Apologies in advance to my waiter today at SUGARFISH. I did not mean to mislead you when I answered “good” to your inquiry on how my meal was. It was just a reflex response to the question you posed. I wish I could take it back, because it really was not good.
I had the most unpleasant shari (sushi rice) in my life at SUGARFISH in Santa Monica today. Forget the debate between “warm” vs. room temperature shari, I’m surprised the fish wasn’t being cooked by the rice right on the plate. If it hadn’t been seasoned, I'd have thought the rice came straight from the cooker, skipping the hangiri (the wooden tub where rice is seasoned and cooled to become shari), and into the sushi chef’s hopefully asbestos-lined gloved hands.
Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but did I mention that the shari was horribly hot (and just plain horrible)?
Let me back up… I was in the mood for sushi for lunch today, so I thought I’d try SUGARFISH in Santa Monica. I got a seat at the bar relatively fast. Either the chair (not stool, since it had a back) was uneven or the floor was, but I felt off-kilter the entire meal. (Should have taken that as an omen.)
I ordered The Nozawa [$34], the “Trust Me” lunch set that comes with a daily special, which was large whole scallop today. I also ordered one of the off-menu sushi, albacore belly [$6] (the other off-menu sushi was Spanish mackerel).
I was immediately served the organic edamame from a large tray of pre-plated soybeans behind the counter. They were cold and salty, not bad but nothing to write home about. I was also given a saucer of gari and wasabi, which looked like it was piped onto the dish by a machine.
The gari, while not overly so, was much sweeter than I’m used to. It also had a much stronger ginger flavor, as if it was made from more mature roots. I speculate that the sweetness was added to counteract the spice. At least it wasn’t pink.
First up was the tuna sashimi. I was concerned it would be drenched in sauce, but it wasn’t too bad. Unfortunately, “not too bad” also summed up the dish itself. The ponzu was quite tart, and the tuna was about average, like what you’d find in an ahi poke at a Hawaiian BBQ place. Maybe a little better.
Second up was a platter of albacore and salmon nigiri. I tried a piece of the albacore first. I had turned the piece sideways as I ate it, so the neta hit my mouth first. It was cool and tart from the ponzu... Then I was hit with the rice. It was not room temperature. It was not body temperature. It was not warm. I already used up my hyperbole quota for what the rice was like in my intro above, but it was just plain hot. It was also vinegary, without much sweetness to balance it.
I switch to the salmon. The shari, which was not as hot as in the albacore pieces, still managed to distract me from being able to taste the fish, which, from what I could tell, was pretty pedestrian. Not only was the rice hot, it was somehow sticky and crumbly at the same time. It was also very starchy! As I ate the second piece of salmon, some of the rice smeared against my lips and nearly glued my mouth shut. I’m almost not kidding.
I waited a minute before going back to my second piece of albacore, and the rice managed to stay piping hot! Nozawa should line jackets with his sushi and sell it to the Inuits!
Next up was a platter of yellowtail, halibut, and, the “daily special”, large whole scallops.
The halibut pieces were topped with yuzukosho, a tart and spicy paste made from salt, yuzu, and peppers. The halibut wasn’t too bad, though the rice still distracted from the fish. The yuzukosho was really peppery, which at least made it stand out a bit.
The shari in the yellowtail pieces was probably the least-worst of all the sushi. Not-so-coincidentally, I found the yellowtail to be the most enjoyable part of the whole meal. Since it wasn’t sauced, I ate one piece of yellowtail with shoyu, but I actually preferred it just plain, which was how I had the second piece.
The scallops were whole, but not very large. It was topped simply with lemon or yuzu and salt, and shoyu or ponzu. The rice wasn’t as distracting as with most of the other sushi, but the scallops had very little flavor. It wasn’t briny. It wasn’t sweet. It was just there.
The last nigiri was the off-menu albacore belly. It had a different melt-in-your-mouth quality than regular toro (fatty tuna belly) and reminded me more of ono (escolar) in texture, except for the gristle lines in the albacore belly, which was very chewy. I’d never had it, and it was probably the second best pieces of sushi of the meal, after the yellowtail.
Next, and next-to-last, was the negitoro (fatty tuna belly with scallion) hand roll. It was cylindrical rather than conical, and quite “spacious”; the top part of the nori wasn’t even touching the fish inside. I’ve never been wowed by negitoro, and SUGARFISH’s version did nothing to change my mind. The toro was strangely sweet, and the shari was just as awful as with the nigiri. The best part was the nori.
The last dish was the blue crab hand roll. It’s a little thing, but I noticed the blue crab filling was almost on its side in the cylinder, rather than sitting on top of the rice, as if the cylinder was rotated a quarter turn. When I rotated it back, one end of the nori unfurled, so I guess I had solved the mystery of the tilted hand roll.
The blue crab meat itself was very uniform in texture, like it was made from the backfin or special grade of crab meat rather than one of the lump grades. It also tasted more processed. A really disappointing end to a really disappointing meal.
I’m hoping that I can sneak off to Shunji tonight because I need to recalibrate my palate for excellent sushi, stat! I had done research on Yelp and Chowhound and found that they’re known for their warm rice, but I did not realize that “warm” was an euphemism for “awful”.
The only thing that I’m happy with about this meal was how my pictures turned out. Unless someone can convince me that what I experienced was an anomaly, I cannot imagine myself ever going back to SUGARFISH.
[Full-size photos, with captions, at http://theoffalo.com/2012/07/sugarfis...]