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Running with the winner at Roppongi

Sami Ladeki is one of the best restaurant operators on the local dining scene. In addition to creating unique dining concepts and wonderful ambiance to accompany the menus, he has demonstrated his abilities as a pragmatic businessman, and when he finds a successful formula, he runs with it.

Roppongi Restaurant & Sushi Bar, located in La Jolla, is one of his winners. He likes it so much he personally spends time there. The ambiance is great, and the food is even better. Ladeki plans to open more, similar restaurants in the future.

"Roppongi" means "six trees" in Japanese and refers to a district of that country. The name sets the theme for the unusual, multicultural dining experience. The restaurant offers a unique menu that fuses many elements and tastes.

It all starts with having the right chef. Stephen Window is the culinary genius who guides the kitchen's production of eye-appealing, palate-satisfying dishes. Window became familiar with Asian cuisine "on the job." After graduating from culinary school in his native England and working at several important English properties, he began to travel the world, working in Hawaii for several Westin properties and in the Philippines for the Mandarin Oriental chain. During his travels, he mastered exotic Oriental culinary styles. While in the Philippines, he coached the team of chefs who brought back 29 medals from the contests at the International Culinary Olympics. Before joining the Ladeki Restaurant Group, Window worked at Roy's in Seattle.

In 1998, Window helped open Roppongi Restaurant in La Jolla. He has been awarded numerous culinary honors and had the privilege of cooking at the famous James Beard House in New York.

The interior of the restaurant has very romantic lighting in both the dining room and bar area, which is why it is so popular with the singles crowd. A large aquarium with brightly colored fish creates a living wall to separate the two rooms. A sushi bar runs along one side of the aquarium, while the dining room is on the other side. Comfortable booths line the perimeter and a small semi-private area runs off one side, perfect for small parties. A sitting section with face-to-face couches is in front of a glowing fireplace. Window-like niches in the walls of the restaurant are backed with rattan and hold decorative Oriental art artifacts. The ceiling is covered with material that resembles light-colored wooden slats, and a covered outdoor patio lets diners feel the ocean breeze while enjoying their meals. A fire pit by the front door adds to the décor.

The net effect creates a casual, exotic ambiance that is intriguing, yet comfortable. It sets the mood for a unique dining experience.

The "tapas" choices fill an entire page of the extensive menu.

"We emphasize tapas," Window said, "because it allows people to share and to enjoy a great variety of tastes. These dishes often become great conversation starters." The portions are large enough to divide, but won't serve as an entrée.

The Dungeness Crab and Artichoke Dynamite were superb -- large chunks of crab on a bed of artichoke with a spicy sauce that made me salivate for more. The Pan Seared Scallops on Potato Pancakes, covered with a Thai Hollandaise sauce, was delicious, and the list of tapas is inspiring. The drink menu is also great.

The sushi menu is very comprehensive, with sashimi and nigiri sushi that include ahi, albacore, salmon, eel, octopus and scallop. Sushi rolls here combine many ingredients. For example, the "Roppongi" includes shrimp tempura, avocado, Tobiko caviar and more.

"Try the ahi," Window advised. "It is very good."

The dinner menu lists soups and salads, seafood, meat and poultry and combinations. I loved the Alaskan Halibut Filet with Asparagus in a Lobster Lemongrass Emulsion. Notice the fusion of elements just in that one dish. The halibut was outstanding: seared on the outside, cooked thoroughly, yet moist on the inside with full texture. My companion wouldn't leave until she learned how Window prepared the wonderful asparagus. Even the side dishes reflect his great skill.

Meats include Filet, New York Steak (bone in) and healthful Shelton Farms Chicken Breast. Desserts include a chocolate soufflé that takes 20 minutes to prepare, so order early.

Roppongi Restaurant & Sushi Bar is located at 875 Prospect St. in La Jolla, at the corner of Fay. It is open seven nights a week for dinner; a lunch menu is served Monday-Friday. Dining at Roppongi is a unique and delightful culinary experience. There is free parking underneath the building, which is helpful when La Jolla is crowded. Prices are moderate to expensive. Reservations are strongly recommended. Call (858) 551-5252 for reservations.

Rottenberg is editor of Dining San Diego Magazine and member of the California Restaurant Writers Association. Send comments to the editor@sddt.com. All letters are forwarded to the author and may be used as Letters to the Editor.

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