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Sushi Garden, Capitola (Santa Cruz area)...long

Carb Lover | Sep 9, 200504:24 PM

Y and I had a serious hankering for sushi on Tues. night and needed immediate gratification. Sushi on the Run in Aptos was already closed, and Miyuki in Watsonville was farther than we felt live schlepping. Didn't want another disappointment at SC sushi spots, so decided to play sushi roulette at Sushi Garden in Capitola (see link), hoping that we'd get lucky w/ a nice pay-off. We hadn't heard anything about SG (good or bad) beyond the cliched positive review in the local paper. In short, we left all the richer and will most definitely return soon.

SG is in a dark isolated commercial complex right next to Ostrich Grill. The surroundings aren't very inviting and don't bring the same foot traffic as the village area or downtown SC. Once we found their entrance and stepped inside, we were heartily welcomed and invited to sit down anywhere we'd like. As I expected for a Tues. night, especially after a major holiday, it wasn't very crowded and the 8-seater sushi bar was empty. Two friendly sushi chefs were perched behind the bar and ready to go, so we instinctively sat down in front of the Asian one, Jay.

We were promptly given menus, and we asked the waitress if we should place our sushi order w/ her (as many SC sushi places work this way, to our dismay) or directly w/ the chef. She said that since it wasn't very busy that night, we could direct the chef. This made us very, very happy off the bat and opened up a pleasant conversation btwn. us and Jay that was sustained through the course of our 1.5 hour meal. We literally had Jay all to our selfish sushi-loving selves. We would order a few things, eat, chat, digest, sip tea, order a few more things, eat, chat, digest, sip tea, order a few more...the pace of the meal was luxurious and is how I'd always like to eat if possible.

Before I get into the food, I must highlight the stellar part of the meal...the service. At a sushi bar, service is particularly integral to the experience. Jay was a pro at assessing what kind of sushi eaters we are and understood immediately that we go for simple and classic. He seemed to really listen to us, and this delicate interplay btwn. us and our sushi guide felt very therapeutic, soul-warming, and frankly extraordinary. These are the potential bright spots of living and eating in a small town or a quiet neighborhood spot.

On to the food. SG's menu is the most interesting and balanced I've seen in this area. Prices are very reasonable. Yes, there are those quirky rolls w/ cutesy local names like "Mystery Spot" and "Pleasure Point" to satisfy non-traditionalists and those who don't care for raw fish. However, there are a number of things that are quite traditional and not common for this region like yakitori, hamachi kama, squid salad, udon (no ramen). Some of the cooked items like broiled mussels sounded good for next time. There are some nice sushi combination meals for solo diners and the most extensive sake selection I've seen around here.

Jay said that they wished they could have more things like uni, toro, yuzu, chawan mushi in their offerings but that they were limited by cost or local supply and demand. Given this, their fish selection is pretty standard for this area, but everything in the case was generally fresh and well-kept. We ordered mostly nigiri: hamachi, saba, sake, shiro maguro, tai, spicy hotate, maybe one or two more. Also went for their "rock n' roll"...unagi, cucumber, avocado roll. Nice thing was that Jay tossed in a couple of freebies here and there to let us sample...squid salad; pickled plum roll; pickled radish and cabbage.

My favorite was the spicy hotate (scallop) which had a mayo-based sauce and was artfully studded w/ black sesame seeds. The scallop flavor may have been overpowered, but I still like this prep. Also liked the saba (mackerel) and the squid salad. The tai (red snapper) was a bit crunchy for me. The other chef (who was a nice white guy) made our unagi roll very well and it was tasty. Proportion of rice to fish across everything was perfect. The rice was cooked and seasoned well; however, my main quibble is that Jay didn't compress the rice nuggets well enough, so they would fall apart easily when picked up. His slicing and seasoning skills were controlled; however, some fish seemed a bit overchilled on the tongue. The fish didn't seem as ultra fresh as our two standbys, but they were tasty enough and the convenience factor is a big bonus.

Overall, we enjoyed our leisurely meal quite a bit and was shocked when the bill only came to $37 pre-tip. We were more than happy to tip well. Jay was such an affable young man, but also knew when to give us the space to eat, reflect, digest. He is the friendliest sushi chef I've ever met (and talked about regulars w/ affection), and I was surprised to learn towards the end of our meal that he is actually of Korean descent. He worked as a sushi chef in Fremont before moving to Capitola at the beginning of the year, when there was a change of ownership. I haven't confirmed this, but I believe this is a Korean-owned Japanese restaurant. Doesn't really matter to me since they dished out some of the better sushi along w/ the best service we've received in this area. Jay has spoiled us to the point that we may have to stick to quiet nights only when he's at the healm, which is everyday but Sunday...

PS. Free meal up to $20 on your birthday w/ one paying customer.


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