One word review: Go.
More words: This weekend marks my wife and my anniversary. What to do, where to go? Why, to our favorite destination: The California central coast. Two nights with the love of our lives at a shoreline hotel, listening to the seagulls cry and the waves hiss and roll, smelling the glorious sea air and feeling the delicious coolness after a week of +100 degree days in the California's central valley, what's not to love?
As an anniversary gift to one another, we decided to stop in Buellton at A-Ru sushi restaurant for lunch for an omakase ("chef's choice") meal. It's one of our favorite restaurants, even though we've only been there a few times.
A-Ru is the Clark Kent of sushi restaurants: A bland exterior (it's in a strip mall) hides a powerful presence within.
We had a magnificent meal, one of the best we've ever experienced.
Ordering the omakase menu, we put ourselves in the hands of Gina, the cheerful owner and one of the sushi chefs. We sat at the bar and enjoyed watching her immaculate, capable hands confidently wield her knives and lovingly handle the fresh fish she brings up to A-Ru twice a week from the LA fish markets.
Our server was David, a tall, red-headed youg man, friendly and outgoing, deft and smooth in his movements and he did an excellent job of keeping our drinks full and switching out our plates or bowls for clean.
There's only so many ways to say, "This dish was delicious, richly flavored, unctuous, delightfully savory and revealed itself in multiple layers of goodness on your tongue, in your mouth, and made you want more, always more." Just append that comment to my description of each dish. We'll save time and wear and tear on my thesaurus. (Even so, that statement feels inadequate, it's like saying "Mozart was a good piano player.")
First up was the chilled cucumber salad, thick slices of home-pickled cucumber dotted with sesame seeds served on a small bed of slashed seaweed with what I think was a mirin and rice vinegar dressing.
Secondly, broiled cod that had been marinated in miso and served with a neon fuschia ginger root stem (only the white base of the root is edible.)
Third, a tempura dish with two items: A medium-sized mild green shisita (sp?) pepper stuffed with yellowtail tuna and then lovely pumpkin-colored sea urchin wraped in a shizo leaf. The SW closed her eyes in bliss over this one, saying, "It's like nothing I've ever tasted before. Fabulous!"
Next was halibut carpaccio, thin slices of delicate, translucent fish overlapped and slightly cooked by drizzling hot sesame oil and then topped with ponzu sauce and a razor-thin slice of seeded jalapeno.
After the halibut, a sliced tuna (forgot to note what variety) with micro cilantro and ginger sauce.
Then, three classic offerings, each about the width and length of the chef's finger, served on a small bed of warm (not hot, not cold) sushi rice, two per person:
--Yellowtail tuna ("Deliciousness!" cried the SW who was now being transported into realms of ecstasy usually reserved for recreational drug users and Miss America winners.)
--Albacore tuna topped with a sprinkle of fried scallion ("OMG such perfect balance!" read my wife's notes here.
Next came my gastronomic acme, the pinnacle among pinnacles, the one dish for which I would cheerfully sell my saintly grandmother for medical experimentation: Six raw Kumomoto oysters! Fresh, small but plump with sea brine flavor and that incredible liquor! One bite and I felt like falling to the carpeted floor and rolling back and forth, drumming my heels and moaning in pleasure too deep for mere human language to express. Two of the oysters were topped with flying fish and sea urchin roes. (The urchin roe was uncannily the same size, shape and texture of a human child's tongue, which unsettled my wife--a speech therapist who works with children. Talk about your work coming to visit you.) Two of the oysters were pristine and the other two each had a dot of fiery red Thai pepper on it. (Insert string of superlatives here.)
Next, a fish called "kim medai." A tuna-like, light pink fish served with a tiny garnish of cherry flower marinated in salt and vinegar.
Then we were served slices of a sushi roll, albacore tuna, avocado, and something called "masago." The roll was served with uzu spicy dipping sauce and had been flash fried for just a moment, resulting in a roll that had an almost fine beef-like texture.
The next dish was initially difficult for me to approach. I confess: I don't like squid except for calamari rings dipped in sauce. Chalk it up to a young me traumatized by the scenes of Kirk Douglas and Capt. Nemo's Nautilus submarine crew fighting off the whipping tentacles of the attacking giant squid. The one time long ago I did bring myself to eat tentacle, it was horribly rubbery, sulpherous and had all the flavor and pleasure of chewing pencil erasers. No thank you ever again.
I've learned some things since then, and one of them, thanks to chef Mike Shackelford at Trelio restaurant in Clovis, CA, is, if you're going to try a food you've either disliked in the past or have never tried before, best do so when it's prepared by a top chef who cares about producing good, fresh food.
So, I tried the octopus tentacle.
It was good. Yes, it was chewy, but not unpleasantly so. No sulfur. Instead, a faint smoky taste, the SW said it reminded her of bacon. I asked Gina why her octopus was so much better than my previous experience of it. "Our octopus is very fresh, never frozen. Frozen octopus, you don't know how long it's been frozen, how old it is," she said.
Next came a two fingers of premium albacore with garlic and ponzu.
A word about sushi rice. According to Gina, sushi rice must be served at body temperature for the best flavor reception in the diner's mouth. Too cold or too hot insults the fish and wrecks the eating experience. She spoke of eating at San Francisco's Nobu, and how disappointed she was the sushi rice was ice cold. Serving rice at proper temperature is a sign of competence of a sushi chef.
Following the octopus, we had the two fingers of big eye tuna garnished with Japanese plum (citrusy and not at all sweet) and served on shizo leaf with avocado and uzu sauce. "Fresh, clean" noted my wife.)
Finishing the meal we had broiled beef short rib, sliced then across the bone and dotted with sesame seeds and a clear, sweet oil, and then a small plate of warmed, salted gingko nuts, lemon-colored, almond-shaped, almost translucent, offering a taste that was grassy and slightly bitter as well as pleasantly nutty. Their texture was firm but not crunchy.
Total was $185 + tax and tip for the omakase and two drinks. (Gina considerately sent us off with a gift bottle of sake since it was our anniversary.) The total was more than I had been expecting, but after eating food of this quality, I decided it was worth whatever I was willing to pay for it. As a once or twice-a-year event, an omakase meal at A-Ru is a wonderful gift.
225 Mcmurray Rd
Buellton, CA 93427-9573
Lunch Tue-Sat: 11:30am - 2:00pm
Dinner Tue-Sun: 5:00pm - 9:00pm
CLOSED MONDAYS & HOLIDAYS
Note: All misspellings and inaccuracies are my responsibility. We know what we like, yet are not sushi experts. We apologize for any inconvenience, etc.