From where I sit in the middle of the dining room at Samurai Blue, I can see couples decked out in casual but carefully considered outfits, grasping for conversational stability, attempting to divine romantic compatibility over steamers stacked with edamame and platters piled with California rolls. There must be five first dates going on in the roomy booths lining one of the monumental brick walls.
Sunday is a popular day for no-strings dating. It's a school night, so there are plenty of ready-made excuses to avoid extending the fun into the late evening if things aren't going well. If there is a spark, well, maybe the impending Monday work day might deter you from engaging in ill-advised "happy fun time" with someone you've known for just a few hours. Who are you fooling? Just remember to wear protection, kids.
As I suck down an icy glass of golden Shirayaki Sake ($6.25) — malty and bright — and peck at a pile of shredded beef marinated in Korean kimchi sauce ($6.95) — tangy with vinegar and spiced with red pepper — I realize that all of these romantic hopefuls would be better off if I could re-arrange them, shifting partners between tables like some cosmic square dance. They'd be so much happier.
Spicy wasabi mayo smeared on meaty mussels ($4.95) works extremely well together, unlike the couple sitting directly adjacent to our table. It's sad, really; she's way out of his league. His personality is a lot like our "dynamite" scallops ($9.50): pale, bland, and completely overpowered by even a subtly spicy sauce.
On the other hand, Samurai Blue's moist and gooey steamed dumplings ($5.95) — served right in the steamer — are packed with luscious pork and bright scallion, just like ... well, perhaps I should stop the coupling metaphors with this excellent shumai. By the time I get to the spare ribs, the comparisons would just get out of hand. I decide to stop spoiling the neighbors' dates with my puppet-master gestures and squinty-eyed stares, and order a "dirty octopus" martini.
"Are you sure?" our waiter asks, his voicing rising precipitously with the final word, making it clear that he doesn't think it's a good idea. He's straight out of central casting, like someone called for a flamboyant waiter from some Kids In The Hall sketch. We like him 'cause he's been flirting with us all night, even though I doubt big fat hetero guys are his type. Nice guy. Good server. Cute dimples.
He's wrong about the martini, though. The blend of sake, pepper vodka and olive juice is surprisingly good. Really. Even better is the tiny, drowned baby octopus at the bottom of the glass, tender and sweet with absorbed sake. It's vastly superior to onions or lemon twists.
Samurai Blue has won a lot of Best of the Bay awards in the Planet for its sushi (including this year's Reader's Poll), but I think that has more to do with the restaurant's high profile popularity than the fish.
Don't get me wrong, our yellowtail has a beautiful buttery color and clean sea flavor, and the eel is warm and sweet, with the occasional crisp caramelized edge that adds depth to the flavor. The garnish of diced scallion on the nigiri can overpower the mellow fish, though, and the tuna doesn't have enough fat running through to make it stellar. Maybe not the best, but very good indeed.
A few of the makimono do show great whimsy, especially the yin yang roll ($8.25) recommended by Dimples the Waiter. Sweet, red strawberry slices and rich avocado are layered outside, sweet grilled eel and rich cream cheese rolled inside. Doused in soy and wasabi, it's like deliciously freaky sushi candy.
Dimples is happier when we start downing chocolatinis with our entrees — instead of drinks garnished with dead sea creatures. Chocolatinis match perfectly with a giant pile of sweet short ribs ($16.95), the edges crispy and blackened from the grill. Everyone at our table tears into the tender, fatty meat, fingers sticky and mouths glistening.
Uniform tiles of swordfish ($18.95) are too dry and overcooked to benefit from a tart wasabi-laced crème ladled on top, and we quickly shift attention to the fried snapper ($19.95). Our forks make an audible crunch when we break through the light crust of the filet, steam pouring out of the openings to herald the moist white flesh.
Maybe it's because I'm a jaded married man, but those ribs are better than sex, although I doubt that the optimistic couples crowding the booths would agree with me. Face it kids, for some of you this food is as sensual an experience as you're likely to get, tonight at least.
Desserts are an afterthought at Samurai Blue. Avoid the unduly gelatinous crème brulee ($6.95) and stick to the deep-fried options. Fried ice cream ($5.95) is coated in a sweet, cakey tempura batter that separates from the cold creamy scoop but is good enough to eat separately. And how could a slice of tangy cheesecake ($5.99), covered in batter and dropped into a fryer, be bad?
There are a lot of reasons to pick Samurai Blue for a date: central, easy-to-find location, movie theater adjacent, food that is interesting and ethnic but not too-interesting or too-ethnic, and a casual atmosphere. Let's face facts: Even if the date doesn't pay off, at least they all had a good meal.
Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.