Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A Sunday on Convoy with Candice, Kirk and Friends - Nijiya, Izakaya Sakura and Sage French Cake

This past weekend, I had the privilege and pleasure of spending some time with a distinguished group of foodie friends - including Kirk K of mmm-yoso!!!, Candice Woo - a friend and the food critic of SD Citybeat Magazine, friends Donna, Dominick and Jen - whom I've met through Chowhound and Slow Food, and Raffo, the owner of Lupi Italian Restaurant in the Birdrock area of La Jolla. (Which is excellent, by the way.) The purpose of our gathering was lunch at Izakaya Sakura, a Japanese restaurant in Kearny Mesa. If you're a Chowhounder you've undoubtedly heard about this place - I had been reading about it for a while and wanted to try it, so I jumped at the chance when Candice emailed.
Nijiya Market on Convoy
Before lunch, we met Kirk at Nijiya Japanese Market in the shopping center next door for some shopping and a tour. I'd been to the Farmers' Market already, and was planning to pick up some Brandt beef from Donna later in the day, so I had brought a cooler with me in the car. It came in handy for the Japanese pickles and a few other treats that I picked up.
Kurobuta Pork Belly at Nijiya
I was really impressed with Nijiya, I must say. I can't believe I'd never been there before. They carry high baking products - including organic extracts, Bob's Red Mill flours, and other items similar to what you'd find at Whole Foods or Peoples. Much of the produce is organic, and the meat department was amazing. Block Kurobuta pork belly, ground pork, prime beef, organic chicken - all at very reasonable prices. The fresh fish looked good too. Tuna loins ready for slicing at around $10. caught my eye as did this gorgeous ready-made sushi (with organic rice!)
Sushi made with Organic Rice at Nijiya
It's probably a good thing this place isn't too close to my house, because I saw way too many tempting snack products. They had Pocky galore (Giant Pocky! Men's Pocky! Pocky Crush!) and more "beer snacks" as Kirk called them than you can shake a stick at. I just love those peanuts coated in the crunchy shell mixed with wasabi peas - so much so that I ate a whole bag between yesterday and today. (I didn't feel quite so bad when I saw that it only contained three servings!)
Cookies Galore at Nijiya
Kirk is incredibly knowledgeable and just the sweetest guy. Between him and Alex (who posts on Chowhound as Kare Raisu,) you'd be hard pressed to figure out which one of them is the nicest most humble guy you've ever met in your life. Everyone else I've met has been great too - now that I think about it - but these two are just special.
Sake at Nijiya
Kirk walked us through the store answering questions and giving us tips and hints, like which brands of Sake and Mirin to buy, and identifying packages in the deli case (luckily a lot of the items were pretty clearly marked.) Candice also picked up a fried potato pancake like snack which we shared - it was made with shrimp and onion, freshly fried and delicious.

After the shopping we headed over to Sakura. The place was packed with families and young people, most of them Asian. I kept hearing that this place didn't serve California rolls, but it appears they've relented - they were on the menu. I ordered the Chirashi - a selection of sashimi arranged over rice with traditional sushi accompaniments. This was served on a tray with a couple of pickled salads, a bowl of miso soup and a salad.
Bowl of Chirashi at Sakura
The service was a little problematic in that our dishes came at completely different times. Probably because it came from the sushi bar, my meal arrived about 20 minutes ahead of everyone elses. I sipped my soup and ate my salad until it started to become ridiculous for me to sit there with that beautiful plate of food. There comes a time when it makes everyone more uncomfortable for you NOT to eat. The uni was just as I've heard it described, with the flavor of an oyster but a custard-like texture, and the fish was utterly fresh and jewel-like. Really a fantastic meal. The only part I wasn't crazy about was the roe - which was a bit too fishy and salty for my taste.
Chicken Karaage at Sakura
I also wanted to try the chicken kaarage - a fried chicken snack that Kirk has written about a few times. It's essentially marinated deep fried chicken. I ordered a side and shared it around the table - it came out crisp and piping hot, and made for a good snack with the beer, but there really wasn't anything unusual about it. Kirk and several others at the table ordered a bento box special with traditional Japanese hot foods including Japanese meatloaf and crab croquettes.
Kirk's bento box
I personally wasn't crazy about the items I tried on the bento plate, but I was awfully full by the time Kirk's lunch arrived and he asked me to share it with him so I might not have been the best judge. I was glad to have the chance to try it, but not sorry I'd ordered the sashimi.
Napoleon at Sage French Cake
After lunch, we strolled back over to the Nijiya shopping center to Sage French Cake. It looked like the stock was a little low - but Dominic and I picked out a couple of things to try with some coffee (double espressos, actually.) The Napoleon was very good, with dark crisp buttery puff pastry and vanilla pastry cream with a generous dusting of powdered sugar. My one complaint about Asian pastries is that they tend to overuse the gelatin. The caramel cake square we picked had that problem. Their cheesecakes and chocolate mousse desserts looked good - I'll have to swing back through here on my next trip to Nijiya to see how it looks when they're not all bought out. Incidentally, the coffee was good, made with Cafe Moto beans.
Caramel cake and Napoleon (with espressos) at Sage French Cake
It's always a treat to see Candice, Donna, Dominic, and Jen - and I was thrilled to finally meet Kirk and have a chance to visit these places. If you're looking for me anytime in the near future - be sure to check the line at Nijiya - I'll be there with a cart full of Pocky, beer snacks and sushi. I have a lot of lost time to make up for!

The rest of the photos from the day's adventures can be viewed here.

Nijiya
3860 Convoy St.
San Diego, CA 92111
(858) 268-3821

Izakaya Sakura
Kirk's posts about Izakaya Sakura can be found here
3904 Convoy St.
San Diego, CA 92111
858-569-6151

Sage French Cake
A recent post about Sage from Cathy of mmm-yoso!!! can be found here.
3860 Convoy St #112
San Diego, CA 92111
(858) 571-3484

12 comments:

  1. Glad you liked it Alice. If you look on the labeling at Nijiya, almost everything is organic. Sorry I was so busy and missed it.
    -Cathy

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  2. Sounds like fun. Lupi was one of our favourite places when we lived down at windansea, its just a bit too much of a trek now, but I do miss the lovely food there and the wonderful atmosphere.

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  3. Hi Alice - It was a pleasure meeting you! I had a great time and look forward to doing this again soon.

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  4. So, let me get this straight - you went to that shopping center but didn't indulge in any fro-yo at Redberry? You're a stronger woman than I...

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  5. Cathy - I noticed that - it's great - it's like a combo of Japanese Trader Joes and Whole Foods. A dangerous place, but a good thing I think overall!

    Jenny - it is a bit for for us also, which is why I haven't mentioned it before, but I should recommend it more often.

    Kirk - likewise of course, and yes - I am looking forward to it!

    Cremarie - oh my goodness I was soo full, but I saw it, and the Curry House place - so I am sure it won't be long. Candice mentioned though that she still likes Yogurt World the best.

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  6. With the Japanese snacks, I avoid ones with MSG. There are lots of variety at Nijiya, and you'll find that the ones without MSG are fine but it's easy to "stop at just a handful". Same with fishcake.

    No rips on the Japanese; US snacks are full of MSG as well... ever been able to put down Cheetoes? There's a reason...

    Also with the Pocky, only some of the varieties come trans-fat free. It's tough to find trans fat free cookies/crackers/etc, but it's possible. I think the strawberry Pocky is trans fat free.

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  7. gofigure - how timely, did you see that article in the NY Times today? http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/05/dining/05glute.html?pagewanted=2

    I checked my boxes of Pocky, and only one - the mens Pocky,had .5 grams of transfat per 10 grams of fat, so I'm not too worried. The regular Pocky and Pocky Crush had none, so maybe they reformulated. You reminded me to check the labels before buying though.

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  8. How wonderful you got over there, Alice. It's one of my favorite trios of places -- and it's near me, so I frequent the three of them often. I even bought a birthday cake at Sage and it was a huge hit. By the way, the organic produce at Nijiya is from their own farm.

    Caron

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  9. Wow, that chirashi looks amazing. Beautiful picture too!

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  10. oooo! i'm envious i missed out on that outing. i would love to get walked around nijiya with kirk answering questions. he is definitely my resource for asian food in san diego. i've been drooling over your restaurant list for ages. it's so rare that we actually either go out to dinner or make it out of o.b. when we feel like going. and every body knows o.b. isn't a culinary meca! ;-)

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  11. Oh wow... This is the kind of shopping I dream of... We have the Hi Mart here in Denver, a Korean place, but it doesn't have that gorgeous meat and seafood department you're describing.

    Makes me hunger for the ocean once more..

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  12. I didn't have such a great experience the first and only time I went to Sakura. It was terribly crowded, the wait for food was long and I was very hungry so the portion seemed small. I'll definitely have to go back sometime and give it another shot since I hear nothing but praise for it.

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