Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Sushi @ Sushi Sam's

Update Review, February 2017

Years ago, I used to frequent Sushi Sam's, as it is halfway between my office in Mountain View and my home in San Francisco.  It was a good place to stop when traffic on the 101 was bad, or, uh, whenever we wanted sushi.  It was the first place I experienced omakase, and the first modern style sushi I ever had.  It holds a formative place in the culinary growth I went through when moving to the Bay Area, and for that, it will always remain special to me.

But I had not haven't visited for years, and last time, in 2014, I wasn't blown away, so it took me a while to venture back again.  As in, uh, 3 years.

This time my visit was with 5 other co-workers, on our way from a conference in Mountain View, back up to the city.  One is gluten-free, and we only learned once we were there that they had virtually no options for him.  He had plain sashimi, no soy sauce, and plain steamed rice, as he couldn't have nigiri since the sushi rice often has vinegar that often has gluten.  Even the ice cream for dessert was thought to have gluten (really?).  Honestly, it didn't seem like the staff had a good handle on what did or did not have gluten (aka, what about the edamame?), but, it wasn't worth the risk.
Seaweed Salad, 8 Piece Omakase, Taro Agadashi, Almond Tofu, Custard Pudding.
We ordered two appetizers for the table (including a special I had never had before), the smallest size omakase (8 pieces each), and, of course, the included dessert.

Overall it was not particularly great.  I only really enjoyed 2 pieces of sushi, and several I did not like.  The almond tofu dessert though was still as awesome as I remembered though.


The drink options at Sushi Sam's are fairly limited: a couple choices of Japanese beer, a couple choices of sake, plum wine, soft drinks.  No sparkling water.
Plum Wine.
Well, this was a generous pour!

I first discovered plum wine when I started eating sushi, and I still associate it with getting sushi (unless I'm with folks who want to order sake of course).  Since the rest of the group was beer (or non-alcoholic) drinkers, it seemed fitting.

The plum wine wasn't particularly good nor bad, but it is so sweet that I didn't quite enjoy it alongside my food.  I used to like this with my savory food?


In the past, I always got miso soup and edamame, and sometimes seaweed salad, to eat while waiting for the main attraction at Sushi Sam's.  Sometimes it could take quite a while for the sushi once ordered, and we always got apps to tide us over.  I really don't care for edamame these days though, so we skipped that, and miso soup seemed boring.  I still ordered the seaweed salad so we'd have something to munch on while we waited, but our food came rapidly, so we didn't really need it.

This is also the first time I noticed the appetizer specials board, filled with all sorts of fried items, including ... taro!  Since I love taro, I added the taro appetizer on to our order too. 
Seaweed Salad.
The seaweed salad was fine, unremarkable.
Taro Agedashi:
The special appetizer menu had two taro dishes: agadashi taro and fried taro with miso.  I ordered the fried taro with miso, but got this instead.  Not that I knew exactly what the fried taro with miso was supposed to be, but I was hoping it was something like taro fries with a dipping sauce, so I was pretty surprised when we received this.  It wasn't until after, when I looked at the menu again, that I realized an error had been made, but it was too late at that point.

Anyway, these were just mushy taro balls, topped with grated daikon and bonito flakes, in a dashi broth.  The balls were kinda mushy and this was just totally not what I wanted.


Literally every time I have ever gone to Sushi Sam's, we have ordered the omakase.  I did bring my parents there when they visited, and my dad, who doesn't eat any seafood, ordered a teriyaki dish, but besides that, we have always, always gone omakase.  

This time, I was tempted to actually order just what I wanted.  In recent years, I've realized that I don't care for a lot of sushi.  I still have a few pieces I like, but, raw fish just isn't doing it for me these days.  I don't know what happened.

But others wanted omakase, and if I wanted to order a la carte, then I'd have to get pairs of everything, which would really cut down on my ability to try a variety, since I was the only one opting to do so.  Thus, I went along with the crowd, and opted for the 8 piece omakase, but specified no shrimp and no mackerel, since I knew I really didn't want those items.  Spoiler: we still got mackerel.
Artic Char.
Our first pair started with artic char, generally an option I enjoy.   It was ok, not fishy, good firmness, but, overall, eh.  My 4th pick overall, and I wouldn't really want it again.
Alongside the char was another piece the server described as being like sea bass.  Since I don't normally like sea bass, and I wasn't actually very hungry, I opted to skip this one.  Another diner said it was a bit chewy.
Wild Yellowtail.
The next pair started with glistening wild yellowtail.  It looked so different from most yellowtail that I actually forgot what it was ... until I took a bite.

I never like raw yellowtail.  It tastes meaty and bloody, in an unpleasant way, to me.  My least favorite.
With the yellowtail was scallop.

I realized I maybe should have said no scallops.  I do love scallops, but, I love seared scallops.  For some reason, raw scallop is always quite boring to me.  I don't want it cooked through, nothing makes me sadder than a seared scallop that isn't mid-rare, but, raw scallops just don't do it for me.

Which is about how I felt about this.  It was inoffensive.  It had a slight sweetness.  The scallops were huge.  But ... just, boring.  5th pick overall.
Spanish Mackerel (back). Bonito (front).
I specified no mackerel, but ... got mackerel.  Oh well.

The mackerel was actually not bad.  A smooth flavor, if that makes any sense.  Firm texture.  It ended up being my 3rd pick overall, so, I guess I'm not too upset that I received it.

The other member of the pair was bonito.  Like yellowtail, I don't tend to like bonito.  It just tastes like blood to me.  I did, as always, like the onions on top.  6th pick overall.
Seared Toro (back). Baby Lobster (front).
Our final pair was the best, two items I planned to order if I was ordering a la carte.  I was grateful they were included.

Anticipating the baby lobster being my favorite piece, I started with the seared toro.

It was very good.  Rich, melt in your mouth, falling apart from its fattiness.  The hint of citrus and salt added are amazing.  I described it as "like salty butter", to my dining companions.  My favorite piece of the night, and the first item I actually enjoyed, and would want again.

With that lovely flavor in my mouth, it was time to move to the baby lobster, which felt a bit backwards.  The baby lobster was fine, the lobster itself kinda eh, but I really do love the creamy flavorful mayo and crunchy roe and almond slivers on top.  My second favorite, and I'll continue to get it, but, it was a come down from the toro.


And finally, dessert, included in the omakase, and always a highlight.

We had the same options as always: green tea tiramisu (ruled out because caffeine), sesame or green tea ice cream (boring, caffeine), almond tofu, custard pudding, or, the seasonal special.  Ojan and I both looked at each other in indecision.  We know we both like the almond tofu and custard pudding, and sometimes the specials can be awesome (or, they can be totally awful).  We asked what the special was, to help us make up our minds.  It was phyllo stuffed with banana and red bean.  Meh, banana.  We quickly agreed to split the other two.
Custard Pudding.
The custard pudding was not as good as I remembered.

The custard was well set, but, the flan-like syrupy caramel on the bottom didn't seem nearly as sweet, nor as plentiful.  The trio of fruit (grapes and strawberry), struck me as odd as always, but, hey, this is how they do it.

I didn't really want more than a few spoonfuls of this.
Almond Tofu.
The almond tofu on the other hand was even better than I remembered.

Sweet, creamy, comforting.  I love the sweet lychee syrup it is soaked in.  And sure, the grapes and strawberry are funny here too, but somehow, the grapes compliment the tofu really nicely.

I really enjoyed this, and it was the perfect finish to the otherwise lackluster meal.  I'd get it again in a heartbeat, and, I'll be honest, I almost ordered a second one.  It was smaller than I remembered ...

Original Review, April 2012

A friend first introduced me to Sushi Sam's about 6 years ago.  During that trip, he instructed me on the proper way to go to Sushi Sam's: always just order the omakase.  Perhaps start with some seaweed salad or edamame if you are really hungry.  Bonus points for sitting at the bar, and going on Tuesday or Thursday (when they get the most fresh fish in from Japan).

The omakase has at times included a random cooked appetizer, but I haven't seen them do that in a while.  The sushi is nigiri, and usually served in sets of two.  One of my favorite games is to try to decide which of the two pieces will taste better.  The goal is to always have the better one second, since it will stick with you until the next set.  Every person at the table should play this game with you, so not only are you competing with yourself, you get to see how everyone else picks too!  The sushi all comes pre-sauced and topped.  Most of the sauces are pretty subtle, some ponzu, dashi, soy, salt, citrus juice, etc, but some also include toppings like scallions, onions, sprouts, pine nuts, almonds, or even kiwi.  You order a set number of pieces, minimum of 8, but can always add on more (which, we usually do).  The omakase also includes dessert.  Not what you'd expect at a sushi restaurant, but their dessert is surprisingly good!  Options always include almond tofu, flan-like custard pudding, green tea tiramisu, and green tea or sesame ice cream (with or without red bean).  In addition, they offer seasonal specials.  I've really enjoyed almost every dessert I've had there.

The nigiri has always been the highest quality I've found in the bay area.  The selection is pretty varied and includes many types of fish not normally found.  It is seasonal, and while there are some pieces you get every time, for the most part, you get a few different things every time (particularly if you order a lot of pieces!)

The staff have been the same since that first outing I went on, so many years ago.  I have no idea how they have managed to retain all of the same staff for so long!  Somewhat amusingly, the wait staff are all Cantonese (but the sushi chef is Japanesse).  They are friendly and always have a smile to offer up, particularly for repeat customers.  They always make me feel so at home!

Sushi Sam's is not about the atmosphere.   It is about the quality fish.  The restaurant is nothing fancy, and looks like a very generic place.  Simple wooden tables and chairs, plain white plates, paper napkins, chop sticks in paper wrappers, tea pots that leak.  The service is never great, but generally does the job, taking your order and bringing the sushi at a decent rate.

Prices are high, but, you are getting really high quality fish.  I don't mind paying for quality (my standard order of a 12 piece omakase is usually ~$80, before tax/tip).

For the first few years, I used to go to Sushi Sam's at least once a month,  as it just happened to be located halfway between work and home, at the junction where traffic would get bad.  Such a good excuse to stop for sushi on the way back to the city!  Since I no longer commute, I now only make it there a handful of times a year.  

It had been almost a year since we were last there, so when I had to commute today, of course Sushi Sam's was high on the list.  Unfortunately, it didn't live up to past experiences.  The staff is all the same, and they recognized us even after our long hiatus, and all were ready to greet us with a smile.  But ... things were off.  To begin with, it was very slow.  Our server did warn us that they were busy and behind, and asked if we wanted appetizers while we waited.  It did take a while for the sushi, but even worse was how long it took for them to realize we were done.  We must have sat there 15 minutes waiting for them to come take our dessert orders, after they'd cleared away our plates and said they'd be right back to take the order, and that was only after I finally flagged someone down.  But, the real problem of the night was the quality of the fish.  It just wasn't there.   While Sushi Sam's has never been totally consistent, there are usually a few standout pieces, and the rest generally just really good.  Tonight, however there was not a single piece that was mind blowingly good, and in fact, there were several that were just bad.  And the sushi came in sets of four rather than two (not really a big deal, just different!)  On the plus side, dessert was as good as usual!

Had this been my first experience here, I'd never go back.  It makes me wonder about places I've written off because my single experience there was so poor.  But then again, I have a huge list of places to try, and why waste time on ones that I've already had one bad encounter with?  Anyway, it made me pretty sad to have such a disappointing meal there, and I'm really going to think twice before going back again (I'm sure I will, but I won't go out of my way for it, and given how rarely I do that drive these days, it could be a while ...)

Seaweed salad.
Always reliable.  Fresh, crisp, a variety of seaweeds, lightly dressed with a sesame oil and soy sauce to give it some flavor but not overwhelm, sesame seeds for a little added crunch.  Simple, classic, nicely executed.
Not served warm.  These always taste fresh and are pretty good, but I'd prefer them warm!
Sashimi omakase.
Ordered by one other dining companion.  We were stuffed from an epic lunch (review to be posted soon), so he went for the sashimi to keep things on the ligher side.  This was just standard sashimi, on special sauces or anything like the omakase nigiri.  He thought the cuts were all generous, but agreed that the quality was lacking on his pieces as well.
White king salmon, ocean trout, blue shrimp, aji.
The white king salmon is topped with sesame seeds, scallions, and a light sauce.  I always enjoy this topping combination, as it is pretty flavorful, and the sesame seeds really compliment the fish well.  The salmon didn't have much flavor however, and was rather mushy.  Something was off with the texture here.

The ocean trout was lightly seared, and topped with a ton of sliced onions, and a light soy sauce.  I really enjoyed the texture of this piece, with the light searing, but the flavor was completely lacking.  There just wasn't any, it tasted like ... water.  And there were far too many onions on it.  This one was disappointing, it didn't taste bad, it just really didn't taste anything!

The blue shrimp was horrible.  As always, it had a nice light citrus sauce and salt on it.  I usually love this one, as the citrus, salt, and shrimp just go together so well, which they did tonight as well, except the shrimp itself was chewy, stringy, and just really, really bad.

The aji was a very simple preparation, with a tiny amount of soy sauce and scallions on top.  It was firm and decent texture, but too fishy for my taste.  I don't tend to like aji that much however, so I think this one was just preference.
Deep fried heads of our shrimp.
I skipped this tonight, but it is usually just crispy, crispy, crispy!
Artic char, seared toro, snapper, baby lobster.
The artic char was probably the best piece of the night.  Flavored with some lemon and salt that complimented it nicely.  Good texture, good flavor.  Not mind blowing or anything, but a solid piece of fish.

The seared toro was really disappointing.  It arrived cold.  And it had way, way, way too much salt on it (you can see the MOUND on top there).  It was kinda stringy and not particular good on top of all that.

The snapper was buried under a pile of sprouts, pine nuts, and soy sauce.  I usually really like these toppings, and find them fresh and refreshing.  Which I did tonight, except that I really didn't like the snapper.  It was soggy.  Basically take the mushy texture from the white king salmon and the waterloggedness from the ocean trout, and you get this piece.  Except it was also slimy from the skin.  Really quite awful.

The baby lobster is my longtime favorite.  The first time I loved it was probably due to the novelty - OMG, a baby lobster!  And then next zillion times was probably due to the mayo.  I've since come to appreciate the fish more, and this one has stopped being sooo amazing to me, but it was still pretty solid.  It is a cooked little baby lobster, topped with roe-mayo, topped with almond slivers.  The lobster is a great texture, the roe-mayo adds a perfect amount of creamyness, and the almonds give it some crunch.  Delicious, fun, and ... mayo!
Custard pudding, chantilly cream, grape, blackberry, raspberry.
This is basically an inverted flan.  What you can't see is that the bottom layer is caramel syrup.  The syrup was quite bitter, with the flavor more like the top of crème brûlée rather than a more typically sweet flan.  The custard, while not all that flavorful, was not too sweet, creamy, and a nice fairly firm texture.  The fruit and cream on top were nice additions.  Overall, not amazing, but pretty enjoyable.
Seasonal special: orange yogurt panna cotta.
This was basically just a tart yogurt, topped with some orange puree, topped with some fresh fruit including a very sour grapefruit segment, and a crazy thin powdered sugar cookie thing.  Other than the cookie, this wasn't really dessert to me, much more of a breakfast parfait.  It didn't have much sweetness at all.  The cookie was too thin to really have any flavor, was most just a conduit for a little powdered sugar.  I wouldn't get this again.
Almond tofu pudding.
Always my favorite!  Creamy, soft tofu with a great almond flavor to it, in a sweet syrup.  Love it.
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