Sushiko, 4546 El Camino Real, No. A4, Los Altos. (650) 559-9218.
Which would you prefer -- to be pleasantly surprised by a restaurant you had expected very little of -- or to be *not disappointed* by a restaurant you'd highly anticipated?
I'll take the former any day. It's the thrill of the unexpected. And it's the sense that a horse you'd expected to underperform the field didn't run away with the race, but at least it finished way ahead of its more touted competitors.
Such is the case with Sushiko, the six-month-old sushi restaurant sort of hiding in plain view at the northwest corner of El Camino and San Antonio Road. Where the venerable Chef Chu's across the street is highly visible, Sushiko's position in the shopping center makes it all but invisible to passing motorists.
Frankly, I did not expect this Korean operation to be in my middle tier at all. This space used to be Sue's Sushi, a kaiten (boat sushi) operation. (By the way, did I mention that before "kaiten" referred to cheapo conveyor-belt sushi, it meant "suicide submarine"? Ahahahaha. But I digress ...) Locals who haven't been by in the last few months may not realize it yet, but the current regime in place for just six months -- is a significant quality step above boats-in-a-moat.
Although they did a complete remodel of the old space, I can't say much for the new room. One entire side wall is mirrored floor to ceiling to make the dark space seem lighter and bigger. The bar itself has a thatched roof like a Polynesian tiki-torch bar. Funky. (But, hey, if I wanted Trader Vic's, I'd just go four blocks up the road ... )
Service is very efficient, almost to the point of hovering. This might have been because I caught them on a relatively slow Thursday after the peak of the lunch rush.
My nigiri mission started with the ho-hum standards: farmed sake (salmon), ebi (poached shrimp) on the al dente side. But then it got better: Nice, clean, fresh-tasting kani (crab). If this bright flavored snow crab was frozen (and chances are it was, at some point in its journey) you could've fooled me. And then things got better again: Huge cuts of hamachi (standard yellowtail) that were noticeably above-average in both flavor and texture. So I'm just four plates in and already lunch has gone from mediocre to notably better-than-par.
Here's where things got really interesting: Mr. Park, the itamae/partner who was working the bar, *mis-heard* my inquiring about masu (trout). He thought I said "mussel." Which turned out to be just fine. Because the New Zealand green lip mussels he produced were man! oh, man! really a unique taste. Served oyster-style, chilled on the half-shell, they came with a very hot signature marinade that was just miles away from the usual perfunctory spritz of chili sauce. And to think: I never would have known he even had these up his sleeve had he not mis-heard me.
The other clue that this guy has some serious ambition: Out of the blue, totally unsolicited by me, he produces a small bowl of heavily marinated engawa (minced halibut fin muscle) garnished with green onion. Ho! You couldn't have surprised me more if you'd served me blowfish. Maybe 15 minutes earlier, taking a first look at the modest selection of fish on display, I'd assumed he was just making lowest-common-denominator sushi. And now, between the mussels and the engawa, he'd dished up more surprises than I am used to receiving at some of my very favorite sushi shops. The mussels were a home run. The engawa was not to my taste. But the mere fact that Mr. Park came up with both of these, seemingly out of the blue, was a cautionary lesson for me: I need to really curb this tendency to make assumptions.
What made the difference between an entirely forgettable lunch of mediocre, predictable sushi (remember, what I saw in the case was a pretty paltry selection of unremarkable fish) and a memorable experience? I took the time to talk to Mr. Park. It really is that simple. It's a fact that people who are innately curious eat better than those who are not.
I don't know a lot about sushi, but I know a little about humans. If you show that you care enough to ask about someone's craft and their approach to it, you're going to inevitably get an education. As it turns out, Park has spent more than 20 years working at some of the top sushi restaurants up and down the Peninsula. He seems to know every itamae who ever swung a hocho on El Camino. This is his first owner/operator venture.
Bottom line: There's good value here, homey service and the potential for some big surprises if you take the time to ask. I don't think I'll soon make the mistake of assuming Korean sushi is somehow of lower quality or less artistic than Japanese sushi. It all comes down to the heart and the hands of that man behind the bar.
On my Peninsula master list, I'm slotting Sushiko as No. 13 right in the middle of the middle tier just below its neighbor Masa (on the Mountain View side of San Antonio) and just above Akane, up the road in downtown Los Altos.
I recall someone else posted on Sushiko within the last three months, but I can't find the post to link to it right now. If anyone can find the link, I'd appreciate it.
Onward! Bring the sauce!