Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Getting Saucy at Ahi Sushi

This summer, why not take a scenic drive along the coast to Santa Barbara, if only to experience one of the best sushi restaurants this side of the country has to offer?

Ahi Sushi starts as familiar as any customary Japanese restaurant—you park your car in a small lot and then enter a smaller, nondescript dive; you’re greeted by the host, and after being seated at the sushi bar, you’re handed the dish of wasabi and ginger, and your drink is served. But then comes the menu, and you’re blown away.

The zany names aren’t the big deal; many sushi restaurants come up with funky-sounding titles that entertain as well as entice, but some of the listed ingredients that follow the names of each roll are anything but ordinary.

The Ahi Roll, for example, mixes fresh fish with mango and chives and a “cucumber/wasabi vinaigrette sauce.” In some of the other rolls you may find sesame sauce, carpaccio sauce, citrus herb vinaigrette, dijon vinaigrette and chive oil, or house chipotle sauce. Spicy aioli, overall, reigned as the most popular sauce on the menu.

Behind the bar, two busybody chefs scurry about, fetching and using the 15 or so differently colored sauces in squeeze-bottles, as they prepare one artistic dish after another for the patrons that begin to pack the tiny joint. Although it’s also a matter of having fresh fish and top-quality ingredients, it’s all the sauces here that make the grade—with the help of a searing torch that brings out the aroma of it all, ensuring that the essence of good gastronomy fills the dining room.

Ahi’s signature lobster roll is called “South Beach Grill.” Portabello mushroom, red bell pepper, eggplant, asparagus and garlic agree harmoniously with chunks of grilled lobster in this roll, which is then sprayed with white truffle oil by the chef using a small mist-bottle (no kidding). Finally, a spicy tomato soy sauce is added on the side. At $12.95, this dish puts to shame some of the far less tasty lobster rolls served at many upscale Japanese restaurants, some of which charge almost double the price.

Just when you think the South Beach Grill can’t be topped, along comes the Sunny Southern—this one has snow crab, jalapeno, cucumber and avocado, but it’s the sundried tomato oil and spicy aioli that do the trick…and it’s seared. The sundried tomato oil runs alongside the roll, but the spicy aioli sits on top of it with the snow crab and gets burned in, ensuring that the two flavors melt and merge together in creamy perfection.

The single snag in an otherwise perfect performance: the chef did not impart that the ususual sauce of papaya aioli, which according to the menu is served with the “Ono Ono” roll, was unavailable today; he simply substituted regular spicy aioli in the dish next to the green jalapeno sauce. But otherwise, the Ono Ono, with its tempura crab leg, avocado, cucumber and seared blackened salmon with cajun powder was pure bliss.

Ahi Sushi
3631 State St., Santa Barbara

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