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San Diego's Sushi Ota Will Ruin You for All Other Uni

This place draws in the connoisseurs

At Sushi Ota, the chefs immolate the spot prawns they serve discreetly, but the fresh demise of the crustaceans is evident nonetheless. The cooks, clad in black robes and crown-fitting white hats, assemble sashimi plates atop the sushi bar, on the metal rim above the case full of seafood. An assortment includes petite slices of translucent spot prawn along with the critter's upper body, the eyes clear and its antennae and spindly legs still occasionally undulating. It keeps dinner real. After the sashimi is eaten, a server whisks away the platter and returns moments later with the deep-fried head. I ate mine in such haste that I burned the roof of my mouth — the shrimp's revenge.

The sashimi plate arrives as the second course of the restaurant's omakase menu. It also holds a whole sea urchin, as black as the depths from which it was retrieved. The spiny globe is ornamental. It comes overlaid with a lettuce leaf and one precious lobe of the sea urchin roe that is plucked from nearby San Diego waters and delivered daily in wooden boxes. The gentle, briny sweetness that comes from eating uni so close to the source ruins the overripe, metallic-tasting specimens that appear everywhere these days, often tangled in pasta or garnishing other seafood.

Nigiri sushi assortment

Beef or chicken teriyaki, gloppy rolls, and combo platters clutter the menu, but from my perch at the sushi bar I saw way more tradition-minded omakase meals being ordered. This place draws the connoisseurs, and plenty of them: On a Tuesday night waiting customers spilled onto the sidewalks of the Pacific Beach strip mall that's been home to Yukito Ota's restaurant since its inception in 1990. In Los Angeles, the seat of sushi culture in the U.S., Sushi Ota would likely be regarded as a respected neighborhood player. Japanese cuisine certainly thrives in San Diego, and outside of L.A.'s hundreds of options it's easier for Ota's venerable merits to be recognized. Ota began his U.S. career in the eighties at the former New Otani Hotel in L.A.'s Little Tokyo; along with eight or nine other chefs, the man himself continues to work the bar nightly.

This place draws the connoisseurs, and plenty of them.

My meal started with one of Ota's omakase signatures: crisp, nubbly octopus fritters, contrasted with smoky dashi gelee and adornments of arugula, endive, and asparagus, the latter of which is indeed in season during the Southern California winter. Dishes came rapid-fire after the uni and spot prawn rhapsody: a mix of lobster and snow crab baked in a lobster shell under a stratum of mayo and eel sauce; a tempura course with shrimp, baby okra, shiitakes, and Japanese rockfish; and a nigiri assortment of yellowtail, salmon belly, halibut, silvery-skinned kohada (Japanse shad), and another piece of the lyrical uni. None of it caused shivers of revelations, but it was all ably prepared and satisfying.

Above: Live spot-prawn and uni and cod milt; Below: Sushi Ota interior

The next delicacy proved more provocative. It was sacs of baked cod semen, typically available only in winter. It looked like alabaster brains but possessed a decidedly singular creaminess. The chef, wearing a tag with the name Kevin, presented it as shirako. "The polite term in English is cod milt," I said. He cocked his head. "How do you spell that?" he asked. "I have a hard time explaining it to customers."

After I ate the shirako without flinching, Kevin asked, "Would you like ika no shiokara — fermented squid guts?" Sure. Yuzu's sunny flavor brightened the dish, though honestly it was potent enough that a few bites sufficed. A cup of miso soup with clams made for a tame denouement to the meal. A server then came up and asked me what flavor of ice cream I wanted for dessert: green tea, plum, or red bean. I chose plum, but I could have ended with the clams, or maybe had a couple of more lobes of uni before relinquishing my bar seat to the next anxious patron.

Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back in January 2016 to find out which restaurants made the cut.

Photos: Bill Addison

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