I never thought I’d enjoy my first heart attack, let alone look forward to my second. But I did, and I do. Such is life at Ikebana on North Main in Salinas, where new owner Estella Kim and her chefs are only enhancing the inventive and incendiary character of a place that already spotlights double-sized rolls like the Monster (rib-eye steak, macadamia nuts, shrimp tempura, avocado, cream cheese, cucumber and green onion, $10.95) and the Firecracker (deep fried spicy tuna roll with hot and sweet sauce, $7.95).
The Heart Attack ($10.95), one of six impressive (if pricey) new specials, is six halved jalapeño pepper shells filled with cream cheese and wads of spicy tuna that are then deep fried and ringed with three different spicy and sweet sauces. The fiendish creation is as flavorful as it is creative, with the savory sting of the peppers complementing (and not overshadowing) the fresh fish and cream cheese. A chef told me it’s their most popular roll. I get that.
For attack reinforcements, Alex and I called on another special, the Albacore Delight ($10.95), and the San Francisco ($4.25) from Ikebana’s old menu. All told, the roll-out marked the first time our ever-expanding sushi stomachs were satisfied with just three rolls, but with good reason: the delight is a load, with crunchy tempura albacore, cucumber, avocado and garlic on the inside alone, and panzu sauce, lemon zest, green onion, tobiko and more fresh albacore on top. The well-presented roll moved us to roll our eyes in, well, delight, with the lemon zest providing a surprisingly nice zing of texture and flavor. Meanwhile, the SF’s black tiger shrimp, avocado and cucumber offered a compelling argument to make California rolls obsolete.
Server Mark told us that the new owners will retain the old menu, which is sizeable, in its entirety. (Then again, he did also “guarantee” that Alex and I would like the cold unfiltered Nigori Créme de Sake, $4.75, and the milky-sweet-and-bitter flavor didn’t really click.) The old menu includes long lists of boats and teryakis, a two-sided color picture-menu of rolls, and even 10 or so different Korean dishes.
We returned on a Wednesday to give the 14-seat sushi bar and the boat menu a dip in the soy sauce of experience and found the spacious 100-person-capacity spot doing healthy commerce, but still feeling uncrowded (a strong suit of the big, tiled main salon, which is bordered by the sushi bar on one side and a private 30-person karaoke room with a big screen and built-in speakers on another). As the chefs hollered their hellos, we moved past the individually charming (but overall clashing) murals and took a seat in front of a chef named James.
Within minutes we were awash in a texturally rich sushi-in-Salinas experience: sips of hot sake ($4.75/large) gave way to the tobiko ball bearings, cucumber crunch, soft avocado and sweet magura of the Main Street ($4.50), chased by a crisp splash of cold Sapporo ($4.75/large)—all while James and his sidekick (who introduced himself as “James Jr.”) massaged filets and seaweed into art.
The jovial James-and-James-Jr. show made the already quick servicequicker—James Sr. even fed us a sample of the Heart Attack before our Number 6 box (miso soup, salad, teriyaki chicken, maguro sashimi, tempura and rice, $14.95) hit the bar. When it did, the meaty rectangles of magura melted on our tongues and the tempura proved perfect; the chicken, however, was grisly, the miso MIA.
While we deliberated on an appropriate clincher—thinking another stylish roll would have green tea ice cream ($2) beat—James dropped another delicious nibble on our palates. The Pepper Yaki, itself a popular special ($10.95 for a full plate), consists of long, thin slices of seared maguro rimmed in ground black pepper, drizzled in panzu and decorated with a crescent of jalapeño and a drop of Sriracha chili sauce. Tasty stuff—the crackly bite of pepper transitioned into the soft dissolve of the fish nicely.
We closed the evening with an eight-piece Salinas roll ($4.50). As I worked the roll’s tiny tobiko eggs through my mouth with the yellowtail, salmon and avocado, I realized I hadn’t expected to enjoy my sushi-in-Salinas experience so much—or to look forward to the next one. But I did, and I do.
IKEBANA SUSHI 1315 N. Main St., Salinas • 11am-2:30pm, 5-9pm weekdays; noon-9pm weekends • 449-5151.