Sushi Ota4529 Mission Bay DrivePacific Beach858-270-5670
Lately I've become a personal food concierge for a lot of my friends, and even a few strangers. I get e-mails, text messages and phone calls asking where to go for birthdays, anniversaries, or for this or that kind of food in one neighborhood or another. None of it bothers me; in fact, it sort of suits my personality. And since I consider a memorable meal to be one of life's greatest pleasures, I'm happy to help facilitate that experience for others.
In addition to providing restaurant recommendations, I'm also frequently asked about my regular haunts. While it's probably not cool to play favorites, there are some restaurants with which I have a long history, places that have made me the foodie I am today. So when that question arises, Sushi Ota is invariably the first or second name to pass my lips.
Though I'm thankful that my introduction to sushi began at Sushi Ota, it has also kind of ruined a lot of other sushi meals. When the craving strikes, I'll get rolls somewhere in a pinch, but I'd rather save up and go big one night here than have a bunch of so-so sushi meals elsewhere.
The right way to experience Sushi Ota is with the omakase, or chef's choice menu, a series of tastings that'll expose you to both the traditional and more contemporary Japanese dishes that lie beyond California rolls and chicken teriyaki. The omakase will set you back the cost of a meal at a fine-dining spot, and although Sushi Ota's Pacific Beach strip-mall location isn't fancy, it's very comfortable, especially if you're in one of the big leather chairs that line the sushi bar.
My preferred seat is in front of Mr. Ota, the soft-spoken head sushi chef and owner. Though all the itamae who work down the line are very accomplished, I feel most comfortable in Ota-san's hands—he's the one who ignited my infatuation with sea urchin, or uni, some of the best of which comes from just off our shores. All the seafood served here is the most pristine of what's available locally and abroad. It's where I've taken many sushi aficionados and I've certainly got company in the fan club—there's usually a good-sized crowd out front. Still, I was a little nervous when I suggested to some friends that we bring their Japanese visitor in for dinner, concerned that it wouldn't stack up to the food back home. We'd taken him to a local yakitori spot the week before and he seemed to enjoy himself, or maybe he was too polite to tell us otherwise.
We sat at the coveted corner in front of Ota-san, ordered a couple bottles of sake and let the chef do his thing.
Omakase meals usually begin with a small bite to perk up the palate. Ours was a cube of marinated mackerel with pickled vegetables. We moved on to individual wooden block plates of sashimi that included chu-toro from a section of buttery tuna belly, yellowtail and sweet, crunchy wedges of raw giant clam. Mr. Ota's favorite, a mackerel from Japan, and mine, a briny-sweet lobe of uni, were also on the plate, as well as—much to a friend's dismay—a whole live spot prawn whose whiskers were still moving. The head was whisked away, to return deep-fried and thoroughly crunchy, grilled or added to a soup. Next up was a long white plate with food presented as it might look in a modern French restaurant: artfully arranged baby squid in a miso-vinegar sauce, miso-marinated Chilean sea bass and tiny sautéed vegetables from Chino Farm.
Then came a saucer of perfect fish and vegetable tempura followed by a succession of nigiri, the hand-formed sushi that we're all accustomed to but rarely is it done better than here: salmon, barbecued sea eel, more toro, yellowtail, mackerel and uni nigiri, plus thin, cylindrical maki rolls filled with chopped tuna belly and Japanese potato. We also got small bowls of the best miso soup ever, garnished with littleneck clams and the optional shrimp head. A massive, 4-foot-long octopus tentacle that I'd seen one of the chefs wrestling with earlier arrived on our plates as snowy-white pillows on oblongs of rice. Because of its delicate flavor, Ota-san grated some fragrant rind of yuzu, a Japanese citrus, and Mongolian rock salt on top of each piece instead of having us dip it in soy sauce. Kiyoshi, our Japanese friend, ordered a dish from the specials board, one he rarely sees stateside: grilled squid legs with a fresh ginger dipping sauce.
Sushi Ota's not the kind of place that has 2-for-1 sake specials or funky rolls; it's just pure, quality ingredients, thoughtfully and carefully prepared by people who care. I always leave pretty dazzled by the experience.