Catch a wave

It is spring, and I am in love. Though my love lives far away—in Orangevale!—I believe it can endure, for this is the real thing. Blue Nami is her sweet name. (“Nami” is Japanese for “wave.”) She is a force with which to be reckoned, yet pure and true.

Never has a blind date gone so well (thanks for the tip Jeromy Meyer!). I thought I would find quality fish, nice ambience, and friendly service at an unassuming spot out in the burbs. Instead I left with one of the more creative and memorable sushi experiences found this side of the Mississippi.

Blue Nami is the first restaurant of husband and wife team Joon and Yoon-Ji Cho. Joon Cho spent the last 12 years as a sushi chef, first in New York (Sinwa) and more recently in Los Gatos (Kamakura).

Tucked in a giant strip mall, the sushi and sake house’s charm is quite a standout from its neighbors. You walk in, greeted by all. I saw incoming customers at first surprised and then delighted by such a hearty welcome. Earthen pots with falling water adorn the entryway, as do rows of bonsai plants. One wall is entirely covered by a waterfall, with a stone backdrop. The blond furniture and paper lanterns create a light, cheerful ambience.

The elegance is carried to the table level. Our sake, a bottle of Shochikubai, came to us chilled in a clear vase, with a built-in cerulean blue chamber for ice. Our wakame salad—compliments of our chef—came on a green leaf-shaped dish. Even the soy sauce was housed in a little earthenware container, complete with lid and spout.

The presentation of the food was no less charming. In addition to the beautiful cuts of yellowtail, salmon, tuna, halibut and octopus on our sashimi plate, Chef Cho added little fans of cucumber and burdock root, along with shreds of daikon. As a treat, we also got a tiny serving of jellyfish, seasoned with sesame oil, pepper flakes and vinegar.

As we were scouring the extensive menu, which had over 59 regular and specialty rolls and 10 vegetable rolls, the real experience began. Chef Cho presented us with the Avalanche, compliments of the house. May I say that Chef Cho is a smart man?

The relationship between the sushi chef and sushi customer is a complicated one. It is part teacher-pupil, part artist-judge. The sushi chef must size up the boldness of the customer’s palate, aiming to please, while pushing the envelope of taste and education. If the sushi chef misjudges and is too advanced, the pupil-customer is scared away. If his presentation is not up to par, the judge-customer will not be impressed.

Chef Cho read us perfectly. The Avalanche, one of Blue Nami’s Paris-style sushi creations, falls under the menu heading “Deviations.” But really, they are works of art. The base consisted of a cut of tuna surrounding a modest bed of rice. A butterflied shrimp appeared to be diving into the rice, with its tail upended in a flourish. Flecks of coconut and a smattering of crushed macadamia nuts lay buried beneath a snow crab mixture, which was topped with avocado fan, and a tiny mandarin orange.

With so many textures, tastes and colors, the Avalanche unfolded like a melody. First one note, then another, then another—the soft flavorful fish, the sweet tangy (but not too ubiquitous) rice, the delicate chewy shrimp, the crunchy macadamia, the velvety avocado, the chilled mandarin orange—the mood of this piece lingered in both the taste buds and mind.

The three subsequent “Deviations” we ate were no less amazing. In the Scoobi-Doo, yellowtail, rice, and shrimp were combined with a kiss of lemon and fresh basil leaf (a refreshing, creative addition!), but the main kicker was the ikura, brilliantly orange salmon eggs that burst with flavor. Next up was the Sunrise—a beautiful presentation of tiny raw quail egg (playing the part of the sun) on tuna, tobiko and rice. The doubling-up on the egg was a little rich, but pleasing. The Ice Nine drew an ooh-ahh from onlookers: yellowtail and basil again, then a layering of grilled scallops and a piece of rolled smoked salmon on top. The visual effect was a perfect little flower. Taste-wise, it was delicious. We cleansed our palates with thin, small strips of honeydew and mochi ice cream, a Japanese bon-bon-like treat.

Clearly, Blue Nami is a true find for the adventurous. But our fellow sushi bar-istas fared no worse ordering beautiful rolls, with which they were obviously pleased. A straight-up order of sake nigiri proved wonderful as well—the cut of salmon tasting as if it had been massaged lovingly with lemon. That’s the beauty of Blue Nami—they care so much about each detail. The result, I expect, will be nothing short of customers’ undying devotion. It is the least my Blue Nami deserves!