Everywhere you go, it’s “all-you-can-eat.’’ Buffets abound, but can quantity and quality coexist? I pondered this quandary as a stenciled sandwich board sign boasting buffet lured me inside Crystal Fish on Lighthouse Avenue.
Although owner and Japanese native Sho Sakaguchi has worked in kitchens up and down the California coast, Crystal Fish is his first restaurant. On its second day in business, the animated man in command was holding court around a table of men who’d stopped by to wish him well and share a meal. In between bites and bits of conversation, Sakaguchi would shoot up out of his seat to greet each new customer and proudly announce that he’d just opened for business. The man was beaming like a first-time bride.
The décor, from prior tenant Ichiban, is still a bit bland. But the 10-seat sushi bar is dramatically centered in the back of the room—almost like a Broadway stage. Sadly, its display cases sat empty and bare during lunch hour. Still, I would not be distracted from the task at hand: to eat all I could. A person on a budget can’t go wrong here. Lunch is $7.98 a person (beverages extra).
I bypassed the iceberg lettuce salad and went straight to the big-ticket items. California and avocado rolls. Tempura vegetables. A ground beef curry with onions and carrots. Roasted chicken. Udon pasta. The wait staff of one continually checked on me, clearing away plates and making sure my soda was filled.
Buffet is a term that insinuates many options, but the array of offerings were surprisingly slim and quite a few were not all that Japanese. Midway through my plate-piling, Sakaguchi broke free of his influx of well-wishers and briefly explained his food philosophy.
“It’s not quite Japanese cuisine, and not quite American cuisine—but somewhere in the middle.” It was all beginning to make sense.
I stared at a wall lined with framed black and white illustrations featuring aquatic creatures—one with an octopus, two with fish. A bowl of miso soup cleared my thoughts. According to ancient Japanese mythology, miso is a gift from the gods and this version was especially tasty.
After finishing off the moist and flavorful (though fatty) chicken, the surprisingly good sushi, and some orange and papaya slices, I staggered toward the exit.
I decided to go back for dinner when the full menu would be available. The dinner menu features a well-rounded list of nigiri, maki and sashimi, priced from $5 for two pieces of nigiri to $10 for sashimi. It also has Asian appetizers that go well beyond the sushi and sashimi, like beef tataki ($7.50), gyoza ($6.50) and shumai ($6.50). There are salads, including seaweed and cucumber, as well as pickled vegetable, calamari and sashimi varieties. A short list of sides includes real wasabi and premium soy sauce for an extra buck.
Full disclosure: I am purist when it comes to raw fish. I refuse to bludgeon fresh fish with promiscuous use of wasabi paste or soy sauce. Give it to me simple, and it better be good enough to stand on its own. After unsuccessfully trying to order a beer (liquor license is on its way), I ordered some Hamachi (yellowtail, $5) Shiro Maguro (albacore tuna, $5) and the Monterey Maki ($9.50). This night, Sakaguchi skillfully wielded his 10” knife behind the bar in a sushi-making frenzy, still graciously greeting each and every guest. Hamachi is an upstanding fish in my book, and this particular piece was of discernibly high quality.
Gently draped over carefully formed mounds of rice that were neither too clumpy or too grainy, the fish melted in my mouth. Ditto for the albacore experience. I ordered the Monterey Maki mostly out of curiosity and to see what concoction was representing our fine town. It wasn’t simple. Eight pieces of spicy tempura soft shell crab bathed in mayonnaise were topped with stunning crimson slices of tuna and a heap of shredded crabmeat. This trifecta of fish needed less mayonnaise and more ponzu sauce.
Unlike my all-you-can-eat food extravaganza, I knew when to say “when” and restrained from ordering dessert, which included green tea ice cream, tempura banana and tempura cheesecake. As I headed toward the lantern lined doorway with a pleasantly light, yet sated, feeling in my belly, I knew that less is more when it comes to dining at Crystal Fish, and deliberate decisions from the á la carte dinner menu is the way to go home happy.
514 Lighthouse Ave., Monterey • 649-3474
Lunch: Monday-Friday 11:30am-2pm
Dinner: Monday-Thursday 5-9pm • Friday-Saturday 5-10pm