I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,
Keys to the ignition are like gloves to Ali.
To and fro, water in the sea,
The sunrise is my peace.
I ride the distance, nature in me,
Nirvana coming through with my delivery.
To and fro, mountains and sea,
The twilight sets me free.
- "Gloves 2 Ali" by Ghost Style
(Dawn on I-5.)
The drive from Southern California to Northern California usually takes six hefty hours. Sometimes I can make the trip just in a little over five hours if I do my Initial D impersonation, book it, and don't run afoul of traffic. On bad days, I can hit snags going through Los Angeles, snow and/or ice crossing the Grapevine, construction on the I-5 straightaway, and the occasional forest fire on CA-152. It's worth it, though, to see my family and friends. I have deep roots in Northern California. I like getting back to them whenever I can.
My friends all know about my food blogging proclivities. It's fairly hard to keep secret when I insist on pulling out my camera during every meal. I may be able to ninja pictures without the disturbing the wait staff, but my friends tend to notice when I stop them from eating to get a shot of their food. I get some ribbing for it, but I also get recommendations to favorite local spots.
Late one chilly night, Ninjafuzz decided to introduce me to Smile Sushi, his sushi bar of choice, just a few blocks away from his apartment in downtown San Jose. He, Waldensian, VII XLII, K Love, a friend of theirs who I'll call "Token Girl", and I trudged though the empty, frigid streets towards the one beacon of light still shining in the darkness.
(Not a creature was stirring...)
The restaurant was as empty as the street when we arrived. We were greeted by a soft-spoken, Korean gentleman who Ninjafuzz informed me was the itamae (skilled sushi chef). The chef seated us at some tables, since our group of six was much too large for the restaurant's small sushi bar. He then proceeded to apologize for the lack of a wait staff, saying that his waitress had called in sick. It was just him manning the entire shop; front, bar, and kitchen. Even with Smile Sushi's limited seating, I imagine he would have had substantial difficulty if there had been more diners. As it was, the service was excellent throughout our meal, and continued to be excellent even after the arrival of another party.
A lot of dishes were ordered and shared, so I'll just be covering the ones that I tasted. I've tried to provide prices for these dishes at the end of this review. However, since Ninjafuzz ninja-ed the check, I don't have all of the prices and there won't be a total.
(When I say "ninja-ed", I mean he used his secret ninja arts on us and bogarted the bill. Ninjafuzz is actually a student and practitioner of modern ninjutsu. He jokes that as a student of the samurai battle technique of iaijutsu, I'm honor-bound to challenge him to a duel. I've so far refused. I know that conniving genius well. He'd probably slip powdered Altoids into my food and kick my ass while I was choking on the curiously strong, minty goodness. Suffice to say, I was on my guard during the entire dinner.)
A master strategist, Ninjafuzz began by ordering us a bottle of nigori sake and plying me with drink. Opalescently sweet, it flowed down my throat, exploding in my head and stomach with saccharine warmth. Once I started, I just couldn't stop. I'm sure he was counting on this.
(Would you trust this man?)
Next up were six delectable filets of Maguro (Bluefin Tuna) sashimi, which Ninjafuzz passed around. Given his crafty expression, I was leery of his intentions. How do you trust a man with no eyes? Unfortunately, I was unable to resist the siren call of the "chicken of the sea".
(All dressed up.)
Resting on a bed of thinly sliced onions, drizzled with ponzu shoyu, and topped with a dab of Tobiko (Flying Fish Roe), the maguro was more dressed up than I was expecting. However, it was fresh and mouth-meltingly tender. While I would have preferred to enjoy the delicate flavor of the fish unadorned, the ponzu shoyu paired well with it.
(Sliced, dark, and delicious.)
Freshly returned from his travels in Japan and visiting from Cincinnati, K Love ordered a heaping plate of Bonito (Skipjack Tuna) sashimi, which he said was difficult find. Oily, sanguine, and rich, its earthy flavor contrasted nicely with bright tones of the ponzu shoyu with which it was dressed. As a fellow bonito fan, I agreed heartily with K Love's assertion that the bonito was excellent.
A few sips of nigori sake later, I was ready for something lighter. I ordered the Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp), which had a firm texture that was yielding without being mushy. I could really taste the natural sweetness of the shrimp's raw flesh, although the scattering of tobiko that the itamae seem compelled to add to almost everything was a little distracting. I was also disappointed when he didn't deep fry the heads and serve them to me on the side, as is customary. I felt like I was being charged market rate for half a dish.
(Real men eat natto.)
I was feeling a little mischievous, so I got a Natto (Fermented Soybean) roll for everyone to share. The itamae prepared it simply, with some chopped scallions for accent.
The smell of natto is highly distinctive, carrying with it associations of runny cheese and Athlete's foot. The flavor is an acquired one. Much like Marmite, if you didn't grow up eating it, you really have to work at liking it. The only person up to the natto challenge was K Love, who impressed me by taking two pieces.
Now that I'd gotten the preliminaries out of the way, I was ready to get down to the serious eating. Smile Sushi's Special Combination #3 came with soup, salad, rice, a sixteen piece, mixed nigiri and sashimi platter, a Spider Roll, a California Roll, and Prawn Tempura. It was an ungodly amount of food at an unbeatable price. I waived the soup, salad, and rice to make room for the good stuff.
(VII XLII's Thumb of Approval.)
Special Combination #3 Part 1 - Mixed Nigiri and Sashimi Platter
The sashimi was equal parts maguro and Sake (Salmon). The nigiri were bonito, Tako (Octopus), Ebi (Shrimp), maguro, Tai (Red Snapper), sake, and Hamachi (Yellowtail Tuna). Most of the selections were quite fresh, although a few pieces, like the tai, were obviously past their prime. They weren't dangerous to eat, but their flavor had degraded to the point that I was surprised the itamae had still served them.
Overall, I was satisfied with the platter. However, if it hadn't been part of a larger combination and such a good real, I might not have been as happy. Smile Sushi's strength doesn't seem to lie in classic preparations like nigiri or sashimi. The itamae did a decent job, but nothing on the platter wowed me.
Special Combination #3 Part 2 - Shrimp Tempura
Cutting shrimp and frying them into such long fingers is practically an art form. Here the itamae impressed me. The batter was a little bready, but nicely crispy. I shared these with my friends.
Special Combination #3 Part 3 - Spider Roll and California Roll
The rolls were where the itamae really showed his skill. Although the soft shell crab in the Spider Roll was deep fried a little drier than I liked, the proportions were perfect. I enjoyed how balanced and melded the flavors were, and applauded the addition of both avocado and pickled carrot.
The California Roll was equally impressive. It was moist and juicy without being cloying. You see California rolls everywhere these days. Japanese restaurants are practically required to serve them, and you can find pathetic renditions in the deli sections of most grocery stores. Smile Sushi's version was at the upper end of the California roll spectrum. I shared both rolls with my friends as well.
(Oh so good! Moose like!)
According to Ninjafuzz, Smile Sushi's best offerings were rolls that fused Japanese flavors with tropical ones. At our urging, he ordered several examples of island fusion for us to sample.
The Aloha Roll was filled with salmon, snow crab, and mango. The mango was surprisingly good with the salmon. I've tried fruit salsas on cooked salmon and haven't been impressed. But, somehow the richness of the raw salmon and sweetness of the mango worked together in this roll. It was excellent.
(There's a mouthful.)
Ninjafuzz loves San Jose. He worships the San Jose Sharks. It's no surprise, then, that he adores the roll that Smile Sushi has named after his fair city. After this display, I wasn't sure I wanted to see what he'd do with the roll named after the Sharks. It couldn't possibly be included in my review.
(The money shot.)
The San Jose Roll was composed of salmon and tuna on the outside, and avocado, eel, and cashews on the inside. It was topped with two types of tobiko and a milky, mayonnaise-based sauce. The cashews were a surprising addition to the classic pairing of avocado and eel, but they added a nice crunch and a pleasant, nutty fragrance that filled the mouth while eating. This was another excellent and inventive roll.
(Mounds of pure pleasure.)
I felt the need for one more roll to round out the evening. The Honeymoon Roll on the "Specials" whiteboard intrigued me, so I got one to share. It turned out to be the best roll of the evening. Filled with raw scallops and mango, and topped with eel sauce and a mayonnaise-based sauce, this horrific-sounding concoction somehow combined to form a flavor reminiscent of high grade Uni (Sea Urchin). The scallops added texture and briny ocean flavor. The mango added a different texture, along with mild sweetness. The eel sauce added a different kind of sweetness and the mayonnaise-based sauce added richness. It was truly remarkable.
An order of Deep Fried Ice Cream with chocolate sauce and berry coulis was the perfect palate cleanser. Stomach straining and eyes heavy, I knew that Ninjafuzz had won this round. He had me helpless and at his mercy. But, the sly devil just threw me a wink and snagged the check. After all, what are friends for?
Smile Sushi - Quality sushi at bargain (for NorCal) prices. The itamae's classical preparations are ok, but the rolls are where his true skills lie. The last three were some of the most inventive, yet sensibly tempered, fusion rolls I've had.
Just that dinner alone was well worth the trip.
The Bill (for six):
Nigori Sake - unknown
Maguro Sashimi - 11.50
Bonito sashimi - 11.50
Amaebi Nigiri - 5.75
Natto Roll - 3.25
Special Combination #3 - 31.95
Aloha Roll - 5.25
San Jose Roll - 10.50
Honeymoon Roll - unknown
Deep Fried Ice Cream - unknown
86 South First St. (& San Fernando)
San Jose, CA 95113
(The song lyrics I quoted above, "Gloves to Ali" by Ghost Style, can be found on the soundtrack for the Initial D live action movie. If you haven't watched it yet, I highly recommend you go rent or buy it. It's an excellent film that even people who don't like street racing movies will enjoy. Hey, Cat liked it. Trailer below.)