ON WITH THE SHOW

By Steve Mayberry

Hillcrest sushi bar all about presentation

Kemo Sabe
3958 5th Ave.
Hillcrest
619-220-6802
3 Forks

As a reviewer, I realize my tastes are not necessarily in line with the silent majority. Yes, the latest summer blockbuster is manipulative and clichéd. But when you're a movie reviewer, forced to watch all those three-hour monstrosities, maybe back-to-back-to-back, it can turn you into the type of person who prattles on about the subtext and prefers subtitled lesbian coming-of-age stories set in Kuala Lumpur.

Kemo Sabe is a lot like a summer blockbuster: big, showy, dramatic, loud and, above all, an undeniably successful crowd-pleaser. The back wall is plastered with row after row of reader's choice awards; on every visit, the dining room was near capacity.

As our smiling waitress led us through the room, I told her I'd tried to eat here several times, but they always seemed to be closed or closing.

Oh, on the slow season, we close at 9, sometimes earlier, she said as she sat us at the only available table in the room.

There are no plates at Kemo Sabe, only a variety of oblong platters resembling bathtubs, canoes and ceramic end tables. The presentations therein are like miniature carnivals, with colorful garnishes and dips and sauces stacked up and shooting off in all directions.

For instance, take the accompaniments to the Arizona roll, which was sliced into three pieces and standing on end. A pile of peach halves sprinkled with jalapeño slices and diced red pepper; long, curling, paper-thin strands of cucumber topped with ginger and soy sauce; stalks of curled lemon grass piercing the rolls; a dollop of wasabi, a thin serrano pepper standing upright in the middle; a sweet red sauce with a drizzle of mustard, fenced in by two jicama logs; and a scoop of fresh guacamole. There may have been more.

I felt like I was playing Mousetrap, as if I could have pulled on a garnish and started a chain reaction that would have set off some hidden fireworks, or spelled out Kemo Sabe in Christmas lights.

The waitress gave us much-needed step-by-step instructions on how to eat the crusted Brie. And with sweet jalapeño jelly and honey-roasted garlic, it ended up being more dessert than appetizer. Why not? It stands to reason that the flavors and textures at Kemo Sabe would be crowd-pleasers, too. The menu is full of foods that Joe Six-Pack might consider exotic, but nothing is too shocking or unusual, and the prices are what people call reasonable. Call it fine dining for the masses.

But this is not to say the menu is sure-fire. Stick with server recommendations, like the brie or the Anazasi ravioli, two spinach pastas stuffed with rich goat cheese, roasted corn and leeks, dusted with chili powder and coated with a creamy, smoky-sweet cascabel sauce. Only the pepitas sprinkled over the top seemed over-the-top. The white Mexican prawns, grilled in a sweet barbecue sauce and set in nests of goat cheese, were as wonderful as they sounded.

Of our recommendations, only the Arizona roll was a miss, doughy and underwhelming, the duck lost. Stay away from the stuffed filet, too-it was an unimpressive steak with an unremarkable stuffing. The numerous fried gnocchi on the side were a bland disappointment. The coconut calamari came with two sweet sauces in crispy wonton bowls, over shredded beets, shredded carrots, rice noodles and so on. But the actual calamari had no discernable coconut flavor, and actually ended up being mostly less flavorful, pub-worthy calamari strips.

The dessert platter summed it up, a three-story tower of unrestrained decadence. At the top, a phallic, chocolate-coated slice of plantain stood in a large scoop of ill-conceived pineapple-ginger ice cream, served in an edible half-white, half-milk-chocolate bowl. On my right was a slightly lumpy but otherwise adequate crème brulee. The chipwich-style cheesecake on the other side looked far more intriguing than it tasted, a standard cheesecake filling between two praline tuiles. Between those two was an anomaly, the deep brownie bowl, a low-budget presentation of crumbled brownie and chocolate syrup in a ceramic pot, topped with whipped cream. Of course, that ended up being my date's favorite part of the meal.

Sometimes, simpler is better.

Like plates that look like miniature movie sets? Tell me why at cityeat@SDcitybeat.com.