3396 30th St.
Like many Gen X-ers, my first exposure to sushi came courtesy of John Hughes' The Breakfast Club. Who can forget Judd Nelson's John Bender asking Molly Ringwald's Claire Standish how she couldn't accept a guy's tongue in her mouth, but would willingly eat raw fish? Shortly after viewing this cinematic masterpiece, Mom took me 'n' sis to a sushi joint in UTC, where I eagerly devoured this new favorite, really loving the sweetness of the raw fish.
In the many years since, I've learned some things about sushi. One, that the word "sushi" actually refers to the rice, and that there are many kinds of sushi that do not involve fish at all. And, two, that sushi can get pretty damn boring after a while-especially if your consumption is limited to tuna or California rolls. I mean, let's face it-when you can buy it at Costco and Ralphs, it's obvious that sushi is no longer the exotic treat it once was. While the vast majority of sushi places limit themselves to the standard offerings, there are a few places that dare to be different and apply some creativity to this now-pedestrian fare.
The newest creative sushi spot to hit San Diego is North Park's Zensei Sushi, and mad props to my girlfriend for finding it. While Zensei Sushi does have many of the rolls and nigiri sushi you'd expect to find anywhere, the menu also features a few options that are clearly different, in addition to a range of appetizers and entrées, many with a unique twist that makes dining here a genuinely fun experience-an opinion clearly shared by the young, hip diners crowding the joint and gabbing excitedly amid the beautifully presented dishes.
We began our meal with the traditional starter of miso soup. Zensei's take on miso is revelatory. Emeril might even describe it as "kicked up," possibly to notches heretofore unknown. I can't count the number of times I've had lame miso soup-thin, milky broth with a few sad tofu nugs afloat and some token green onion slices, the only flavor coming from the soy sauce I pour in. Zensei's miso soup, on the other hand, is rich and complex with a deeply flavored broth, toasted sesame seeds, tofu, green onions, chives and a generous quantity of fresh shiitake mushrooms. Simply put, this is the best miso soup I've had, and it is a bargain at $2.50.
As we were finishing our soup, our server brought out one of Zensei's many interesting appetizers, Firecrackers. This Asian twist on the jalapeño popper consists of a fresh jalapeño pepper half-stuffed with a crab and cream cheese mixture, dipped in tempura batter and fried. The tempura batter is light and crunchy, and there is no discernible greasiness whatsoever. The light cooking ensures a nice snap to the fresh pepper flesh, and the creamy crab filling keeps it from being too spicy. These are definitely worth a try.
When it came to sushi rolls, we went for the Stuffed Tomatoes and the Yellow Submarine. It was pretty hard to settle on these-all the choices sounded so good, and after trying them I don't know that we could have chosen poorly. The Stuffed Tomatoes consists of a spicy scallop mixture atop rice, wrapped in tuna and topped with roe. Very pretty to look at, they were also delicious, with the spicy scallops offering an unusually complex flavor. Most spicy fish sushi I've had is one-dimensional, but this had a lot more going on than mere spiciness. The sweetness of the tuna contrasted nicely with the scallops, and the perfectly cooked rice brought it all together.
The Yellow Submarine is a monster of a roll, constructed from eel, crab, cream cheese and avocado, then tempura battered and fried just long enough to cook the outside. Sliced and topped with eel sauce and garlic aioli, it's a pretty rich and decadent item, and so, so good. The contrast of flavors and textures going on here is amazing-crunchy, creamy, hot, cool, garlicky and sweet. It's another must-try item.
Zensei Sushi has a lot going for it: great food, a cool atmosphere with modern décor and mellow electronica music (future plans include adding turntables and a DJ for late-night dining) and reasonable prices, with rolls coming in between $7 and $10, and entrées at $15. It's a cozy spot, and it does get busy, so you'll probably want to make reservations, especially on the weekends.