Omakase OMG at Kokoro Restaurant
The dish started with the familiar: a comforting crunch and a flavor not entirely unlike that of French fries. But that didn’t last long. As my teeth sank into the interior, I became lost. Was it meaty or crunchy? It wasn’t either, but rather somewhere in between.
I couldn’t quite pinpoint either the flavor or the texture. Then I recognized the bits of green powder on the plate: that was the rich, aromatic, earthy and ethereal flavor of matcha. Then, with one hit of salt it suddenly all made sense. The world was back in balance.
That lotus root tempura with matcha and salt at Kokoro Restaurant (3298 Greyling Drive Ste. B) in Serra Mesa was just a single dish in the middle of Chef “Taisho” Akio Ishito’s omakase menu. It was neither the meal’s first delicious bite nor its fantastic sushi finale. It was, rather, just one dish somewhere in the middle. And yet it captured the omakase’s essence: simple, surprising and subtly seductive precision and perfection. That’s why our title says Omakase Kokoro Restaurant.
Omakase, at least in the eyes of most Americans who have any understanding of the term, is often a sushi thing. But the Japanese word is much broader, translating literally as “respectfully leaving another to decide what is best.” Omakase dining, then, is much more expansive than simply sushi. It’s somewhat similar to kaiseke—both are elaborate, multi-course, tasting menu-style meals built around seasonality, quality ingredients and simple preparations—but without the ritualized structure and ceremony.
At Kokoro, the omakase includes raw and cured fish dishes, but it doesn’t exclusively feature those items. It’s not even mostly that. In fact, our omakase opened with a supremely simple dish of marinated spinach and enoki mushroom that was both understated and elegant. A miso-cured amaebi took that up a notch, with the miso marinade underlining the inherent sweetness of the shrimp.
Another surprising offering was a clear soup that seemed to feature a fish cake. But it wasn’t the fish cake that made the dish: it was the strip of yuzu, a Japanese citrus, sitting at the bottom of the bowl that really starred. That yuzu’s ever-so-slightly sweet acidity balanced and actually highlighted the deep umami of the soup and the fish cake.
Fried monkfish in lobster broth with snow pea and daikon was a bit more forward. The dish played on the parallels between the monkfish and the actual lobster broth. After all, monkfish is often called “poor man’s lobster.” Two big chunks of daikon balanced the richness of the seafood and the two little slices of snow pea offered a welcome hit of freshness.
The sashimi and sushi courses were, predictably, excellent. Taisho’s knife skills are second to none and his sourcing is impeccable. My favorite fish dish at Kokoro came at a lunch visit: mackerel battera sushi. Battera is Osaka-style sushi made by stacking translucent, paper-thin konbu over vinegar-pickled mackerel (Kokoro also offers it with salmon) and served on sushi rice. The entire package is compressed in an impressive wooden contraption resulting in a dish that is as dramatic and attractive as it is delicious.
Even with all that, I keep coming back to that fried lotus root tempura. Unexpected, subtle and surprising, that dish summed up what makes Kokoro stand out. There’s really nothing in San Diego quite like it.