Go fish

Akebono II

4960 Freeport Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95822

(916) 731-8288

Whenever I go to review a sushi place, I (not-so-) secretly hope it won’t really fit the Sacramento sushi-place mold. You know, mayonnaisey and over-the-top. I know the big, bold, crazy, saucy rolls are dear to the hearts of many sushi eaters, though, and they’re certainly what dominates the market here. Well, here’s a happy exception: Akebono II, a place you’d hardly notice, wedged between Raley’s and Oto’s on Freeport. It’s a low-key sushi bar, appealing enough, but nothing fancy inside: The fish is the star.

We bellied up on a wet evening, and the sushi chefs walked us through the lineup of (largely unfamiliar) fish names on the specials board. If you’re going to sit at the bar, chef personality is key to your experience, and these guys are great: friendly but unassuming, enthusiastic but not overly salesy about the selections, and responsive but not intrusive. Maybe it’s telling that their shouts of welcome when a diner enters the restaurant are on the quiet side.

The space, too, is quiet but welcoming, with walls painted in eggplant purple and blue shades, a few art prints (Van Gogh, for instance, though perhaps that’s not the best choice when one thinks about sharp knives), and a minimum of the usual sushi-bar kitsch. The bar is smallish and cozy, but the menu is big and wide-ranging. We concentrated on a few appetizers and then various sushi. The printed menu has all the usual options for nigiri, plus standard and house-invented rolls, but the little dry-erase specials board is where to look.

After hearing the descriptions, I wanted to try gindara (black cod) with a bit of a sear on it, and gomasaba (a mild mackerel). The gindara, from New Zealand, had a smoky edge from searing, dots of chili sauce and a silken texture that made me want more and more; it melted away, tantalizingly, over the tender rice. The gomasaba, too, was a standout for its texture. It had a little relish of finely chopped ginger on top, which contrasted its bright, sparky top notes against the briny, lingering mackerel flavor. It wasn’t fishy, really, but was rather assertive and quite delicious. Though it was skin-on, the pretty, silvery skin had no hint of toughness.

My husband isn’t really a slabs-of-mackerel sushi guy, though, so we also had some rolls. There’s a wide choice, as per usual, but we were quickly drawn to the Akebono, a pretty confection of seared tuna and avocado, spun with delicate shiso leaves and topped with a thin draping of halibut, tangy ponzu, and tiny dabs of chili sauce. It was beautifully balanced—the aromatic herbal notes of the shiso against the rich avocado, fleshy tuna, and bright ponzu—and quite delicious.

We next asked the sushi chef to recommend a roll, and he suggested the Z-roll: shrimp tempura, tuna, snow crab (the menu specified “real”) and tobiko. The tuna, he said, was especially good that day. It was indeed, in its little pink cabochons on top of the roll, and overall the roll was quite yummy—not as much of a standout as its predecessor, but the shrimp was firm and sweet, the snow crab pleasantly subtle and the tobiko popping in the mouth. (A note about mayo-based sauces: We steered clear, but several of the rolls do include them, and the sushi chef mentioned that he works to keep them in check.)

We also tried out a couple of items from the appetizer menu, like fried squid legs (geso), appealingly crunchy, chewy, salty and tentacle-y. With their creature-from-the-deep look, these proved amenable to being used in little mock battles at the table, should your interests lie that way. Goma-ae, or cold spinach with a nutty-flavored sesame and soy sauce, was also a hit.

Akebono II does have other food aside from sushi, of course. There’s the usual roundup of chahan (fried rice), donburi, curry; some entrees like teriyaki, tempura, and katsu (fried cutlets); and noodle soups. We tried an oyako don, chicken in a sweet-soy egg mix with plenty of onions. It was hearty and tasty, the egg especially, though the white-meat chicken was a little dry. To my mind, though, the non-sushi entree options are there as sops if you happen to go out with some non-sushi-loving friends.

But with fish so fresh and lovely and distinctive, I don’t know why most people would veer away from the sushi path. In fact, you might be seduced into following it further than you intended, as I did. We were stuffed by the meal’s end, but I wondered about the difference (on the specials board) between toro and aburi toro. The latter is lightly seared, a treatment I hadn’t tried, which the chef said brings out the flavor in a different way. So, despite being full, I ordered it.

It was delicious: meaty and buttery, with that seared edge barely penetrating the raw fish. “Do you do spicy?” the chef asked, and upon hearing a yes, he added a shaving of jalapeño and a mound of fresh wasabi—a very different animal from the powdery green mound we’re all accustomed to, juicy and pungent with a bright green flavor. I left with sinuses cleared, vowing to return again for the unusual fish selection, high quality and special touches.