Sushi is one of the hottest cold foods right now. The Japanese cuisine of vinegar-soaked rice topped with various fish is growing in popularity among college beer-bingers and the nutritionally conscious alike. What is making this traditional Asian dining experience so trendy among American diners? Sushi is an exotic, healthy and interactive eating experience. Any given plate is a kaleidoscope of vibrant colors and textures, with the contoured segments of fish filets and clean lines of seaweed-wrapped rolls providing a blend of sensations that is practically erotic. To truly appreciate the sushi selections in Santa Barbara, let On the Menu take you on a tour of the dos and don’ts of sushi and some of the tastiest joints in Santa Barbara.

The Low Down

With a sushi joint on almost every corner, it’s hard to decipher between the good and bad. What qualifies sushi as high quality? The average consumer knows that a good sushi experience requires fresh fish – no one is looking for a long, lonesome night of indigestion misery. Beyond avoiding gut-wrenching adventures, how do you know if you’re getting your money’s worth? This week, On the Menu decodes the mystery of sushi.

First and foremost, the freshest of the fresh is needed. We’re talking gills-gasping, fins-moving fresh. All raw fish consumed must meet various standards, such as temperature, in order to be considered “sushi-grade.” How do you know if your serving is fresh enough? Your sushi, and the restaurant for that matter, should not smell fishy. Also, high quality, sashimi-grade fish should be shiny as a sign that it still possesses adequate amounts of the fish’s natural oils. In addition, your bite-o-Nemo should be silky and practically dissolve in your mouth (needless to say, not on your chopsticks).

Secondly, the quality of rice used to make your sushi creations is essential. Different restaurants employ various ingredients to balance stickiness with flavor. Sushi rice is usually made with rice vinegar, while some restaurants may infuse it with the flavors of sake, sugar or kombu, which is kelp.

Specialty and premium rolls commonly seen on the menus of local sushi restaurants cater to the American palate rather than stay true to the traditional Japanese cuisine. The modern, Western version of sushi is slightly suggestive of European cuisine in regards to its elaborate garnishing, geometric plate arrangements and tasty sauces. Sashimi, which is slices of raw fish placed over a wad of rice, as well as Nigiri – pieces of raw fish over finger-shaped rice patties – are more traditional forms of sushi. Makizushi, which are the rolled form of sushi, and Temaki, which are hand rolls, are among the types of traditional Japanese cuisine, lacking the crunchy tempura-fried confetti and sweet sauces.

With this new understanding of sushi and the ability to distinguish quality from mediocrity, On the Menu visited Santa Barbara’s favorite sushi restaurants. Put into action, the test of fish freshness, rice quality and style helped us find your next sushi fix.

Kyoto Protocol
Kyoto Japanese Restaurant
3232 State St., Santa Barbara
(805) 687-1252
Price: $10 to $20

Nestled next to a little car shop off the Las Positas exit, Kyoto offers quality sushi and top-notch sake at affordable prices. Receiving three fish shipments each week, customers can eat with the confidence that only the freshest fish is served here. This was both visible and palpable in every menu item. The sashimi combination, served with miso soup and a salad, is a glistening parade of tuna, yellow tail, salmon, white fish, tako, albacore, surf clam and octopus. Beyond boasting some of the freshest sea creatures out of the water, the towering portions provided at Kyoto are easily some of the largest in town. While sashimi caters to the more traditional sushi eater, numerous makizushi and unique premium rolls are offered. Alex Kim, Kyoto’s manager, explained that, in creating these rolls and all sushi items, only the highest quality white rice with vinegar is used to form a stable foundation.

Sok Kim, the owner of Kyoto, said that her favorite menu item is the kyoto special. This meal offers a mix of five types of sushi, one California roll and a choice of cooked salmon, chicken or beef teriyaki. More commonly ordered dishes among students are the House Combinations, which Kim said offer a variety of items to taste and try. Additionally, Kyoto offers an extensive list of artistic, sweet and savory rolls that are a customer favorite.

“Some people don’t like raw fish, but rolls have [a] fusion style with more [flavors],” Kim explained.

In addition to supplying the Santa Barbara and Goleta communities with outstanding quality sushi, Kyoto prides itself on its party-perfect accommodations. While quiet eaters are free to dine in leisure at any number of the booths lining the walls, private rooms with authentic floor seating are ideal for birthday celebrations and large gatherings. The sushi joint offers its happy hour Monday through Thursday from 5 to 6 p.m., with excellent group deals on pitchers for thirsty sake-bombers. To enjoy a taste of fresh fish and Kyoto’s authentic festivities, come for lunch between 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday or for dinner from 5 until 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday. If not, it’s open 5 p.m. until 10: 30 p.m. Friday and Saturday as well.

House of Sake
Kobachi: Izakaya Dining
4141 State St., Santa Barbara
(805) 692-0717
Price: $10 to $20

Comparable to a Japanese version of a pub, an Izakaya provides a unique, somewhat different form of a sushi restaurant. Sang Lee, the manager of the restaurant, discussed the nuances between Izakaya and other Santa Barbara sushi restaurants.

“[We serve] both fresh sushi and Japanese-style tapas, which is very different from other Japanese restaurants,” Lee said.

Without a doubt, Kobachi serves fresh seafood.

“People know the taste of fresh fish when they taste it, and this is the reason why customers come back to Kobachi,” Lee explained. “We use short-grain rice, which is the best quality in the market. We also make our special sushi vinegar, which brings out the best taste in our sushi and rolls.”

The use of superior rice and refined vinegar introduces quality from the very beginning of Kobachi’s sushi assembly. Kobachi draws regular customers from various Santa Barbara communities. While these diners commonly order sashimi and more modern, westernized versions of sushi rolls, some of the popular dishes tend to be the traditional and authentic Japanese options.

Kobachi’s menu boasts an impressive array of tapas choices, ranging from hearty meat meals to vegetarian choices, providing a unique start to an adventurous sushi experience. For example, the seafood gratin, served with scallops, crab, mushrooms, onions and sticky sushi rice all in a creamy three-cheese sauce, is unlike any menu item in a conventional sushi joint. Kobachi also offers marinated miso duck and homemade yakitori, which is simply two skewers of chicken marinated in a soy sauce that is made on site. In the veggie department, Izakaya offers items like hijiki, which is black seaweed in a sweet soy sauce, or the assortment of grilled veggies served with feta cheese. Clearly, Kobachi appeals to both the adventurous western-sushi lover and the consumer in search of Japanese tradition.

The restaurant has an interesting history, one that is sure to appeal to college students. Izakaya originated as a sake house, where the strong, distilled beverage was measured, packaged and sold. The joint has evolved significantly since then, drawing customers of all walks of life to enjoy its comfortable atmosphere and delectable food.

The mood at Izakaya is more mellow than the average Santa Barbara sushi house, forgoing the hectic chants of “When I say ‘sake’ you say ‘bomb'” for a more appreciative style. Rather than slamming shots of sake into fizzing pints, customers savor and sip fine sake and shoku, enjoying the Japanese drink. The restaurant offers over a dozen types of sake, including a sparkling variation, as well as Japanese beer and wine.

Whether you’re looking for an introduction into the world of classy sake or simply experience this unique take on Japanese dining, come to Kobachi: Izakaya Dining between 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. until 11: 30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.

With your newly gained expertise on sushi excellence, you no longer have to stumble blindly through your eating adventures. Confident that you are consuming safe and superior products, dare to try something new! Your experimental youth no longer need be spent on questionable substances and finding yourself through dubious escapades when you’ve got the 911 roll and uni shooters calling your name.