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— UPDATE: Zenbu Sushi closed the La Jolla location in May 2014, but its other San Diego North County location in Cardiff is still open at 2003 San Elijo Ave., Cardiff-by-the-Sea. (760) 633-2223
Japanese restaurants in San Diego County run the gamut from teriyaki joints to super buffets, and in between the mix is a growing wave of sushi lounges. Zenbu in La Jolla Village is among the places that helped make sushi bars become hot spots for cool atmosphere and exotic cuisine.
Open since 2000 by La Jolla resident Matthew Rimel, Zenbu (which means "all" in Japanese) aims to be the all-in-one spot as a restaurant, sushi bar and cocktail lounge.
"We invite clientele to come here to enjoy their meals and have a dynamic experience, as opposed to most other Japanese restaurants in San Diego that have you get in, get your food, and get out," said Nicole Scalese, general manager. "We're much more geared for the full experience, having a cocktail, enjoying conversations, and enjoying a fine meal, too."
Zenbu opens at 5 p.m. daily and sets the lounge atmosphere mood with dim lighting, lit candles on wooden tables, bamboo accents, Asian-inspired decor, and eclectic world-beat music playing in the background.
Zenbu has a full bar serving an extensive sake list, dining tables on two levels, a traditional sushi bar on the upper level, and comfy corners for lounging.
The concept was so popular Rimel opened a second Zenbu location in Cardiff, and he also operates other restaurants, including Rimel's Rotisserie in La Jolla and Cardiff.
While many restaurants claim to use fresh seafood and quality meats, Rimel says he can prove it, since he acquires much of it from his own fishing boats and cattle ranch.
Rimel's eateries — especially important for Zenbu — gets much of its local seafood from Ocean Giant, their own eco-friendly fishing company. Similarly, their beef comes from Homegrown Cattle Co. in Warner Valley near Lake Henshaw. Rimel is part owner of the ranch where free-roaming cattle graze solely on native grasses from the area.
Zenbu is especially popular with locals who know about the daily happy hour from 5 to 6 p.m. when sushi rolls, hot appetizers, beer, sake and cocktails are half price.
The menu reflects a mix of traditional Japanese items and Asian-inspired dishes by Master Sushi Chef Tim Johnson.
Regulars know that eating at the sushi bar can be more personable, especially when asking for off-the-menu items. Zenbu offers a wide range of traditional sushi selections and rolls, salads, and both hot-and-cold appetizers. Fresh catches of the day are written on a chalk board behind the sushi bar.
One of the more unique and fun appetizers for a sushi alternative with Japanese flair is the Hot Volcanic Rock. A smooth, lava rock is heated 400-degrees, then presented on the table where guests place thin-sliced prime sirloin on the rock. The beef literally sizzles on the steaming-hot rock, cooks within seconds and is served with a dipping sauce made from citrus ponzu and sesame oil.
Zenbu recently add new items to its menu, like ramen and udon noodles, and a variety of small plates which are safe for non-adventurous diners, but still prepared with a gourmet twist. New, hot entrees include Miso-Glazed Black Cod served with bok choy and pickled vegetables, and Steamed Halibut with Asian vegetables and a black bean-soy glaze.
For something on the exotic side with a big "wow" factor, try the Crispy Red Snapper or Local Rockfish. A fresh-caught fish is lightly dusted with potato starch, then fried to a crackling crisp, and served whole — head to tail — with ponzu and sweet green-chili sauce.
• Zenbu Sushi, 7660 Fay Ave., Suite I, La Jolla
• Phone: (858) 454-4530
• Website: zenburestaurants.com
• The Vibe: Lounge-like, stylish, romantic, exotic, comfortable
• Signature Dishes: Hot Volcanic Rock with Prime Sirloin, Mexicali Roll, Whole-Fried Crispy Red Snapper or Local Rockfish, fresh sushi caught by Zenbu's own boats
• Open since: 2000
• Reservations: Yes
• Patio Seating: Yes
• Take Out: Yes
• Happy Hour: 5-6 p.m. daily
• Hours: 5-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday; 5-10:30 p.m. Thursday- Saturday
• On The Menu RECIPE: Each week, you'll find a recipe from the featured restaurant online at lajollalight.com. This week: Zenbu's Ahi Poke Salad
1/2 cup Soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon Sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon Red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon Ground black pepper
1 teaspoon Brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon Chili oil
3/4 pound Fresh ahi, cut into 1/4 inch cubes
1/4 cup Chuka seaweed salad (Can be found in Asian markets or Whole Foods Market)
1/4 cup Dried wakame seaweed
1/4 cup White onions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon Green onions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon White sesame seeds
To make Poke Sauce: In a small bowl, whisk together soy sauce, sesame oil, red pepper flakes, brown sugar and chili oil until smooth. Set aside.
In a large bowl, add ahi, seaweeds, onions and sesame seeds. Drizzle sauce over all. With a large spoon, gently mix ingredients, do not stir — scoop from bottom to top.
Place salad into refrigerator for 15-20 minutes to allow flavors to combine before serving.