Sakana Sushi Bar
Roll Play: Sakana Sushi gives downtown Monterey a cozy and creative spot for special rolls.
Thursday, December 9, 2010
Good things come in threes, so they say.
With International Cuisine in Pacific Grove and Dametra Cafe in Carmel well established, Monterey’s Sakana Sushi Bar now joins the Nimri family trifecta.
Youngest brother Fadi Nimri has seemingly diverted about as far from his Jordanian roots as he possibly can. But as odd as it may sound, sushi and Nimri go back a long way. His first job in high school was as a sushi chef, a stint that lasted more than three years. “I just fell in love with the food and the artistic way of making it. It became a favorite.”
After being second in command at oldest brother Faris’s restaurant, International Cuisine (formerly Chili Great Chili), for about eight years, Nimri saved enough money to strike out on his own.
Sakana opened this summer in a shoebox of a space sandwiched between the Golden State Theater and what was Jugem Japanese Restaurant (before it burned down in 2009 along Alvarado Street). Very glad to see another sushi bar filling the void left by Jugem, I was excited to try it.
With tangerine-colored walls strewn with fishing nets, and floaters and sea creatures juxtaposed with red lanterns and an image of Buddha, Nimri describes his décor as Japanese in style with Monterey flair. The cozy space seats five at the sushi bar and about two dozen at mostly two-tops.
Soon after my dining companions and I sat down one evening, bowls of miso soup were brought to the table. As I sipped my soup, a flavorful concoction which Nimri credits to organic miso in a hon dashi (bonito fish stock) base, I perused the menu.
Sakana Sushi’s menu reflects tradition with customary items like edamame ($2.50) and a 17-piece sashimi assortment ($21.95). Modern interpretations include the “sashimi martini” ($7.95), albacore sashimi crowned with green onion, roe, doused in ponzu sauce and served in a martini glass, and “sea turtles” ($5.95), imitation crab blended with sake cream cheese sauce and topped with eel, served gunkan-style (aka battleship sushi, nigiri zushi wrapped with a wide strip of seaweed to form a cup on top and usually filled with mussels or roe).
The sushi spring rolls ($6.95), meanwhile, presented an inventive twist on the Vietnamese spring rolls, with “krab,” shrimp, cucumbers and lettuce wrapped in rice paper. While the bundle itself was bland, the sweetish, chef-crafted sauce revved it up a little.
Sakana may offer adequate nigiri and maki, but it’s their special rolls that shine (and they come with soup or salad). The creative process was a joint effort, says Nimri, who got together with a few chef friends to brainstorm the menu. Not only are many of the names fun and imaginative, the use of ingredients and textures is quite novel as well.
Take the Harley David-San ($12.95). I bit into buttery-soft salmon and chewy seaweed salad wrapped in rice as the topping of briny orange roe popped in my mouth and black sesame seeds added a little crunch. Other favorites included Star Kissed ($9.95), a creamy, Sriracha-spicy combo of tuna, roe and green onion “o”s; and the tropical-inspired Rio Roll ($11.95)—savory eel and avocado contrasting with the sweetness of crushed macadamias, mango and tare sauce (a thick and sweet soy-based sauce that our server aptly described as somewhere between unagi and teriyaki sauce).
Vegetarians and sustainable sushi fans can also rejoice in Sakana’s ample fish-free options. The Mock Rio has sweet tofu instead of eel, and artichokes play a starring role in Arti-San Roll ($9.95, goat cheese and sesame seeds) and Valley Heart ($7.95, with avocado and cucumbers).
Nimri believes that presentation is just as important as taste. And with their vibrant colors and careful composition, these rolls are as aesthetically pleasing as they are tasty.
Not everything delivers, though.
The Sea Breeze ($7.95), tuna with shiso leaf, was so plain that no amount of soy sauce could spike up the flavor. (They admitted using dried shiso leaf instead of fresh that day.)
When I came back to try some of their cooked dishes, I had their lunch special—two pieces of tempura shrimp across a small mound of bite-sized fried chicken pieces criss-crossed with teriyaki sauce ($13.95). A spring mix salad tossed with housemade miso dressing rounded up the meal. Unfortunately, the pretty presentation couldn’t save the dish; the chicken, though tasty, was tough on the outside—perhaps it sat under a heat lamp for too long—but more disappointingly, my rice was cold.
The service, while attentive at dinner, was spotty at lunch time. The server left the restaurant halfway through our meal and I had to hunt down the sushi chef, who was hanging out at Koko’s Café two doors down. One time, no soup or salad came with our order of Hula Roll and on another occasion, tofu was missing from our miso soup.
Obviously Sakana still has some kinks to concentrate on before it comes up to par with its sibling restaurants. Fortunately Nimri expresses the same genuine desire to please his customers that distinguishes the hospitality at International Cuisine and Dametra.
“I like to make people feel special when they come to Sakana. I take care of people,” he says. “Without my customers I have no business.”