"The music is generally more subdued over lunch, but it becomes more upbeat after 5 p.m.," Jan Percival confided. "We have a business crowd during mid-day from the surrounding offices and a somewhat younger crowd in the evenings, with a more party atmosphere."
Percival and I were enjoying lunch at Ra Sushi, located on Broadway in the downtown core, across from Horton Plaza. Ra Sushi is a fast-growing chain of upbeat niche restaurants that has grown in half a dozen years to 16 locations nationwide.
Seven more locations are scheduled to open in the coming year. Percival is their publicist.
San Diego's location has parking in its building, which is convenient for a downtown restaurant. From the outside, it looks like a storefront, but the interior is designed with lots of vibrant colors to add to the exciting rhythms of the music.
A small army of sushi chefs stands behind a counter to create platters of small, tasty edibles.
Sushi is more than just food. It is an art form that traces back to the second century of China (yes -- China!). Early references to sushi in Japan date back to the eighth century. The dishes were originated as a way to preserve fish (and meat) by fermenting with rice.
But, in the mid-1800s, a culinary revolution took place in Japan wherein the "fermentation" was abandoned and sushi began to be prepared by combining fish and rice alone. Japan was also undergoing a cultural change and food had to be eaten quickly by busy workers. Sushi was perhaps Japan's first "fast-food" concept.
Once fermentation was no longer needed, chefs were free to experiment with new tastes and combinations of fish, rice and other ingredients. I recently enjoyed Mexican sushi prepared by several chefs from south of the border. A local "chain" of sushi restaurants "specializes" in these flavors. Tijuana and Ensenada have some excellent sushi places and are well worth a visit. I even came across a Hawaiian sushi place a few days ago in La Jolla.
Ra Sushi prepares foods more eclectic and appealing to contemporary American tastes.
The executive chef of the chain and one its founders is Tai Obata, who trained in Japan, but also studied/worked in Korea, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam.
He also perfected his skills in major restaurants of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Obata has "been around," and though he labels his work as "Pacific Rim," the international character of his cuisine is clearly evident.
Obata has recently added a series of dishes to the menu that incorporate the fruity tastes of South Pacific, along with California ingredients such as avocado and artichoke.
"The mixture of flavors, textures and heat give sushi lovers what they have come to expect from us --- ingenuity," general manager Bryan Benavides said.
The new Yellow Monkey Roll is colorful and tasty, with bright red pepper, green artichoke and white cream cheese, rolled in rice and topped with cashew.
Tunacado combines ahi with avocado, rice crackers and black sesame seeds, served with a flavor -- enhancing ponzu sauce for dipping. Other new dishes include Yuzu Halibut, piled atop shitake mushrooms and spinach atop a bed of spicy crispy rice.
The sushi menu is a long list of sashimi (fish with rice on side), nigri (slices of fish on rice) and maki (rolls of fish on rice).
One should probably take a sushi dictionary to work through the selections. Better yet, one could eat one's way through the menu to learn how the types of sushi differ. Be sure to check "the other side of the menu" for a wider selection of rolls and sashimi plates.
Ra Sushi's menu also lists goyza (potstickers), bento boxes at lunchtime (boxes filled with good tempura, teriyaki or katsu) and even a few chicken dishes.
There is a daily happy hour with discounted drinks and inviting foods and a good range of sake. Try sake both hot and cold, and decide for yourself which way is better. The happy hour is always fun and upbeat, with lots of people, food and music.
Whether for lunch, dinner and just a good time, Ra Sushi is a great destination. Prices for several orders of sushi and drinks can add up, but the young, affluent clientele doesn't seem to mind.
Ra Sushi is located at 474 Broadway, between Fourth and Fifth avenues. Call (619) 321-0021 for more information.
Rottenberg is editor of Dining San Diego Magazine and member of the California Restaurant Writers Association. Send comments to the firstname.lastname@example.org. All letters are forwarded to the author and may be used as Letters to the Editor.