Naomi has the traditional sushi: nigiri, maki, and sashimi. Because of Iwa’s insistence on the best quality fish, the traditional sushi is excellent, and one could not go wrong ordering from the menu. However, what really differentiates Naomi from the typical sushi bar is the imagination Iwa brings to his special dishes. He creates a fusion of sushi with European elements to create unique dishes that work spectacularly with the fine sake.
At a recent visit, we started with a red snapper tempura with a mango sauce ($8) that had a light and delicate batter that melted on the tongue. The mango sauce added an element of sweet that balanced the dry “White Tiger” sake ($7). Next came a sashimi salad with monkfish “foie gras” and caviar ($8.50). The presentation was very appealing with a bed of thinly sliced cucumbers topped by sliced salmon, big eye tuna, hamachi, monkfish liver, radish sprouts, and avocado sprinkled with salmon roe and black caviar. The sauce drizzled around the salad was a mix of mirin, fish stock, light soy sauce, sake and rice wine vinegar. The silky texture of the fish was complemented by the pop of the caviar and the crunch of the sprouts. Swirling the fish and other ingredients in the dressing highlighted but didn't overpower their native tastes. For this dish, Iwa paired a crisp “Devil” sake ($7.50). The third course was the San Jose Tofu Steak with Tobiko Sesame Sauce ($5.95). This dish included steamed asparagus, shitake mushrooms, red bell pepper slices, and was topped with minced scallions. The tofu was buttery and succulent and absorbed the tobiko sesame sauce to provide a delicate flavor. These dishes illustrate that, unlike traditional sushi bars, one frequently does not use the traditional accompaniments of wasabi, soy sauce, and pickled ginger with Naomi’s sushi. Many of the fusion dishes have their own sauces and condiments negating the need for soy sauce and wasabi. If the Seafood Crêpe (aka seafood pancake) is on the specials menu, definitely get it. The seafood pancake ($8) is made of various types of ground seafood, sautéed, and topped with spirals of a red chili sauce and a yellow spicy mayonnaise.
Where to sit? At the sushi bar nearest the street. That is where Iwa-san has his sushi station. Iwa-san is an artist and is great fun to chat with during dinner. He enjoys chatting about the sake and food, providing interesting insights. The second best place to set is in front of the middle chef at the bar, which is typically co-owner Masa. Masa-san is a fun guy and a wizard with the knife, though more focused on traditional sushi. However, at my last meal at Naomi, Masa made an incredible toro tartare consisting of finely diced bluefin tuna topped with a quail egg, thinly-sliced scallions, and drizzled with a special soy sauce mixture ($9.50). Masa-san then paired the dish with a Kamotsuru sake ($7.50) that had a smooth warm finish with a hint of grass. Amazing.
Last, but most important: Many people go to sushi bars and only order standard items, like a California roll. Omakase (chef’s selection) is the best approach. Diners can still supplement the Omakase selection with standard off-the-menu items, but starting with Mmakase will ensure that they experience some of the most interesting food Naomi has to offer. If diners tell Iwa-san or Masa-san what they like and don’t like, they will create a menu of tasty morsels paired with sake.
There are lots of regulars who typically love to talk to newcomers. Feel free to chat them up about their favorite dishes or sakes. Many of the regulars buy the chefs a beer (or, for Iwa-san, a sake), which is always a good thing as it gets the party rolling.
Naomi Sushi offers excellent quality for traditionalists and adventurous sushi eaters alike. Iwa has an incredible memory for the likes and dislikes of his guests, which guide his Omakase. Some regulars never bother to order food or sake, they just start chatting with Chef Iwa and the other regulars at the sushi bar, waiting to be pleasantly surprised by what is prepared for them.
Occupation: Acquisitions Editor, Book Publishing
Favorite Restaurant: Woodward's Garden
Reviewed Naomi Sushi: Saturday, January 14, 2006
Naomi’s Sushi Grill is located on a busy stretch of El Camino Real. We arrived at the restaurant at 8:45 on a Saturday. The chefs were packing up the sushi bar, but a few couples were scattered throughout the restaurant. Despite the fact that we were clearly ruining their attempt to leave early, the wait staff and chefs were welcoming. They broke out their knives and packages of fish again and seated us in the main room of the two-room restaurant.
The restaurant has an informal feel; there’s an ocean mural on one wall; a net full of plastic fish hung on the other. Tall bottles of sake line a third wall. The waiters wear Hawaiian shirts.
We ordered the sake sampler, which includes three generous glasses of the daily sake choices. One of the servers explained that they offered different types of sake depending on the weather, dry when it’s rainy or hot, sweeter on other days. These were all on the drier side. The first was spicy; the second had a floral sensibility; the last was clean and crisp.
Naomi’s menu is simple and straightforward, with all of the usual favorites, and the sushi itself is of high-quality. The miso soup was subtle and flavorful. The edamame arrived unsalted, not quite to our preference but perfectly fine. We ordered the chef’s delight, an assortment of nine pieces of sushi and a spicy tuna roll. It’s often risky to leave the choices to the chef, but the plate didn’t have any duds. I only wish the server would have told us what the nigiri selections were; as it was, I could only guess at what was on the plate from previous experiences. Tuna, salmon, crab, and shrimp were easy to discern, but I couldn’t identify the others.
We also ordered three of our sushi favorites: Tekka maki (tuna roll); hamachi nigiri (yellowtail); and spider roll (tempura baby crab and cucumber). All were solidly prepared and fresh. The rolls tended to be quite large and not tightly rolled. In general, some of the presentation was sloppy, but it could have been because of our late arrival.
Still, the overall flavors were solid; the fish fresh; and the service good. While nothing stood out as being distinctive—although I might be spoiled by some of the showier sushi joints that have been popping up lately—Naomi’s Sushi Grill is the kind of restaurant that would be welcome in any neighborhood, providing relatively inexpensive yet quality sushi. If I lived or worked in the area, I could see visiting the restaurant on a regular basis.
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Old Mandarin Islamic
Reviewed Naomi Sushi: Tuesday, January 10, 2006
I really didn’t like this place, and considering the drive to get there, I would absolutely not return nor recommend it to anyone. I used to live in Japan, and I am especially offended when chefs try to pass off fish that is not totally fresh. Granted, it’s very well-priced for the quality (the veggie rolls at Safeway cost more than they do here) and if I lived around the corner I would pop in occasionally. But certainly this is not worth going out of one’s way for.
My guess is that this place was recommended for its sake dinners which, thanks to the slack service, I left the restaurant without knowing much about. I know they let you taste six different types with sake, which, if you like the stuff, would probably be something that people would like. However, unless the food is better on those nights, the $55 tag seems terribly steep. The place clearly has its purpose -- they had a decent crowd of people who didn’t feel like cooking that night, and I’m sure they do a good crowd of people in for the bento boxes and the like.
Oh god -- did I mention they only had imitation crab? For any amount of money, we could not get real crab. And it’s crab season. For shame!
The sushi chefs wore Hawaiian shirts, and this laid-back, slacker feel is truly indicative of the place’s too laid-back attitude with the fish and service. I saw the food arrive at the table next to us -- you know, the one we were practically sitting with -- and I knew we were in trouble.
The veggie rolls were excellent. No dessert was offered, nor did we see it on the menu.