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Restaurants & Bars 6

Liquid Sushi, San Mateo

Sushi Monster | Mar 14, 2006 06:15 PM

Some days it is lonely being Sushi Monster.

Yesterday's lunch hour found me belly to the bar at the absolutely smashing SushiYa on University Avenue in Palo Alto. The tiny storefront (the size of a one-car garage) was jammed and humming. The entire nigiri menu was outstanding and all was right in the world. Today found me at Liquid Sushi in San Mateo, in a weird, deserted dining room at 2 pm, eating poorly and feeling that the thrill was gone. It's like that sometimes.

Liquid Sushi is a three-year-old operation hermit-crabbing in an old Lyon's at the intersection of Highway 92 and El Camino Real. I rolled in late, knowing that unlike many other sushi places in the vicinity, they run all afternoon, straight through dinner. The large dining room (a 20-seat oval sushi bar, at least 30 tables, plus a Benihana-style grill room off to one side) was deserted save for two couples in far-flung booths. The room itself is worth mentioning: Imagine if the Jetsons ran a pancake-house-slash-disco and hired a Filipino interior decorator to hip it up. Kitschy in an un-ironic sort of way.

As I was the only person at the bar, I expected to be able to order from the chef. No such luck. I had to order through a waiter, although the chef finally decided to disintermediate things about halfway through. Unfortunately, he didn't offer much in the way of information on the provenance of his product. Just to keep things interesting lately I've been making a habit of asking each and every itamae where the sake (salmon) comes from this time of year. While I don't believe anyone has flat out lied to me, it's instructive how many times they seem to either not hear or comprehend the question. In the past two weeks I've heard: "Atlantic. But it's fresh, not farmed." "Norwegian." "Pacific. It's farmed." "New Zealand. We brine it overnight." And today, a new one: China. Really!

Sushi is served at the bar on china salad plates which are allowed to pile up on the rail rather than being bused. The salmon and the ebi (billed as "black tiger prawn" but really the standard frozen-then-boiled bright orange product) were both absolutely unremarkable and of a so-so quality you might find in one of the local kaiten (boat sushi) restaurants. The hotate (scallop) was not only a miserly cut but flat-out bad, with a sour/bitter taste. It was one of the few times in recent memory I've left the second piece of a nigiri order untouched. The snow crab gunkan maki (battleship roll) was the best choice on this regrettable outing – very nice flavor and not too much of a "glop factor" to it. The smoked salmon was tough as a Sizzler $9.99 steak special. and the unagi (barbecued eel) came drenched in teriyaki marinade, but lacked that special salty/smoky flavor of its own. It seemed to have picked up some taste from other items that had been grilled in the toaster oven.

I wanted to try the toro (which comes in two grades, the lower of which was priced at $7.25 for two pieces) but they were out. And the ami ebi (sweet shrimp) was still frozen in a brick in the back room. I decided to take a pass on any of the rolls (15 too-cute specialty rolls and 22 standard offerings).

Bottom line: $30 for six plates of very very middling and inconsistent nigiri adds up to an uncommonly bad value. That level of quality might be easier to accept at a kaiten shop, but not at these top-end prices. With tax, tip and a small Sapporo, I got out for $39. That's actually higher than SushiYa, Bonsai or Koma, three of the finest I've mowed down in the past few days.

Some days it is lonely being Sushi Monster.

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