Today’s guest post comes from JD Wilson, former chef/owner of Elysium Restaurant and Wine Bar in Savannah, Georgia. (It only made it two years but was really awesome.) A man of many talents, JD also went to grad school for nautical archaeology and marine affairs. He currently lives in Mill Valley, CA and is pursuing a parallel career in contemporary painting & sculpture while still maintaining a professional relationship with his passion for food and wine.
As a lifelong sushi fan, I often find myself craving the protein-rich flavors of raw seafood on days when I hope to find extra oomph, a little tango in my step. It might sound funny to some, but for me, a meal of raw fish is centering, purifying and powerful. While sushi has become a broadly consumed product in the U.S., it is still widely viewed as a delicacy, yet I find it beautifully primal at its core.
Here on the west coast, Native American communities devoured raw fish in places like Neah Bay for centuries, including gobs of gray whale after a hunt. Tribes like the Makah believed it gave them strength and even sexual potency (roar).
Europeans have long craved raw foods like oysters, crab, caviar, carpaccio, and tartare. Other raw delicacies—if not plain old hunks of uncooked flesh—have been consumed by us folks since we were still swinging in trees. Whether defined by exemplary contemporary culinary skills in rendering the raw eats or a rustic approach to enjoying food without flame, there is a clear (and I feel vital) attraction to raw meats intrinsic to our genetic makeup. Even if your idea of wild is a rare burger, you feel me on this… right?
Note: Do you remember that scene in Dances with Wolves where Kevin Costner eats Tatonka (bison, mistakenly referred to as buffalo) liver straight out of the gut? I quietly like to think my sushi experiences deliver the same gusto that cat-sized liver did to Lieutenant.
Among raw foods, sushi is king and boasts a particularly discerning and demanding following where aficionados consistently expect the freshest and most unique product available. Though many restaurants have tried to hop on the sushi bandwagon in the last 20-plus years, few have maintained the international acclaim, staying power and elite reputation as Sausalito’s Sushi Ran.
Just over the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, Sushi Ran has honed the art of Sushi under the vision and direction of restaurateur Yoshi Tome. His master sushi chef, Mitsunori Kusakabe, known by locals as “Nori,” swept the international Seven Sushi Samurai competition in 2008—just another feather in the cap of this spectacular restaurant’s 25-year history.
Sushi Ran is on Caledonia Street which, as a general rule, is the spot for locals to hit up an assortment of organic markets, the deli, a few restaurants, a cute little cinema, and for some reason a ton of dry cleaners (I’ve never understood that one.) Despite its lush, scenic surroundings at the base of the Sausalito hills with views of Mt Tamalpais, Caledonia Street is rather unassuming in appearance. Sushi Ran, however, has served as the leader in the gentrification of this sometimes overlooked part of Sausalito, and as an exception to the “locals rule,” attracts diners from throughout the Bay Area and across the country.
More often than not, when I visit a sushi joint, I opt to explore the “special” offerings or less explored goodies. At a recent summer lunch with a close buddy, we opted to hit up some “greatest hits” of what we found on the ample menu. For sashimi we had aoebi (new Caledonia blue prawn), hotate (Hokkaido scallop), maguro (big eye tuna), and hamachi (yellow tail).
What could be said about each and every piece of sashimi is that they were so… clean. The steamed shrimp was plump and consistent in bite throughout the piece. There was no lingering flavor and only a pure, righteous essence of fresh prawn. Simple. The hotate (scallop) was gorgeous and decadent, uber-rich, notably petite, and broke effortlessly in creamy, thick sinews of shellfish with hints of dessert spice and even vanilla that only an incredibly fresh scallop can deliver alongside the subtle saline exposure.
Then the maguro, a mainstay at any ol’ sushi place. This big eye tuna, however, was cut thick and rectangular, which often makes me nervous when I see such a bite elsewhere. No worries here. The bite of ruby and ivory-marbled fish was simultaneously tender and firm. It was exactly what you’d desire from a fast bite of protein-rich tuna. Flavors were deep and meaty, and hung out just long enough to be appreciated before moving on. The hamachi was similar in consistency, but cut longer and thinner. The flavor was certainly laden with typical yellowtail “musk,” but subtly, and that is very much something I find difficult to deliver with yellowtail. This fish can fast-render a strong “fish market” essence that bruises a palate. But not at Sushi Ran.
A basic sashimi experience thus far? I’d say no. It was simple, elegant, and honest. Yoshi and his staff source their fish from local fisheries and Japanese markets. Tsukiji, the often-seen-on-TV Tokyo fish market that auctions gorgeous fish fresh off the boat, is one of Sushi Ran’s primary sources. The fish is often on site within 24 hours based on early requests for what’s obtainable. Their demand for quality is unsurpassed.
We ordered two rolls. As opposed to our initial desire for a simple, basic, fresh fish experience, we wanted some language out of our maki (note: maki is a roll, people). Something to converse with our sake. And so we let them chat a bit….
The crunch roll is Sushi Ran’s maki house specialty. I’ve had many, many crunchy rolls in the past. I was hesitant to order this until our server insisted… and I shall never doubt again. It was delicately crafted, with lean muscle force at its core. Unagi (fresh water grilled eel), avocado, aonori powder (ground seaweed), spicy crab, shrimp, and tempura flakes slept in and atop the roll. That, with the sake accompaniments, made for an experience I have not forgotten yet, and will revisit again. Don’t miss this.
Reminiscent of a spider roll in appearance, the soft-shell crawfish roll was all subtlety and transition as you moved from the outside in. Our first bite from the end of the maki was fresh with daikon sprout and asparagus. Without prompting, we commented on the unexpected simplicity of that first taste.
A couple sips of sake and then back to the roll, we found that as our palate adjusted from the earlier sashimi, the crawfish roll was unexpectedly precise in its delivery of individual flavors. Think about making a sandwich or burrito, where every single element stands out on its own, doesn’t overpower the tastes beneath or above, and still smacks you with a cohesive appreciation of all within. I made the silly mistake of reading “crawfish” and expecting a Cajun assimilation… instead it was the primary essence of ingredients. Daikon sprout, masago, baby asparagus, gobo, and lime.
That is mastery. That is art.
All photos courtesy of Rick Begneaud