I have always thought of Sammys Sushi as a fine example of a great neighborhood sushi bar the sort of place usually full of regulars enjoying their favorite rolls, fresh nigiri, and perhaps a couple beers or some sake. The atmosphere is always friendly and the bar usually packed at peak hours. The fish that I had eaten there had always been good and fresh, but I never thought of going to Sammys for an exotic sushi experience. Last Saturday changed my mind.
Kirkk, who has known Sammy for years, arranged a special evening of unusual dining for a few of us lucky eaters (Kirk, Annie of the green beans food blog, her beau Owen, and myself) last Saturday evening. We started with a salmon skin salad, tender leaf lettuce mixed with salmon skin pieces, dressed with a tangy ponzu based sauce, and topped with tiny pearls of tobiko (flying fish eggs). The salty, almost bacon-like taste of the salmon skin provided a nice flavor contrast to the other ingredients and brought back to my mind my mothers wilted lettuce salad of my youth. Thats a good memory.
Then the star of evening arrived in front of each of us: half of black spiny sea urchin shell, filled with ice that was covered in shiso leaves, on top which were placed a half dozen pieces of totally fresh uni that had just been scooped out of the shell. I have often been impressed with the freshness and quality of uni at several other San Diego sushi venues; it seems that some of the worlds best uni lives in the kelp forests off the coast of San Diego. But the uni last Saturday was a cut above any other I have ever eaten, and in fact, the urchins were alive until Sammy and an assistant prepared them for us. The taste of these moist, golden-orange innards was ethereal. Each piece was so tender it virtually dissolved on the tongue, melting into a rich, creamy, slightly sweet, mildly nutty flavor, tasting ever so slightly of the Pacific ocean.
One of the things that made the evening special was not only the steady, unrushed pacing of the meal (and of course the outstanding company I had) but also the way the dishes were sequenced. It would have been hard for any piece of sushi or sashimi to follow the incredible uni. But the chunk of barbecued black cod in miso sauce was perfect for the next course. The fish was warm and flakey, with a slightly caramelized exterior, and the sweet complex flavor of the fish was totally different from what had preceded it. While also a rich dish, the richness of the fish was totally different from the richness of the uni.
Next came baby awabi (abalones) in their shells. The abalones were tiny, and their lightly flavored flesh was crunchy, not chewy at all. The ponzu sauce, thin sliced rings of green onion floating on its surface, was a perfect complement. The Washington state oysters, also in their shells, were a total contrast. While the abalone had been small and crunchy, the oysters were huge, soft, and richly flavored. Each oyster was truly a mouthful and I have a big mouth (no comments, please). The oysters also benefited from the ponzu poured over them and their grayish color rimmed with black was enlivened by a generous sprinkling of tiny orange tobiko caviar, whose texture provided a slightly crunchy counterpoint to the tenderness of the oysters.
We had by this time arrived at the sushi part of the evening, which began with maguru and kanpachi (Hawaiian skipjack). To be honest, I dont remember the maguru because the skipjack seemed to have so many layers of wonderful flavor that I almost got up and danced out of sheer pleasure. Then we had amaebi, the raw sweet shrimp accompanied by their deep fried heads (imagine the crispiest, crunchiest French fries with just a hint of shrimp flavor). A piece of toro (tuna belly) added a different taste and color to the presentation. Our last sushi was mirugai (giant clam) and salmon again providing taste, texture, and color contrasts. Truth be told, as good as the sushi was, it is hard to remember all the flavors now as so many other items in the dinner were even more spectacularly flavorful and exotic.
This special meal ended with lobsters I suspect local lobsters as they were clawless and lively. In fact, I almost (almost) felt sad for them as they struggled and then died under Sammys expert knifework. First we were served the lobster meat sashimi in their shells much as the oysters, uni, and abalone had been served. I had never had lobster sashimi before, and in fact, I was not even aware than one could eat lobster raw. The flesh was rich and dense and redolent of mild lobster flavor. It reminded me slightly of raw scallop in flavor, but with a denser heavier texture. Kirk and Annie seemed to prefer the meat with lemon, but I thought it best with a touch of wasabi. Sometime in the future, it might be interesting to see what different kinds of presentations could be done with lobster flesh, as the subtle flavor would have complemented other tastes so long as they were not overpowering.
The last course of the meal was a lobster soup made with the split lobster heads in a light miso broth. It was a flavorful way to say goodbye to the lobsters and to the wonderful meal.
Overall, this Saturday at Sammys was an amazing eating experience. I almost felt as if I were in the lab section of a marine zoology class. In addition to consuming several pieces of fish, we each had eaten our way through numerous invertebrates parts of two different crustaceans, an echinoderm, two bivalves, and a gastropod. Who knew that biology could taste so good! And we shelled out (pun intended) only about $70 apiece for the food; tips and sakes were extra.
I should point out that most of these items are not regularly on Sammys menu, but he assured us that with a reservation sufficiently in advance, similar exotic fare is often possible. If you wish to see pictures go to Kirks blog: http://mmm-yoso.typepad.com/