Special All the Way 


When I'm out to dinner on my own time, I often order the special (except fish "specials" on Sunday, but let's not go into that), simply because these one-day treats are usually the product of the chef's excitement and creativity. With my reviewer's cap on, though, I can't justify talking about dishes that readers may never be able to taste.

Sushi bars are a different matter. On my first visit to Alameda's Angelfish, I threw caution to the wind and ordered nothing but sushi and specials from the board. On my second visit, I warned my companion that she would have to go the sushi route alone; I was going to be noble and order at least one of the five cooked entrées. But pork tonkatsu and chicken teriyaki just couldn't compete with seared tuna with spicy vinaigrette and grilled shiitake mushroom salad.

I did look at a couple of the entrées, and they seemed all right. Feel free to order the udon and the beef teriyaki, and let me know what you think. But frankly, if you're going to go the platter route, order the sashimi or the chirashi sushi, a wide bowl of sushi rice on which a garden of fish and seaweed blooms.

I had heard through the grapevine that Angelfish serves knockout sushi, though when I discovered that the restaurant resides in a strip mall, I didn't come running. It turns out to be a pretty classy strip mall, and Angelfish's owner and sushi chef, Takao Minatoya, was one of the owners of Berkeley's Kirala until he sold his portion and opened up Angelfish three and a half years ago.

On my first visit I brought along a couple of semiregulars to show me the ropes. Sushi addicts, they took over most of the ordering. "Always go for what's up on the board," recommended Alex. The sushi portion of the paper menu looked fairly standard -- everything from ebi to tamago and back again, with a couple of complex American-style rolls -- so I was happy to focus on the wall. It's not a large board -- just ten small items and a list of eight to ten kinds of fish. Though the prices are far from rock bottom, we only spent $30 a person for a substantial meal with beer.

After waiting in line -- arrive after 6:00 and lines are a given -- we sat at the marble-topped sushi bar, which isn't hard to do because tables only take up sixty percent of the seats in this tiny place. Angelfish is clean and well appointed, spare if not spartan. My first hint that the food was going to be more than clean and well appointed was the amuse-bouche Minatoya gave us, a small bowl of raw baby octopus tentacles marinated in rice vinegar and sesame oil and garnished with tobiko and a fan of cucumber slices. I had to chase the slippery gray nuggets around the bowl with my chopsticks, but they were worth the hunt. The acidic marinade made the taste of the sweetly bland cephalopod flesh pop out.

We chose only two items from the small standard menu: a light, creamy miso soup and ohitashi, pressed, blanched spinach covered with a shower of pink bonito shavings. The bonito melted as it enters the mouth, leaving an evanescent whiff of salt and sea. The unseasoned spinach picked up flavor when dipped in the small pool of citrusy ponzu sauce at the bottom of the serving dish.

After that, the specials board. Forgetting for a moment the injunction against overfished Chilean sea bass, I picked out the grilled bass marinated in miso and perhaps a little rice wine. The chef must have used sweeter light miso rather than the dark variety usually used in marinades because for once I wasn't overwhelmed with salt.

We also ordered a plate of monkfish liver (ankimo), the "foie gras of the sea." Both firm and creamy like duck liver, monkfish liver has a slight mineral edge and a seafood tinge. Ours needed more seasoning or time in a marinade; we squirted a lot of lemon juice on it and dabbed spicy pickled radish shavings on top to relieve the flat richness.

My companions and I then got round after round of nigiri. Each slice of fish sprawled over the rice beneath, completely obscuring it. Such fish I haven't tasted in months (and that includes a couple of sushi binges at East Bay hot spots): Albacore as soft as ripe brie. Silky yellowtail (hamachi) that tasted as if it were made out of fresh cream. Quickly seared bonito sparkling with green scallions. Ginger-topped Spanish mackerel (aji) so fresh that I could barely taste the sea -- not a hint of fishiness. A roll filled with crunchy, smoky-tasting salmon skin, chopped up and mixed with scallions and sesame oil.

The true test of the quality was the sea urchin roe (uni) from Santa Barbara. I had written off uni as an acquired taste that I would never get, like fetid durian and slimy natto. "Check out the texture and the color of this," said my friends, pointing to the tray on the sushi bar. "It's firm and bright." The chef sliced off huge chunks and slid them onto seaweed-wrapped rice. I held my breath and popped a whole round into my mouth. It was pure ice cream, with no trace of that dead sea pungency that I abhor. According to the chef, uni's taste is not determined by just the freshness and the location but the season.

On my second visit, I made my skeptical friend eat a piece. Minatoya even promised her that if she didn't like it, it was free. We paid. One of the great charms of Angelfish is its owner and sushi chef. Minatoya talks to everyone -- everyone -- and almost all the folks who walk through the door greet him by name. He runs a relaxed, playful bar, cracking jokes and slipping treats to regulars.

Along with the second night of uni my friend and I had an asparagus roll, nigiri topped with toothsome but tender cooked baby octopus dressed with a little mayonnaise, and a dragon roll. I've always loved the look of this colorful multilayered sushi. Inside is an avocado and crab salad rolled in nori, while outside the rice is surrounded by tobiko and "dragon scales" of avocado and freshwater eel (unagi). Unfortunately, the ensemble tasted a little bland, and like some of the other maki formed by Minatoya's assistant, it wasn't as neatly rolled as it should have been.

We had started with another amuse-bouche of crisp-tender green beans in a miso dressing with sesame seeds that was simple, summery, and perfectly seasoned. I felt better about losing my moral tug-of-war once the specials off the board arrived, such as the mixed green salad with velvety roasted shiitakes and feta cheese, dressed in a robust soy-sesame-rice wine vinaigrette. We used the vinaigrette to perk up the lone dud, an unsauced, grilled skewer of mildly spicy, slightly bitter Japanese peppers topped with bonito flakes.

The winner of the evening was another fusion salad: a small tangle of mixed greens with pellucid slices of rosy ahi crusted in sesame seeds and seared. The same soy-sesame dressing, plus sprinkles of crunchy tobiko, harmonized and enriched the two ingredients, making the nearly raw fish taste as meaty as a huge slab of steak. Of course, it was a daily special, but if you return to Angelfish often enough, chances are that it will appear again. You should definitely take the risk.


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