Sushi Itto441 Washington St.Hillcrest619-291-60602 Forks
My friend Dan, scratch golfer and semi-professional glutton, proposed a mid-afternoon sushi bender.
"No chance," I told him. "Even sushi buffets don't open before 5."
"Sushi Itto," he said, a little too self-assuredly. "Open 11 to 11, daily."
Mid-afternoon sushi a couple blocks from home, and no buffet lines? By the time the phone hit its cradle, we had our seats at the sushi bar.
Early warning signs were not good: the display case showed the usual suspects, but not much else. There was no "specials" board. Non-Asian staff waited on non-Asian clientele, including so many children the dining room looked like an upscale daycare cafeteria. One little girl sat next to me at the sushi bar, munching salmon skin like Teddy Grahams. But most families sat at tables in the bright, spacious dining room, as there was not much room at the sushi bar.
But what the hell, I am no slave to authenticity, and besides, we were here for quantity, not quality. So when the prim fair-skinned manager handed us lengthy menus written in a curious amalgam of English, Spanish and Japanese, we ordered baby squid, in honor of the children. The appetizer-four miniature squid, bodies stuffed with cream cheese, and coated with eel sauce-was a light, sugary tease. And in retrospect, it epitomized the Sushi Itto approach: serve sweet, creamy, simple dishes with a broad appeal that owes less to raw fish than it does to cream cheese. Lots and lots of cream cheese.
A couple eight-piece nigiri and sashimi samplers ($14.25 and $15.75, respectively) covered most of the basics. Unfortunately, the first slice ("fresh" salmon) embedded a bone into the roof of my mouth. I poked around and found two more bones hiding in the albacore.
When we moved beyond the basics, things got even uglier. Our amaebi was so slimy it was nearly liquid, and the heads never showed up. Maybe deep fried shrimp heads would have been too much for wide-eyed children (or more likely, for their queasy parents). Saba Batera was a dense layered cake of seaweed, mackerel, rice, salmon skin, roe, more rice and cream cheese. Our chef explained that he had worked at Sushi Itto since November-which gave him seniority over the mackerel, but just barely-and this was the first time anyone had ordered the "mackerel press." Mashing the fish down brought out the oily, fishy taste of the less-than-fresh mackerel; even we felt compelled to leave most of the concoction on the plate.
The list of Itto rolls ($7-$8.50) seemed extensive, but closer inspection revealed a lot of repetition. Every recipe seemed to feature some combination of crab surimi, smoked salmon, eel, shrimp, avocado and, of course, cream cheese. Only three of the 25 rolls were made without cream cheese; of those three, two substituted manchego cheese. The usual sushi staples were far less prevalent: maguro and hamachi showed up in only one roll each. (Hamachi, strangely, is all but absent from the menu.) None of the rolls contained albacore.
The popular El Centro-marinated shrimp, cream cheese, and sautéed onions-was undeniably sweet, creamy and kid-friendly, but it was a sushi roll in shape only. The Eat-o-Roll wrapped rice around asparagus, carrots, avocado, togarishi (a vegetable sauce) and tampico (a crab surimi sauce). In other words, it was a fancy-sounding vegetable roll, for sushi dilettantes who want exotic-sounding ingredients, without any of that potentially difficult or off-putting seafood nonsense.
Even worse, the menu declared tampico and togarishi to be the trademarked and copyrighted property of Sushi Itto, which is not so much a restaurant as a global franchising operation based in Mexico City. Just like the Itto rolls, the copyrighted concoctions are almost comically simplistic, and not even particularly tasty. The corporate secret for Chiles toreado©? Sautéed jalapeños in soy sauce.
Disappointed and still hungry, we ordered the fried banana and tempura ice cream desserts, both predictably heavy on breading and light on flavor. As we haggled over the bill, we found three extra nigiri orders scattered throughout our lengthy receipt, seemingly at random.
We pointed them out to our chef, and he furrowed his brow gravely. "Oh, you know what I did?"
Yes, we do. And it sucks worse than your food.
Something smells fishy at cityeat @SDcitybeat.com.