Wednesday, September 23, 2009

TORO SUSHI of Ontario

The Trendy TORO

I consider sushi to be highly addictive in general, but every once in a while, a sushi bar will come along and prove to be so habit-forming that you actually think about going back twice in the same day—even if it’s 20 miles away. That’s when you know they’ve got you.

Toro Sushi of Ontario is such a restaurant. I had spotted the place off the 10 East freeway several times before I finally got the chance to eat there. Each time I saw it, I made a mental note: Must eat at Toro. But it was never the right time, I was either on my way somewhere else or had other plans. But it beckoned me; experience and instinct told me that based on their name, logo and architectural style, it was one of those modern sushi joints that catered to sophisticated, contemporary taste buds.

My instincts proved to be right.

Their signature rolls, for one, come with daring sauces such as sweet and spicy vinaigrette, garlic-onion vinaigrette, or wasabi-cream sauce. The toppings range from crispy red onion and garlic chips to bacon, an unprecedented but not unacceptable sushi roll ingredient in my opinion. Each roll varies in price—ranging from $8.50 to $15, the pricier ones certainly bearing more ingredients.

I chose the Paka-Lo-Roll for its blackened salmon, crispy red onion, and sweet & spicy vinaigrette, although the rest of it—spicy tuna, tuna tataki, crab and veggies—didn’t sound bad either. The $14 roll turned out to be quite a whopper—an enormous rice-and-fish monstrosity sliced into about ten pieces, topped with minced crab stick squiggles battered and deep-fried, which replaced the crispy red onion promised in the description.

Not to be shorted, I asked for a side of the crispy red onion, and discovered the hairy-looking fried crab was actually better than their original intention. I have seen minced crab stick sitting atop a sushi roll, but never minced and fried crab stick. The genius behind this is that every single strand gets coated with crunchy tempura batter—far more effective than if they had just fried an intact crab stick, which would leave the center still gooey and soft. In my opinion, this roll was ultimately enhanced by the sauce, blackened salmon and fried crab, for it would otherwise have been rather plain, with its basic center of spicy tuna, flaky imitation snow crab and cucumber.

The single roll filled me up, but I decided I would have to go back and eat more to satisfy my curiosity and to make this restaurant more blogworthy. And so a second visit was in order, and this time I ordered the Pink Lady roll (shrimp, spicy crab, masago, avocado, veggies rolled in pink soy paper and served with ponzu), and the funky-sounding P-Whip hand roll (shrimp tempura, spicy crab, avocado & veggies wrapped in soy paper, finished with dynamite sauce). The Pink Lady was tangy and refreshing, but the P-Whip was what I craved again later.

Toro Sushi’s version of dynamite sauce didn’t look like much—a hazy light-orange liquid stored in a huge hot sauce bottle, appearing watered-down and generic—but when mixed with the minced crab stick to form the spicy crab, then combined with the shrimp tempura and soy paper, it was something beyond ordinary.

I nearly ordered a dessert known as The Happy Ending (something about tempura and ice cream served with a milky “Happy Ending sauce”), but then I was told by the waitress that I really, really should try their Pepper Salmon sushi, served with ponzu and wasabi-cream sauce, which is one of the dishes for which the restaurant is famous. I rationalized that sushi is as good a dessert as any Happy Ending, and settled with glee on the salmon. Fearing the wasabi-cream sauce would overpower the taste of the fish, I asked for it on the side. But as it turns out, Toro’s version of this sauce is also stellar, as it is mild and creamy and not overly horseradishy. It brought out the taste of the pepper-infused salmon, which was also excellent.

Toro Sushi, I learned, is not new to the Inland Empire. It relocated from Chino a few years ago, where it had been open for business since 2000. The new building is far more spacious than their old one, and this move certainly exposed the restaurant to new clientele while it continued to cater to their devout followers. But taking over a better location is not the only way Toro Sushi promotes itself. Every week, the restaurant comes alive with “Fuego Fridays,” a party that turns the restaurant into a bit of a nightclub, complete with dance floor, drink specials, and deejays playing various types of music which include salsa and Spanish rock.

Toro Sushi
1520 N. Mountain Ave., Ontario
(909) 983-8676

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Mentaiko & Yama-imo Hand Roll, Shake-Toro, Prosciutto & Walnut Salad at Valencia's MARU

MARU: A Class Act

When you hear about the city of Valencia, it’s almost impossible to avoid thinking of Six Flags Magic Mountain—but what of the sushi in this thrillseekers’ paradise?

I considered it the perfect opportunity to hunt down the perfect purveyor of my favorite food in this area when I parted with friends at the theme park last week; it was still early enough to catch dinner, and it was the first time I had driven to the city alone, which meant I was unfettered and free to roam. Unhampered by the schedules and opinions of others, I set off on an adventure that would have corkscrewed headaches into the skulls of anyone who had been crazy enough to accompany me on that fickle night. Sometimes, solo journeys have their advantages….

After a couple of Japanese restaurants appeared on my G-1 cell phone when I googled “Valencia sushi,” I briefly wondered how anyone ever survived the pre-Internet, pre-GPS days while searching for a place at which to dine (what did we do, really? Call 411 or comb the streets randomly?). Kyoto and Maru both popped up, and rather than yelp it (I have mentioned previously how little I trust the opinion of others), I decided to wing it.

Trying to make sure that at least one place was open for business, I dialed Maru first, but when no one picked up the phone, I tried Kyoto. The latter confirmed it was indeed open for dinner, so off I went.

As GPS units go, we all know they sometimes mislead and confuse us just a bit, so somehow I detoured into a shopping plaza I had to find a way out of…until the words The Kona Crisp caught my eye, making me take another detour. I knew it wasn’t sushi, but it sounded unique and I was curious about the menu. I stopped inside this self-dubbed “Vintage Beach Canteen” for a quick look and was disappointed. The place was nothing more than an upscale burger joint with a nice Hawaiian theme, and the aroma was that of a fast food restaurant. I sampled their homemade cole slaw, which was so flavorless that it made me long for the sweet liquidy cole slaw of KFC.


When I finally found Kyoto, the logo made me realize this place was part of a chain I had already visited before. With locations all over the Valley, Kyoto is better known for its all-you-can-eat option and overuse of that Americanized “Sweet Sauce.” At the last branch I went to in West Hills, I had chosen scallop sushi over the super-fried or crazy mishmash rolls with a California Roll base. Although it has its devout followers of cheap overeaters, I consider its sushi very basic and rather unimaginative, reminiscent of Crazy Tokyo Sushi, another chain known for its cheapness in both price and quality.

Curious, I sauntered in anyway. Its ambience was casual and quite rowdy, which can be conducive to a fun dining experience, but a quick skim of the menu confirmed this was not where I wanted to heartily feast after an exhausting, sun-and-water-drenched day, even though the casualness of the atmosphere seemed to more than welcome my still-wet-from-the-water-rides shorts.


Maru answered the phone and assured me they were open when I tried calling again, but it was their menu that assured me right away of their caliber. Boasting exotic fish flown in nightly from Japan, the sushi menu offered rarities like fatty bluefin tuna belly, live scallop and live sweet shrimp, white seabass, jellyfish marinated in vinegar, and pike mackerel. According to Maru's website, executive chef Jason Park uses only the freshest and highest quality ingredients, even personally handpicking fresh produce from the Santa Monica Farmers' Market every week.

But what I found to be more intriguing was that this was a sushi restaurant with a French influence, with a whole other menu that listed roasted duck, foie gras on puff pastry, steak pasta and organic potatoes with bacon tossed with crème fraiche. Listed with the description of each dish is a recommended wine pairing. Classy.

It was at Maru that I learned of the difference between yamakake and yama-imo, which describe the different ways in which Japanese mountain potato is served (grated versus sliced), and it was Maru that paired my yama-imo with mentaiko (spicy cod fish eggs). $12 was a handful for a hand roll, but the taste was spectacular considering the simplicity.

I went for the shake toro (salmon belly) sushi, impressed that the restaurant even spelled it so that it was phonetically accurate, unlike most restaurants which translate their salmon into sake, like the alcohol, confusing poor Americans further. The description even read “More tender and oily.” The chef may not have seared this like the last chef did when I ordered salmon belly, but he did perk it up with strips of battera kombu, also known as pickled kelp, and a sauce he dubbed “nikiri sauce,” which consists of soy sauce, sake, and mirin, a popular Japanese cooking wine.

I would have ordered more sushi, of course, but the Proscuitto & Walnut Salad with sliced organic apples for $12 caught my eye, and the mention of sun-dried tomato vinaigrette didn’t hurt, either. But this turned out to be a ginormous salad, so in consideration of my wanting more sushi, the bad thing is that it filled me up....The good thing, though, is that it filled me up.

Somehow, I just can’t see families and teens coming into Maru for dinner after a bout at the theme park—the place is simply too posh and high-class, and its menu hardly agrees with the funnel cake and roasted corn you’re sure to have eaten all day. This reminds me again that I truly know how to enjoy the best of both worlds.

24250 Town Center Drive, Valencia
(661) 290-2595

Note: Maru has closed down