Half of this restaurant is very good
655 West Broadway,
Uni with citrus mousse
Green tea tiramisu
You know the couple: perfect, harmonious. Like Simon & Garfunkel, they’re better together and less special on their own. Then there’s the couple where one person tells hilarious jokes, makes origami, and scales Kilimanjaro every Thursday—while their partner “likes cats” and laughs weird.
Sora must know how this feels.
Its red snapper carpaccio is sliced with surgical obsession, a perfect ribbon of skin on edge and just the right amount of yuzu salsa and kizami wasabi ikura (kelp, wasabi, roe). Uni with citrus mousse on toast points is pretty amazing. Bluefin tuna tartare is woven with minced onion, garlic, and capers in a drizzle of white soy sauce. With wasabi mousse over toast, it’s fantastic, if ethically challenged (bluefin is overfished).
This is one hell of a good Japanese restaurant. Problem is, it’s Japanese-Italian.
It’s an odd combo: Minimal, light Japanese with baroque, heavy Italian. Yet there’s tradition. “Itanese” has been around for at least a century, with a surge during WWII and a real boom in the ’90s, when Japan’s spiraling economy made cheap carbs very appealing. Think uni pasta, edamame purée over lobster ravioli, seafood pizzas, bonito flakes in lieu of pepper flakes.
The idea for Sora started at Nobu San Diego’s sushi bar. Local Italian restaurateur Daniele Gilardi (Greystone, Osetra, Chocolat) would ask head sushi chef and Nobu lifer Noriyoshi Teruya for ideas for some Italian-Japanese dishes. Teruya helmed Nobu’s Milan outpost, so he knew pasta. The two decided to strike out on their own, giving birth to San Diego’s only Japanese-Italian restaurant concept.
The West Broadway location used to house Crescent Heights Kitchen & Lounge. CH built a cathedral of a kitchen, had a very good chef (Wolfgang Puck protégé David McIntyre), and was positioned to seize the westward expansion of downtown. Then, 2008 happened. Cranes went idle; the expansion receded like a spooked turtle.
Sora’s redesign is a little confused, too. Rising from the bar is a statement piece—a 12-foot sculpture of red Japanese writing (which represents “sora”—Japanese for “sky”). There’s an impressive cheese bar with seating, à la Bice. Thick, elegant, emerald-green bamboo shoots line the eastern window. There’s some nice furniture.
And, yet, the owners have chosen to have a 40,000-square-foot flat screen (size estimated) lord over the dining room, with ESPN on loop. That’s fine if I’m pairing a pile of chicken wings with a lethal amount of domestic beer. But a 20-foot Chris Berman hyperventilating about touchdowns isn’t quite as charming when you’ve just spent $25 for six bites of excellent, delicious, mouth-epiphanizing lamb. The west side of the dining room, meanwhile, is as barren and beige as a midscale hotel boardroom.
Teruya’s riff on the Spanish classic pulpo a la gallega will keep your eyes on the plate. Sure, the bowl of potato purée has the dull gray hue of poi or Vietnamese shrimp paste. But bobbing below the thin strips of fried potato and quail egg are chunks of grilled octopus. It tastes like a nifty Okinawan riff on the lumberjack breakfast.
Our thumbs were all up on Sora—until the starches. Squid ink-stained rice in calamari husks is beautiful to look at and fun to chew. But garlic is the only flavor note. It’s a joy to watch the risottos being made, poured piping hot into a giant wheel of Parmesan at your table. But while they’re gratuitously cheesed (not a bad thing), both the white asparagus and mushroom-truffle versions lack the sublime “starch cream” that’s only achieved from careful, laborious rice stirring.
For the mentaiko, two tiny chunks of black cod and marinated roe are served over flavorless strozzapreti (pasta twists) in a cream sauce that begs for more of the Japanese spice mixture, shichimi. That it’s cooked in sake is interesting, but good narratives don’t necessarily taste great. And on two occasions, the edamame purée over the lobster ravioli has an odd flavor that, it must be said, recalls medical adhesive.
But that lamb. Oh, god, that lamb. With a crust of macadamia nuts and porcini mushrooms over a gorgonzola sauce and rosemary-mushroom tapenade, it’s a wonder. Like many dishes at Sora, the portion size is almost comically petite. Just dig in. Sometimes value is measured in moans, not ounces.
Still, Teruya’s special brand of awesome seems better suited to the Tsukiji market than Milanese mercatos. He either needs a capable Italian copilot in the kitchen, or Sora needs to hawk its pasta machine to buy some more of that delicious local uni with apricot jam. Its success in a tough but promising location may depend on it.