Not Kirk, not Cathy, today it's Ed (from Yuma) enjoying an omakase dinner with you.
Knowing I needed another location for a good sushi dinner, Kirk suggested Kokoro where he had good omakase recently. That made my decision easy.
Finding the sushi bar was harder because its address was on Greyling Drive, which connects to Sandrock, which runs south from Aero Road near Montgomery Field. Traffic on Aero was down to two lanes because of construction, so I distractedly missed the Sandrock intersection and had to come back and try again. Also confusing is Greyling Drive, which is called Gramercy Drive east of Sandrock . Then when I finally found what had to be the right stripmall, there was no evidence of a sushi bar anywhere. I remembered reading that Kokoro was next to a Subway, so I began looking carefully and spotted an anonymous storefront on the back side of the Subway building. I detected an A in the window, and just then, someone raised the window screen and I saw what I was looking for:
Almost as anonymous as Sakura.
The arrangement of the sushi bar’s workspace itself struck me as unusual. There was no glassed-in display of fish. In addition, a large preparation area adjoined the bar so that the itamae, Akio-san, worked behind the large wooden cutting board and rice tub and handed trays or plates to the server who would then place them in front of me at the bar or people at a table:
Omakase dinners were available at three different price points, the most expensive being $85; however, that required ordering a few days in advance, but Akio-san told me that he could do something for me almost as good. My meal would cost $75.
This version had different mushrooms than Kirk's and they were very narrowly sliced. Great knife work. The main flavor was green fresh spinach merely accented by the light dashi sauce.
Very good and well presented, I thought, the fresh fishy flavors of the tender jack balanced by the sweet umami of the sauce.
As Kirk commented, this rich presentation calls to mind braised pork belly – rich, meaty, and slightly salty. The shiso offered a fresh herbal contrast.
The scallop had a great solid soft texture, its mild flavor was enhanced by the sweet touch of light miso.
The next course, the sashimi plate, was the highlight of the meal, and Akio-san explained each of the items on the beautiful plate. In the back, two soft pink pieces of rich toro stood in front of a shiso leaf propped up with shredded daikon. Perhaps not as good as the toro at Shirahama, but really excellent anyway. Like the tuna belly, the other slices of fish were arranged to face me by laying up against little mounds of red and green seaweed. On the left were two slices of wild hamachi, firm and very flavorful but not as unctuous as the toro. In the middle of that central row, two pieces of solid and meaty "snapper, but not real snapper" (Akio-san) provided contrast to the hamachi and toro. On the right of that row, were two slices of rather ordinary tako, not bad by any means but rather mundane. On the right front of the tray, a deep golden piece of nutty and creamy uni tasted just about perfect, its consistency like a somewhat firm custard on its upper surface that melted into a soft rich sea urchin butter underneath:
OMG!! Somebody must have eaten all of that wonderful sashimi before I could remember to take a picture.
Oooooops. But it really did look good before it was eaten.
I lifted it up to my face and inhaled the light clean aromas arising from the bowl. Very lightly seasoned, excellent. Though the piece of whitefish at the bottom the bowl seemed to have given much of its flavor to the soup stock, the ethereal broth was warm and refreshing.
One thing that I had found wonderful about the meal so far was the variation of dishes served. In contrast to the long parade of sushi at Shirahama, each course at Kokoro was different. For example, this plate arrived in front of me after the soup:
On the left is braised daikon, which as Kirk pointed out is exceptionally good here. The firm bland root has become full of flavor and tender softness. The roasted eggplant wedges had more texture and were perfectly cooked, and the whole dish swam in rich gelatinous crab sauce. Intensely crabby (which is a good thing in a sauce). The thin slices of awabe (abalone) provided more textural contrast than taste.
This sablefish was flavorful and perfectly cooked medium rare with just a touch of char. Unlike true cod, a dry fleshed fish that stores its body fat in its liver – hence cod liver oil, this black cod easily flaked into rich bite sized pieces. While the marinade certainly broke no new ground, it seemed adequate to me (of course, I have not eaten misoyaki all my life). I even liked the mild pickled carrot athwart the slice of fish.
I've never had this before, but wow! Crunchy and distinctively woody in flavor. Can't think of anything else that matches those flavors.
Similarly, the tuna was fine, but far from exceptional. The sea eel, anago, was the highlight of the entire plate, moist, flavorful, and lightly salted. The yuzu kosho added a spicy tangy complexity. Very satisfying eel:
In a recent interview, Bishop Desmond Tutu said that his favorite indulgence is rum raisin ice cream; ice cream this good could become a favorite indulgence of mine as well.
I truly enjoyed my meal at Kokoro. While there were a couple clunkers, I appreciated its variety and the generally excellent quality of the ingredients and preparation. The simple decor and the tasteful jazz music in the background created a space that felt friendly to me. While not garrulous or charismatic, Akio-san was welcoming and helpful. Koji-san at Shirahama projects the humble persona of a craftsman continuing an ancient tradition; Akio-san, even while wearing traditional wooden shoes, displays a certain creative pride. He has reason to.
Kokoro, 3298 Greyling Dr, Ste B, San Diego CA 92123, (858) 565-4113, open 11:30-2:00 and 5:30-10:00.