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Restaurants & Bars 2

Naomi Sushi, Menlo Park

Sushi Monster | Mar 17, 200606:59 PM

I don't know what the Japanese equivalent would be for "haimish." That's the word my tribe has which translates roughly as "home-y," "warm," "comfortable," or "cozy." That ineffable quality is what makes Naomi Sushi stand out among the Peninsula's top-tier sushi bars. The quality of the fish is good but not stellar. The presentation is spare and unceremonious. But there is something about that place that just feels right, a vibe that puts people at ease. This is, admittedly, much easier to recognize in practice than it is to describe in print.

Based on what I observed at lunch on Friday, many locals feel very strongly about Naomi – with a fondness and proprietary sense roughly analogous to the devotion the British have for their corner pubs. Exhibit A: Most of the lunch crowd stopped on the way out to chat with the itamae for a couple minutes. Much more than a cursory wave and a hurried "domo arigato!" The omikase are by far the most gregarious and affable I've encountered on this odyssey. They are also among the most knowledgeable – particularly when it comes to the lowdown on what all the competitors up and down the strip are doing. As one put it "We all see each other at the fish market, we know each other so well, it's like a big family."

There was plenty of room at the 12-seat bar at 1 pm. There are also two small, tastefully appointed dining rooms (who doesn't love the old flying fish?). Note that when the lunch rush ends very abruptly at about 1:45 the entire kitchen staff adjourns to the back dining room to eat. So while I would time my next visit a little bit after the peak of the lunch rush, I wouldn't push it past 1:30 or so.

The rolls (14 standard and five special) looked enormous, much more than I felt I wanted to tackle. As for the box score on the nigiri (which is sold by the single piece):

kurodai (red snapper) – OK. Little bit on the tough side.

kamaboko (surimi, AKA fake crab). This was billed on the menu as "crab." I was momentarily taken aback to get two strips of surimi. It goes without saying that taste-wise this wasn't even in the same ZIP code as the bona fide local crab I'd just tried up the road at Higuma. But, it was tasty enough. And at $1.50 a piece, I couldn't carp on the value proposition.

sake (salmon) – Canadian, and probably farmed. Just OK.

toro (fatty tuna belly) – OK.

hotate (scallop) – very nice flavor. A little on the al dente side.

ocean trout – (off the white-board) Excellent! A bright orange fish with big flavor, not entirely unlike my beloved BC sockeye. Get it while you can.

amaebi (sweet shrimp) – very nice. Again, the batter-fried heads were the best part here. Sinfully good – the sushi equivalent of pork rinds.

tai (sea bream) – Very rare to see this traditional Japanese favorite in these parts. I'd asked the itamae to make the call for my last order – to make it the best fish of the day. To my untrained palate, it had a relatively light flavor, similar to snapper but with a much silkier texture.

albacore belly – complements of the itamae, was well-marbled, certainly, but to my tongue it didn't seem as flavorful as the regular toro. Just not my thing.

And for the coup de grace, the ultimate indulgence (also complements of the itamae:

ankimo (monkfish liver pate) – melt-in-your-mouth, and done with a spicy sauce that sent me out with my lips just slightly tingling.

The average per-plate cost for the equivalent of a two-piece nigiri order: $5.60. Way above par. But within a dime of neighboring Bonsai to the north. With tax and tip (no beverage other than green tea) I was out for $47.50. A new solo lunch record (which I predict won't stand for long).

One small irritant in an otherwise pleasant service experience: I had to flag down a waiter to get a mug of agari (green tea) and flag him down again to have it refilled.

Bottom line: Good quality sushi at top-shelf prices, with some unexpected nigiri offerings. The deciding factor is a relaxed, homey atmosphere and a bighearted, knowledgeable pair of itamae. Sushi geeks and other students will love this place. Despite the relatively high prices compared with its top-tier competitors, it's high on my return list.

Sushi Monster

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