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Sushi Sam's San Mateo (omakase chef's sampler menu) - very long

KK | May 16, 200502:13 AM

I think it's time to create a new post and review for this....

I recently tried the omakase chef's sampler menu at Sushi Sam's in San Mateo. Apparently it has been available for quite some time now.

This is different from the traditional omakase, in that if you want to order it, you tell the waiter how many nigiri pieces you want, vs telling Sam or his assitant chef. You can start with any number and add on top later. He'll write it down and pass it to one of the chefs. I asked one of the waiters how much it was, and the reply was that it really depends on what is served, since the selections vary each night. But one would be looking at between $3 to $4 per piece on the average. How much you spend is really up to you, and how much you can eat.

The chef's sampler is made up of single different nigiri pieces. The idea can arguably be taken from Takao's san's method of omakase (at Sushi Tomi in Mountain View); and I say this because I know Takao-san and Sam are good friends that talk shop and eat at each other's restaurants.

You start off with plates of two pieces at a time, and you get another when you polish it off. The sushi is designed in such a way that you will need no soy sauce and no wasabi. There is nothing bland in there, and even if bland fish is used, there will always be some seasoning or sauce over it. It is that special. :-)

I believe all customers get more or less the same kind of servings for the sampler. The order is usually random, and the traditional way of serving from light flavors to heavy goes out the door here.

The sampler menu typically consists of fish from the specials white board (which by the way the old one has been replaced with a much bigger new one, with tons of new specials that you might not find elsewhere). As I've said before Sam has really pushed the envelope, and re-invented and innovated sushi to the next level. From what I remember a few nights ago and in no particular order:

1 pc kibinago - translated as baby sardine, but according to the sushi newsgroup, it is likely a west coast herring. About 3 to 4 piece adorn the nigiri in a cris/crossed form, almost like a braid. A light flavored sauce is spread on top and for some reason gives it a well rounded smoother taste (at least the marination is fairly light for this hikarimono)

1 pc kanpachi - I'm not too big of a fan of kanpachi as much as chefs try to push for this. It's a higher end fish of the hamachi family but usually has a slimier texture to it. For this sampler piece, it was dabbed with a different sauce, and it was really good! I'm always for keeping natural flavors and minimizing the use of sauce, but Sam has outdone himself. I should ask what kind of sauce is used, as it seemed to work on every piece.

1 pc seared toro - Sam used to offer o-toro tattaki (sushi or sashimi) that was served with ponzu, green onion, minced ginger and some garlic, and I guess that was a tried and true to less interesting. This new version however is very interesting. The toro was seared almost 80% of the way, and when it hit my tastebuds, it felt like a myriad of flavors. I think it had a touch of yuzu or lemon to it, and something peppery, likely yuzugoshou. (Sorry Sam for spilling your secrets ;-) )

1 pc tachuio (beltfish) - Perhaps it would have been wrong to serve this raw, so this one was seared for quite a bit on the grill, then also given the yuzugoshou treatment, tho there was a little bit more salt in the flavoring. Very nice :-)

1 pc baby squid - It is the season for baby squid and it might be ending soon. Served in gunkan form (like uni), and there were maybe 2 to 3 pieces tops. Sam goes the extra step and has this served with a thick sweet miso sauce which is delicious. I believe he lifted this technique also from Takao-san, who had been serving baby squid like that before he did :-)

1 pc tairagai - This is a clam that's not very common, and the only other place I've had it where it was consistenly good is Kitsho in Cupertino. For this version, it gets seared until it is as good as seared scallops (even softer), wrapped with a small slice of nori and served. Searing it made it even more juicy. Not sure if salt and pepper was added (shioyaki style)

1 pc special unagi - No matter what you think of the marketing (overusing the word special), it *is* special. Imported Japanese unagi and not given the old kabayaki (bbq) treatment with dabs of the sweet brown sauce. Nope, the best way to do it is with lighter flavors and grilling it! So yeah this is Japanese unagi shioyaki (salt and pepper). I'm willing to bet there was some yuzugoshou in there too.

1 pc hirame - Bah halibut, that's what you are thinking right? That's what I thought too, until it was presented. It was done very similar to how they served white king salmon; basically a layer of alfalfa sprouts on top, and doused with sesame oil and another ingredient I couldn't quite figure out. It was eating a salad. Sam does a similar version to tai, where he puts a few sprigs of baby greens on top, some squirts of Japanese style salad dressing (soy sauced based) and voila...tai salad sushi.

1 pc baby lobster (tail) - this one has always been good. Typically served with a little Japanese mayonaise on top. Inside the mayonaise is a little tobiko. Fantastic stuff. For the sampler menu version, my piece was served with a few slices of shaved almonds, with a few squirts of sauce (similar tasting sauce to the previous pieces). And it was brought to the next level...again. Wow.

1 pc Japanese snow crab (with kani miso) - Kani miso is actually crab entrails, the dark green black mushy stuff inside the head shell. Call it crab waste if you want, but there's something aromatic/fishy appealing if you are into that taste. For this sampler piece, Japanese snow crab (cooked) nigiri with dabs of kani miso on top, and with some of that "special sauce" again. Definitely no need to dip in the mud baths we call soy sauce + wasabi mix.

1 pc ocean trout - this one tasted like salmon a little bit, and Sam never serves it raw. Always seared (shioyaki style) and this time doused with chopped onions + sauce. Another mindblower that's worth trying.

1 pc white salmon skin - This was caught me off guard. It was grilled with a nice chunk of meat under the skin. Fantastic stuff.

1 pc kobe beef sushi - I know the kobe beef is flash frozen, so even though it was defrosted and seared, it still had some beef flavor in it. Not a huge fan of this, but it was done quite well. Probably the least favorite of them all.

and finally

1 pc sayori - Sam calls it needlefish but it could technically be halfbeak. Similar texture to the herring/baby sardine, though it had the shiso leaf underneath which I wasn't too fond of. And of course how can I leave out....the mention of the use of special sauce again. Not bad, and it is very difficult to find sayori elsewhere.

Total came within $60 including tip, so was less than $4 a piece. Definitely was a fantastic experience, which also gives the higher end sushi bars a run for their money.

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