Monday, May 28, 2012

Dinner @ Sushi Zone

It is rather amazing that I've never reviewed Sushi Zone before.  It is the sushi restaurant that I have been to far more than anywhere else.  In fact, perhaps the restaurant I've been to more than anywhere else.  Back in the day, we used to go here pretty much every Sunday night.  Since moving to another part of town, and them closing on Sundays, I make it back much less frequently these days, perhaps only going a handful of times a year.  I still enjoy it for nostalgia sake, but things have kinda gone downhill, and I'm just not quite willing to deal with the hassel on a regular basis.

Ah, the hassel.  Sushi Zone is a tiny place.  2 booths that seat 4 people and a sushi bar that seats perhaps 10.  I think my average wait time to get seated there is somewhere around 2 hours, and my average time to get sushi after getting seated is around 1 hour.  I used to find this just part of the experience, somewhat endearing, and always went planning on it, so we'd go far earlier than we wanted to eat, and let our hunger build as we waited.  Now I kinda just can't be bothered to wait that long, when there are great dining options that are much easier!  Back in its glory days however, the wait was totally worth it.

For first timers, let me teach you the waiting game: Put your name on the dry erase board and then go stand outside on the sidewalk in the freezing cold San Francisco night.  Count the number of groups ahead of you.  Count the number of folks waiting outside.  Try to guess which party is which.  Obsess over whether the people whose names are on the list who aren't there will return in time or not.  Cross your fingers that they won't.  Guess which table you'll get.  Stare at everyone slowly eating their sushi inside.  Ponder about how the restaurant next door that has never once had a single customer in it possibly affords their rent - conclusion, this place is clearly a front.  Repeat.

The staffing is also minimal.  A sushi chef, an assistent, and a waitress.  When I first started going to Sushi Zone years ago, there was a single sushi chef who worked all nights, and was amazing.  He then took on a second chef who started working some nights, and wasn't quite as good.  Then he took on a third, who has been there every time I have in the past year or so, who just really, really isn't good.  His rolls are poorly rolled and fall apart, the pieces are too big to fit in my mouth, and there is just way too much mayo.  We've tried to go on a number of different nights to get one of the other chefs, but haven't managed to yet.

Speaking of going on different nights, yes, we went to sushi on a Monday.  Now, I pretty much never get fish on Mondays, even cooked fish, unless it is local or I know it is fresh.  Most sushi restaurants aren't open on Mondays, for good reason.  I recently learned from another sushi restaurant however that they do receive some shipments on Mondays from New Zealand and locally, so I called Sushi Zone to ask if they received fresh fish on Mondays.  They assured me that they did.  Sushi Zone opens at 5pm, and people line up early to get in the first seating.  During the week, there is pretty much no way we could ever make it there that early, so this isn't ever an option, and Saturday nights are always crazy there, and they are closed Sundays, so I haven't had many chances to do this before.  But, it was a holiday Monday, they were open (and most places were not), and I could easily go before 5pm.  So ... we decided to gamble, try to get there right around 5pm and get in the first seating, and yes, have sushi on a Monday.  We showed up around 4:50pm, and were able to get bar seats.  However, when I asked what fish was fresh, the chef said only the hamachi.  And, unfortunately, it was the same chef who I have really not been impressed by.  Sigh.

Sushi Zone has never been a place where I'd go expecting top quality fish.  It has always been good enough, but that isn't what the focus is.  This is not somewhere you go to order sashimi or nigiri, even though they are on the menu.  Sushi Zone is all about the rolls, and they are filled with things like mango, papaya, macadamia nuts, and lots of mayonaise.  I know, I know, I'm losing all credibility here, but these things do have their place.  They also make some fantastic appetizers, all prepared in a toaster oven on the side of the kitchen, by the same guy who is doing all the dish washing.  We didn't know about these when we first started going to Sushi Zone, but quickly realized that every single party was always ordering them, so we quickly wizened up and discovered them ourselves.  They uh, also all contain lots of mayo.

Prices have also always been incredibly reasonable, although they have gone up quite a bit in the past few years.  I used to be shocked at how much food we got for the price, now it seems more in line with what I'd expect.  Far cheaper than most sushi places I go, but the product is also far lower quality.

Service was good enough, but the timing of things was off.  We received our first roll before any of our appetizers.  Then one appetizer.  Then the rest of our rolls.  Then another appetizer.  And finally the nigiri.  I completely understand how this happens, as all of the appetizers are being cooked in a single toaster oven, and absolutely every party is ordering them, so they are actually the bottleneck, not the sushi chef, when the night starts out.  Later on, the sushi chef gets very backed up, so even though the appetizers easily take 30+ minutes to arrive, the sushi takes much longer.  Anyway, I understand how this happens, but I wished things came in a better order.

Overall, our meal was ok, but nothing I'd ever wait for.  Back in the day, I always left Sushi Zone so incredibly happy and satisfied, and always felt that the 3+ hours it had taken for me to get my meal were worth it.  I'm sure I'll go back next time I need a mayo fix, and I'll keep trying to make it there on a night when one of the other chefs is working (if they still are?), but Sushi Zone really has lost a lot of the magic.
Baked bass, mango, spicy mayo, fish eggs.  $6.50.
This is one of the famous toaster oven appetizers.  Chopped up mango, topped with a generous slice of sea bass, topped with this crazy cheesy mayo mixture, and some roe, served in a mussel shell.  Always piping hot with a awesome crispy top layer.  This dish has historically been one of my absolute favorites.  Creamy, cheesy, sweet, delicious.

Tonight's version seemed to have grown in size substantially!  I guess they just fill up whatever size shells they have?  Unfortunately, this did not work in their favor.

The sea bass was a very generous portion, a single slice, moist, tender.  This is different from how it used to be, with multiple small pieces instead.  I preferred it this way and found the fish to be quite nice.

The mango was ripe and flavorful, nice and warm, but mine was rather mushy and a little bit stringy.  There was also just way too much of it, even given the larger than usual portion of bass, the ratio was just off, and the sweet mango just overpowered everything.

The ratio was also off for the mayo/cheese sauce, there wasn't enough of it given the quantities of the other ingredients, so the creamy cheesy goodness that I love about this wasn't there.

Overall this was disappointing because I know how awesome it can be, but the fish was actually better than usual.  I'll still order this again next time, and hope it comes out more balanced!  My favorite of the appetizers, and my third favorite dish overall.
Stuffed jalapeno, spicy mayo, albacore.  $6.00.
And my other favorite appetizer.  Fresh jalapeno, stuffed with albacore, and a little spicy mayo.  These also seemed bigger than in the past.

Again, delivered piping hot from the toaster oven.  The jalapeno was just the perfect level of doneness, still slightly crispy.  It had a little kick, but not too much.  There was a slight amount of mayo adding some creaminess.  The albacore however was fishy and overcooked, firm, and a little dried out.

Disappointing, because again, I know how amazing this appetizer can be.  I usually go into the meal never knowing which of this or the baked bass I'll prefer, as each time one tends to just slightly outshine the other, but this time around, neither was a star.  I'll order it again in the future, and hope that this fishy-fish was just a Monday thing ...

Least favorite of the appetizers, and second to least favorite overall.
Hawaiian #2: albacore, mango, scallion, mayo, macadamia.  $7.25.
Ah, the Hawaiian #2.  Probably their most famous roll.  Usually my favorite, but always at least in my top 3.

I love the flavor combinations at play here: mayo, macadamia, and mango just go together so well!  Tonight though, things were off.

First, the roll was poorly executed.  The pieces of the roll were just too large.  Perhaps hard to see in the photo, but it was impossible for me to fit a slice in my mouth.  This meant that I couldn't get all of the flavors together at once, and that I had a very uncomfortable time trying to cram it into my mouth.  It was also poorly rolled and was somewhat falling apart.  And there was far too much rice, masking the flavors of the rest of the ingredients.  This has, unfortunately, been my experience with this sushi chef the last few times.  His technique just isn't there.

The biggest problem however was the albacore.  It was mushy and had no flavor.  Which perhaps was a step up from the albacore in the appetizer, that had flavor, just a bad fishy flavor ...  I think that in both cases, this was not fresh fish.  Protip: don't eat fish on Mondays ...

The mango was sweet and ripe enough, the mayo added a great creaminess but there was slightly too much, and the macadamias added a good crunch and paired well with everything.

Again, I'll get this in the future based on my knowledge that it can be great, but we both agreed that this was the weakest dish, and wished we'd just thrown it out instead of eating it.
Spicy mango salmon, scallions, sprouts, spicy mayo.  $7.25.
Spicy hamachi, avocado, jalapeno, lime, sprouts, scallions, spicy mayo.  $7.25.
These are usually my second and third favorite rolls, either of which can bubble up to being favorites any night, just based on how good the components are.  And tonight, these were both pretty good!

Both rolls had a plentiful amount of sprouts and scallions, giving them a fresh feel and good crunch.  They both also had same spicy mayo, that adds a really nice creaminess, but had way, way too much on them.  Again, a theme with this chef, every time we had had him.  The mayo overpowered everything, wiping out the flavor, which is unfortunate, because there are some great flavors in these rolls.

The spicy mango salmon had generous chunks of fresh, ripe, pretty delicious mango.  The salmon had a good flavor and texture, and seemed pretty fresh.  Less mayo, and this would have been a really great roll.  My second favorite of the night.

The spicy hamachi was even better.  The hamachi was fresh, firm, with good flavor.  But what I love about this roll is the thin slices of jalapeno and lime.  The jalapeno just adds the perfect amount of kick and the lime gives a great flavor pairing with the hamachi.  Again, a little less mayo, and this would have been amazing.  It was still my favorite of the night, but could have certainly been better, as it wasn't up to Sushi Zone standards!
Mendocino uni nigiri. $6.75.
Hamachi nigiri.  $6.25.
Tamago nigiri.  $3.50.
Second only to my foie obsession, has been my recent uni obsession.  I'd never had the uni at Sushi Zone before.  In fact, I'm not even sure I'd ever seen it on the menu.  I think I'm probably usually just too busy ordering the rolls.  But I saw the uni, and asked about it.  I was told it was local Mendocino uni.  I asked if it was fresh, and they said yes.  I had to try it.

There was a very, very generous amount of uni in these pieces.  Hard to see in the photo, but there was very little rice in here, mostly all uni.  This was a crazy portion for the price.  It makes me seriously grumpy at everywhere that skimps on their uni!

My dining companion had his piece first, and sorta looked sick after he had it.  I asked how it was, and he just shook his head.  I tentatively took a tiny chunk of the uni with my chopsticks.  It was ... horrible.    An insanely strong flavor, and a very bad one at that.  Like eating the trash.  Really, really bad.  My dining companion said he felt like he'd eaten something that had gone rotten.  I'm not sure what inspired me to try more of this, as it was so, so bad, but I decided to try another chunk out of mine, from what was clearly a different piece.  And ... it was actually good!  Really creamy and delicious.  It had a strong flavor, but this time, it was a good one.  I ended up eating all of that piece of uni and it was quite fantastic.  I then went back to the first piece and tried another tiny chunk, and it was again, horrible.  We'd clearly gotten two different batches, one which was great and one which was just downright bad. I'm doubting the freshness here.  I won't order uni at Sushi Zone again.  But I really, really wanted to like this (which explains why I kept trying!)

I didn't have the hamachi, but my dining companion said it was just ok.

Tamago is always the end to my sushi meals, my "dessert".  This was a pretty forgettable tamago.  It wasn't bad, but it wasn't very good either.  Not much sweetness to it, which is something I'm usually looking for in my "dessert".
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