When I was invited to review Bluefin, a new Japanese restaurant, I was thrilled. I love Japanese food in general, sushi in particular. But as I drove toward its address on the Alameda, not far from the HP Pavilion, I was wondering what to expect. I remembered this neighborhood for Schurra's, an old time candy maker, and other small stores that had been there for decades.
I wouldn't have expected to find sushi there.
And I didn't expect to have some of the best sushi of my life.
I found Bluefin in a new, brick-faced building.
Inside, I was first taken by the decor. Modern and spacious, with thick etched glass panels separating a busy bar — nearly full at 5 PM on a weekday when there was no game at the arena.
Hefty dark wood tables, with simple settings and neatly folded linen napkins were ready. Bluefin is elegant enough to take someone you want to impress but not snooty or intimidating.
The kitchen, behind the small sushi bar, was visible from the dining room, and already busy with prep work.
I was greeted by owner Jun Chon, pictured here on the right behind the sushi bar. Originally trained as a mechanical engineer, Jun went into restaurant work, for a friend in Sacramento. After several restaurant positions, he decided to open his own, Tomo Sushi, in San Jose in 1995. It was a major success and is now run by his brother.
Jun characterizes Bluefin as "upscale contemporary." He selected the location because it is adjacent to residential neighborhoods and to the downtown hotels, as well as to the arena. Placing it here took nine years. Shortly after the San Jose Redevelopment Agency approved his initial proposal, the economy took a dive and the deal was off. Last year, Jun came up with his own financing and in October, Bluefin was born. He runs Bluefin with his lovely (but camera-shy) wife, Yeon.
Many people would consider this a risky time to start a new restaurant. Jun sees it as opportune. "When everyone is scared, there is opportunity," he says.
But I was here, as I always am, for the food.
We started by talking about it. Turns out, Jun has a lot to say. The specialty here is sushi, and Jun is a sushi master. I have never met anyone who knows as much about sushi and he loves to share. (He promises some articles on the Bluefin website. I'll be watching for that!)
Mastery means being fussy about ingredients. Bluefin prepares ingredients that other places buy. They buy whole fish or, for larger fish like tuna, quarter or half sections.
"When I interview a sushi chef," Jun said, "I ask three things. How do you prepare your rice, how do you prepare tamago (the cooked egg used in sushi preparations), and how do you prepare the mackerel?" Few candidates have answers to those questions because most restaurants buy these ingredients. Jun talked about just the rice for five minutes.
I was especially interested in the mackerel. I confessed that I often say the only thing at a sushi bar I won't eat is mackerel. He immediately knew: "You find it too fishy, right?"
Jun said that marination controls the fishiness. You can't marinate using a standard recipe. The procedure and ingredients vary with the season, the cut of the fish, and its flavor. I was curious about how Jun's mackerel would taste.
I asked what he especially likes to make and he replied, "omakase." Omakase means, "it's up to you" and at a sushi restaurant, it's an invitation to the chef to work his magic. You are placing yourself in the hands of the chef. The chef will select what he knows is especially good today, and a good chef will include a few surprises.
In the plates Jun prepared for me were as tasty as they were beautiful. He included the favorites: tuna, yellowtail, mackerel. There was amaebi (sweet shrimp). Some squid was artfully carved to include a bright orange bit of carrot. There was a quail egg and tobiko (bright orange flying fish roe that pop with fresh sea flavor). Today, he had a flounder and a scallop wrapped with salmon. A piece of cucumber inside added a refreshing crunch.
Everything was perfectly fresh, tasting of the sea air, artfully arranged, and full of flavor. I've had a lot of sushi and this is probably the best I have ever had.
The mackerel was a revelation to me. Not fishy at all, it was salty and sweet, with a huge, meaty umami flavor. Jun was right. The marination had pretty much eliminated the oily, fishy flavor and brought out a symphony of interesting notes. I will definitely be having Bluefin's mackerel again.
Sushi, the original fast food, originated in its modern form some 200 years ago as street food, served from carts. Today's sushi has evolved, especially here in the United States, but still has the same elements. Many places have developed elaborate rolls with local names and a multitude of ingredients. Jun's menu is straightforward and changes with the available ingredients. He has some popular favorites for sushi newbies but you won't find many wild and crazy, trendy rolls named after local streets, as Jun focuses on quality and favors the classics. He also has a number of specialties. In the summer, he likes to include monkfish liver paté. He's also done a beef tartare.
Before I could go, Jun wanted me to try his gyoza. Gyoza are similar to potstickers but aren't browned in a skillet. Housemade from scratch, the gyoza are stuffed with a mix of meats and vegetables and they exploded with flavor. These were the best gyoza I have ever had!
I will definitely be visiting Bluefin again.
Update: I did visit again, and posted an additional review.