Saturday, March 23, 2013

Ojai's Sushi Joints

As published in Ojai Quarterly Winter 2012 Issue

Photo by Bill Snider
Let’s be honest; I learned to eat sushi as a college co-ed just so I could guzzle sake and giant bottles of Kirin. I batted my eyes and charmed the sushi chef – who never asked for my I.D. – with, “dozo” and “arigato,” while stabbing my chopsticks unsuccessfully at a California roll. He urged me to practice, yet took pity on me every single time, and with some wadded up paper and a rubber band, he fashioned a spring action utensil just for me. Barely 18, this sushi joint on the beach in San Diego soon became my version of Cheers, where everyone knew me as “Risa.”

Eventually I mustered up the courage (maybe it was liquid courage) to sample more ambitious (and raw) sushi dishes, like unagi (eel), hamachi (yellowtail) and my favorite to this day: maguro (tuna). I drew the line – and still do – at rubbery and chewy tako (octopus). There’s still hope for me, I guess.

Readers of this column know the best cook in my house is my husband, for I am just a lowly food writer. While he isn’t one to bust out the nori and the bamboo roller, he does make a to-die-for ahi dish. He selects beautiful sashimi-grade ahi from either Sea Fresh in downtown Ojai or Ideal’s convenient drive-up window in Mira Monte. After a quick sear in blazing hot coconut oil in a cast iron pan, he slices the ahi to reveal the cool ruby red center and serves it up with cucumbers shaved thin on the mandolin and dressed with rice wine vinegar, sesame oil and soy sauce. The whole dish gets a liberal sprinkling of white and black sesame seeds (toasted or not).

When we feel the pull for authentic sushi, within a couple of miles three sushi restaurants in the valley offer up a diverse selection of raw and cooked Japanese cuisine. All offer the ubiquitous California rolls, beer, wine and sake, with lots of surprises mixed in.

11400 N. Ventura Avenue

On the way out of town, tucked between a gas station and a chiropractor’s office, you’ll find a sort of graceful roadhouse version of a sushi restaurant. The front porch offers alfresco dining, but walk inside and you’ll be assailed with gregarious voices booming, “Irasshaimase!” which I think means “Welcome!” or “Come on in!” Servers wear T-shirts with various “Miso” sayings, including, “Miso Happy,” and, “Miso Hungry” – all for sale, of course. Most nights you’ll meet the owner, Eddie, who may surprise you and join you for a beer (or a shot). In addition to an impressive sushi menu, teriyakis, tempuras, noodle dishes and a teppanyaki menu (ask to sit in the small teppan room) are also available. Favorite sushi rolls include the Red Dragon with unagi, crabmeat, avocado and spicy tuna on the outside. My favorite roll is the Wild Thing, stuffed with crabmeat and avocado, and topped with salmon and baked with a sweet mayonnaise drizzle (a local named Debbie has her name attached to a variation of this roll with spicy tuna inside instead of crab – just ask). Vegetarians will love the Green Veg roll with cucumber, sprouts, avocado, seaweed salad, gobo and pickled daikon. Don’t worry about dessert, because your check comes with luscious cheesecake bites.

967 E. Ojai Avenue

It’s not as casual and laid-back as Sakura, and the downtown Ojai location is certainly part of its appeal. Indoor seating includes the obligatory sushi bar seats, and a comfortable and charming patio awaits outside. The menu offers a dizzying number of selections (there are more than 50 sushi rolls to choose from), and several salads and appetizers to start. The mixed sunomono is our favorite – a cucumber salad lightly dressed with sesame oil and rice wine vinegar and served with thin slices of crab, octopus (which I always push over to Bill) and shrimp. Don’t miss the Baked Lobster roll - stuffed with crabmeat, cucumber and avocado, rolled with rice paper, topped with lobster, green onions and tobiko (flying fish roe), and doused with a delicious warm barbecue sauce. The Starfish roll is another standout - stuffed with spicy crab, cucumber, avocado, asparagus and tempura shrimp, wrapped with tuna, yellowtail and more avocado, and drizzled with a light dressing. The expansive menu also includes teriyaki, katsu, tempura, donburi and yakisoba dishes, as well as soups and udons.

Sea Fresh
533 E. Ojai Avenue

With a newly renovated and expanded layout - including a gorgeous patio for gazing at the Pink Moment - and a full liquor license, the hip sushi bar scene at Sea Fresh is a bit of a departure from the traditional experience afforded at Hakane and Sakura, but quality and creativity is never spared. And thanks to the family’s fishing vessel anchored in Ventura, neither is freshness, with primary catches including swordfish, halibut, white seabass, salmon, snapper and shark arriving daily. While you will find typical fish house staples like clam chowder, bouillabaisse and fish and chips, dishes like macadamia-crusted halibut and wasabi-crusted ahi give the menu a more contemporary slant. The sushi bar is the main draw for me, though, with the spicy garlic tuna roll a crowd favorite. My personal favorite is the spicy tuna tartare, layered with hot sesame oil, sesame seeds, avocado, crunchies, radish sprouts and wasabi dressing. The Tara roll is a sight to behold, artfully prepared with tempura shrimp, krab and avocado, and topped with spicy mayonnaise, eel sauce and Sriracha sauce.

Even though Ojai is 15 miles from the sea, we are fortunate to have so many choices for fresh and tasty seafood and sushi. Just remember, practice makes perfect with those chopsticks!