SanSai - Japanese Grill

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Sushi Saved My Life

by Hillary Star, Ventura Star, Ventura, CA - I first ate sushi in 1981, a few days after I returned from France, where I’d spent my junior year abroad. I was staying with a friend who was going a Pitzer College in Pomona, and we drove all the way to Westwood to try this new, bizarre I-dare-you-to-eat-that cuisine. I had always been one of those kids who ate the raw hamburger while mom wasn’t looking, and my earliest true food memory was of a neighbor on our block opening a can of sliced octopus and challenging us kids to try it (I was the only taker). So sushi seemed as if it had been invented by the gods just for me.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford to eat it every day. And I still can’t. When sushi jumped across the pacific, it somehow became allied with haute cuisine, a high-ticket meal forspecial occasions. In Japan of course, sushi is a street food (and I must say, those deep-fried shrimp heads I sampled in Westwood twenty years ago compared favorably the Belgian frites that had been my final European meal).

With the advent of supermarket sushi-those square packages of Surimi-filled California rolls you get in the deli section at Vons-sushi became available as a fast-food lunch. But the whole idea of sushi is that it not only fast, but instantaneous. A sushi chef makes it, hands to you, and you eat it, in one continuous gesture. There is no middle man, no waiter, no sealed container, not even a counter clerk. Supermarket sushi is stale by the time it is packaged and stacked-god forbid it should sit around for a couple of hours as the fish congeals, the rice grows mealy and the nori (those sheets of seaweed paper that gift wrap each morsel) reaches the consistency of wet cardboard. (I’d make an exception for the enoki mushroom rolls at Trader Joe’s, which are wrapped in thin sheets for tofu and taste a bit like mushroom-flavored candy-delightful.)

When SanSai opened a few weeks ago, I stopped in at lunchtime to try a sushi roll and a tempura bowl. I was back for dinner, and lunch the next day, and back on the weekend for dinner with friends. The salmon bowl and the tempura hand roll have become the central staples of my diet, replacing virtually all pizza, burger, and sandwich fare. And if I live to be a hundred, cancer free, I will probably be able to credit my new SanSai-based diet with literally saving my life.

The menu at SanSai is visual, featuring color photographs of each meal displayed on the backlit sign over the counter-folks’ heads, just like the signage at Burger King (they’re wearing red polo shirts and visors in another nod to fast food imagery). This is the first restaurant I’ve ever been to where the food that arrives on your plastic tray looks exactly like the food in the picture: bright, fresh and artfully arranged. The décor mirrors the food: crisp, clean and elegantly simple. If you sit on Ikea furniture at home and wear your hot pink Isaac Mizrahi blouse from Target to work, you will appreciate SanSai’s aesthetic and the ethos behind it.

The flavors on the menu are as vivid, clean and whimsical as the décor. Each dish comes with a selection from three or four salads of the day. The Sumi salad is the most popular, a crisp cabbage and sesame slaw that is becoming the restaurant’s signature dish. A green salad dotted with bits of chicken and mandarin oranges is made of fresh baby greens (there isn’t a scrap of iceberg on the premises). The Asian noodle salad, with slivers of red and yellow pepper, has a sharp, fragrant dressing that is neither acidic nor bland the way so many pasta-based salads are (be warned that on some days, an oddly Italianate pasta salad makes an appearance in the lineup, and is rightly ignored-it’s the only thing here I haven’t loved).

The spring rolls are another signature dish in the making. Their skins are barely there, layer of crystalline crunch, feather-light and brittle packaging for a filling of vegetables (or vegetables and shrimp) that retain their flavors, dominated by the aromatic bite of celery and onion, and the earthy taste of mushroom.

The sushi menu is simple, with out any of the exotics, like sea urchin or salmon roe, but the quality is on par with any high-end sushi bar. At $2.50, a hand roll makes an excellent snack, and two would be lunch. A six-piece sushi roll is likewise $2.50. This is what Sushi was meant to be. At these prices, SanSai trounces Vons, and can compete head to head with Jack in the Box or Burger King (the Ventura outlet is the fourth of in a relatively new chain). Certainly, the world would be a far better place if someday it did.

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