By Richard Foss
As a general rule, if a restaurant has an item in its name, I order it. If a place is called Joe’s Pizza, Howie’s Rib Joint, or the like, I have a good idea about what the chef thinks is the best item in the house.
I wasn’t able to use that strategy at Ninjin in Santa Monica, because “ninjin” means carrot in Japanese – and the only carrot I saw while I was there was a few shreds on the side of a plate. When I asked why the restaurant was named after something they don’t serve, the server smiled and said that the owner’s wife likes carrots.
The name does make a little sense in an oblique fashion, since the flavors of seafood are modified with simple natural flavors from garden and field rather than the baroque sauces that are splashed around at modern sushi bars.
Blowtorches are not wielded ostentatiously here, sriracha and garlic butter are not featured, and at least as much traditional nigiri sushi is served as fancy rolls. It’s sushi without the tricks that can cover mediocre ingredients, and it’s served in a low-key place about the size of an average living room.
We started with nigiri, the traditional sliced fish on squares of rice, while considering what else we might order. The Spanish mackerel and bigeye tuna were fresh and delicious, and if there was any wasabi under the fish it was the merest hint. The tuna was unadorned, the mackerel had a mild ponzu sauce with a scattering of chopped scallion, and the portions of both fish were perfect – a good mouthful each, so you can enjoy the flavor without being overfilled. (After some recent experiences where we were served unwieldy slabs, we both appreciate moderation.)
We continued with rolls – a riceless Jessica roll and the ninjin roll (and yes, I ordered it because it was named after the restaurant, so it had to be something they’re proud of). The ninjin roll turned out to be tuna, salmon, yellowtail tuna, crab and avocado, with just a dab of sweet eel sauce on the side. It was tasty but not daring, which makes it appropriate as a metaphor for the restaurant.
The Jessica roll, made from raw vegetables, tuna, yellowtail, salmon, and whitefish wrapped in thinly sliced cucumber, was more memorable. It wasn’t technically sushi at all, since that word refers to vinegared rice, but it was a delicious mélange of fresh flavors, with a seafood and vegetable salad as finger food.
We continued with a daily special – sliced yellowtail in a ponzu marinade with herbs and tiny slices of jalapeno. The jalapeno had been seeded so it wasn’t fiery, adding as much flavor as heat, and we would order it again in a heartbeat. Even my spice-timid wife was delighted with the touch of heat along with seafood and citrus.
The scallop crunch roll that followed wasn’t quite as successful – the flavors of crabmeat, avocado and tempura scallop were fine, but the roll had been covered with a vast heap of crispy tempura bits. A few of these would have been a nice texture contrast, but there were too many – this scallop crunch roll was more crunch than scallop.
We paired our meals with two different sakes of the Junmai Gingyo style – Kikusui and Hakushika. Both were dry with flowery overtones, and the two small bottles shared between three people were the perfect amount. The sake menu here is limited but well-chosen and moderately priced; those who just enjoy a moderate tipple will find something they like; those seeking a sake library can go elsewhere.
After a few more orders of nigiri – octopus, salmon roe with quail egg, and a double order of yellowtail – it was time for the bill. This was $109 for a comfortably full dinner for three; a bargain by L.A. sushi standards. We left Ninjin with a renewed appreciation for the virtues of traditional sushi, a cuisine that is all about pure and natural flavors modified and combined with exquisite taste.
Ninjin is at 607 Colorado Ave. in Santa Monica. Open Mo-Thu 11:30 a.m. – 10 p.m., Fri 11:30 a.m. – 10:30 p.m., Sa noon – 10:30 p.m., Sun 5 – 10 p.m. (310) 451-9800. Small parking lot in rear or street parking, wheelchair access OK.