, though I should have been suspicious of the squishy blobs. Once the taste was acquired, I no longer cared.
The menu details what’s inside and outside of the seaweed wrap on each roll. For example, the Albacore Delight #22 ($11.50) has avocado, cucumber, and albacore on the inside and on the outside, albacore and avocado. Most of the rolls are thick with layers, and yet nuanced, demonstrating real knowledge of flavor-combining. The #22 was drizzled with chili oil, and promptly exposed my inner gluttonous pig.
We wanted a crab roll, but all the recipes involved tempura. I shun fried components in sushi as counterproductive to the raw, fresh experience I seek. Tim was happy to make a custom roll of spicy crab and avocado– one of our favorites. I know I keep saying “well-chilled,” but like the fish on each order, the crab was just that, and it made a positive difference throughout the meal.
We retreated to the appetizer menu and ordered one late in the dinner that is urgently recommended: the Jalapeño Bomb ($8.90). I also retreated on the sustainbility vow and devoured the concoction of spicy tuna, a large chunk of whole jalapeño, a hint of cream cheese and a delicate wrap of tempura. Though cream cheese is another item I eschew in sushi, the beauty here was in Tim’s light touch.
Feeling inadequate for bearing the ordinary chopsticks of the common folk, I found out what it would take to get a personal set: Come in at least once a week. I’m well on my way to qualifying. They don’t call it Oh! Sushi for nothing– it deserves to be a success, and I hope it is.
OH! SUSHI 2030 Fremont St., Monterey • 11am to 11pm daily • 333-9292.