Friday, April 24, 2009

Sushi Saurus: Take 2

Sushi Saurus in Belmont Shore has reopened!
The small, reliable sushi joint closed around the end of 2008 for renovation, amid word of new ownership.
I got several local tips (thanks to Claudia, and the ever-dependable Yelp) that it had reopened in recent weeks, so I was anxious to get over there and see if the food had changed.

I'd avoided the place for a long time because of the name - and, to be honest, the location in trendy Belmont Shore.
But I finally visited about a year ago, after reading Yelp reviews that mentioned the small size of the place and a focus on traditional sushi more than crazy rolls.

The food won me over on that first visit.
It was a good "every day" sort of place - not the most sublime, incredible sushi in the world, but solid quality, when you need a quick fix but don't have the time or money to go for out-of-this-world omakase.

But under new ownership, would Sushi Saurus still satisfy, even on a weeknight?
I rallied gal pals Susan, Erika and Brooke to go check it out with me.

The physical renovation is an improvement, indeed.
Compare just the exterior shots: the old sign and awning (pictured at right) was ugly and hard to read, while the new sign is clean and clear on the stucco wall (left):
Inside, I found a mural along one wall very distracting and ugly, but I really like the wooden dragon piece on the wall behind the sushi chefs (pictured at top of post).

I also like the lanterns.

The new owner has kept the sushi chefs from before, which is a relief.

And most of the menu is the same - a good mix of traditional sushi and other dishes, with a short list of rolls (some of them unfortunately involving cream cheese, garlic butter and jalapenos) for the sushi novices.

The sake menu remains diverse, with very good offerings, and the beer lineup had a good, lesser-known option: Yebisu.
But there were three very noteworthy (and alarming, for us) omissions on the food menu:
* No unagi don (broiled freshwater eel served in strips atop rice)
* No agedashi tofu (fried tofu in a light broth)
* No monkfish liver

Brooke and Erika, in particular, were fans of the unagi-don on the old menu: a big bowl of rice with strips of unagi freshwater eel on top, teriyaki sauce drizzled on top.
This is a food staple in certain parts of Japan - very yummy, filling and comforting food.
But here in California, it's not easy to find an eatery serving unagi-don.

It's clear to me that the new owner is trying - understandably - to streamline the menu for cost and efficiency.
I'm guessing that besides Brooke, Erika, Susan and I, there probably weren't many other diners who ordered these three dishes.
The clientele is mostly young (20- and 30-somethings) and white, adventurous diners but probably inexperienced in authentic Japanese food.

Cutting monkfish liver from the menu isn't such a tragedy: it's a delicacy that can be costly, and monkfish is listed as a fish to "avoid" on sustainable fish guides.

But the ingredients for unagi-don and agedashi tofu are among the most inexpensive and readily available.
This is a sushi place, with plenty of unagi in stock for sushi, and a kitchen stocked with tofu and tempura fixings (for those ever-popular "crunchy rolls" and such).

So ... I asked if we could still order unagi don and agedashi tofu.
And sure enough, they delivered.

The unagi bowl looks a bit messy in this photo, but it's a good kind of messy - a complete meal in a bowl.
As I expected, I'm already craving this bowl as I write this, a day later:
The big bowl is filled with rice and topped with (clockwise from top):
* The requisite strips of unagi, served with a much-appreciated light brushing (not a dousing) of the sweet sauce, and topped with slivers of nori (dried seaweed) and bonito flakes.
* Slices of tamago (the ubiquitous, slightly sweet egg omelette). Several of us thought these were mango slices because of their unusual shape; tamago is usually cut in small rectangular pieces.
* Pickled cucumber salad
* Octopus salad

I've never had such a cornucopia of an unagi bowl (unagi-don is typically simple, just unagi on rice) but this combination worked, thanks to a balance between milder, slightly sweet flavors (rice, egg, unagi) and stronger tastes (pickled vegetables, salad).
Of course, I wanted MORE unagi - which, Brooke noted, is how everyone feels even after a regular unagi bowl. You just can't get enough unagi!

The agedashi tofu was good - nothing spectacular. Comforting, as it should be:
I also ordered an appetizer that sounded refreshing: salmon radish roll - "Salmon wrapped in reddish pickle," says the menu.
But no, you don't get raw fish served up in a pickle dyed red.
What you get for $9 is a lovely cut roll of silky salmon sashimi wrapped in daikon radish, sliced paper thin:
Brooke ordered a salmon-skin salad, anticipating a small, simple dish of greens and crunchy, salty salmon skin. What we got was Tranny Hot Mess Salad:
In contrast to the unagi bowl, this was too much of everything - including clashing flavors (strong salmon and super tart pickled vegetables).
And to add insult to injury, it was served on a bed of iceberg lettuce - blech.
It was like a bad Cobb Salad, when we were expecting a simple yet sophisticated, fresh dish to whet our appetites. The four of us each took a few bites before abandoning it.

Call this "What NOT To Order" at Sushi Saurus.
I'll provide another WNTO example later.

Luckily, the rest of our meal was a stellar lineup of very good cuts of fish - all melt-in-your-mouth quality with clean, subtle flavors:
Bluefin tuna

Albacore: our favorite of this bunch.
So tender, enhanced with just a dab of ponzu. Heavenly.

Amaebi (sweet shrimp)

Aji (spanish mackerel): Another meaty but tender morsel.

I've been enjoying so much good aji lately, I was happy that Sushi Saurus kept up and didn't disappoint.

The total bill for all this great raw fish, plus some beers, came to about $40 each (including tip!).
So glad Sushi Saurus has come out of hibernation.

Oh, one more WNTO (What Not To Order) tip: The Stinky Roll.
The young couple next to me ordered it and kindly allowed me to take a photo:
It's a California roll topped with albacore (OK, so far not bad, right?) and then topped with daikon radish slivers and a garlic butter sauce - hence, "The Stinky Roll."
I like each of those individual ingredients on their own (even a good California Roll on occasion), but this combination sounds like another Tranny Hot (Stinky) Mess.
As Brooke noted, wouldn't garlic butter sauce ruin the delicate raw albacore?

Sushi Saurus
5260 E. 2nd St.
Long Beach, CA 90803

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