DINING; A Sushi Bar That’s Fresh and Refreshing

Published: New York Times – August 24, 2003

The first time I ate at Daiko, an unprepossessing looking Japanese restaurant and sushi bar on Route 34 just outside of New Haven, I sat in the dining room. The interior is spare and cool with a neighborhood-joint feel about it: a lot of folks coming in waving hello to the chef, and two walls papered with Polaroid’s of customers taken on the occasion of their birthdays.

We ordered a bunch of traditional appetizers: tempura, beef and scallion rolls, dumplings, deep-fried soft-shell crab (try the sautéed crab instead), miso soup (a lovely taste of miso, not just salt) and pickles (delicious). We also ordered buckwheat noodles, as well as sushi.

The appetizers tasted fine, although I’m no expert on this cuisine. The noodles were O.K.. The quality of the seafood was excellent — I do claim some expertise in that area — including such unusual items as poached monkfish liver, a taste that demands a more adventuresome palate than mine. I left satisfied, but not excited.

I have a friend who knows the restaurant well. The second time I ate there, he insisted that we sit at the sushi bar and let the sushi chef, Jerry-San, recommend. I liked the restaurant much more that night.

There is something about watching fleet, educated hands cut, roll and shape the food that makes it taste better to me. Jerry-San and his assistant are interesting to talk to, friendly and approachable. It feels like Jerry-San’s place; he takes the food and his hospitality seriously but he plays with you, too.

It is also true that Daiko is first a sushi bar, and then a restaurant. The aesthetic of a sushi bar is everyday functionality: simple food that changes daily and seasonally with availability. I realized that exciting isn’t the value here; it’s about fresh, direct and unpretentious food. You’re just one step away from the fish store.

We started with cold sakes served on ice in individual bottles — Daiko sells six different sakes cold — and a Daiko cocktail of sake and plum wine; try it if you like the French aperitif kir. My friend ordered a favorite appetizer of ika uni: sliced raw squid, quail egg (just the yolk), uni (sea urchin roe) and slivered shiso (a jagged-edged leaf that tastes bitter, sharp and spicy, like cumin, and cuts the richness of the eggs). Served in a bowl and stirred together, it does taste rich, but clean and bright.

There were slices of raw sea scallop, alternating with thin slices of lemon, very fresh yellowtail, mackerel and a velvety toro (subtle tasting, rich belly meat of tuna). That night the uni was particularly sweet, with little of the natural iodine taste that it can have — and had had the night before. We ate it fashioned into sushi with tiny, crunchy, orange flying fish roe (tobiko), quail egg and a whole shiso leaf wrapped in seaweed.

I think what I like best at Daiko are the cone-shaped hand rolls. The chef makes the usual sorts — yellowtail with cucumber and shiso, eel with avocado, salmon and avocado with a particularly good (light), spicy mayonnaise, and warm deep-fried soft-shell crab with cucumber and tobiko — as well as some delicious combinations I had never tasted before.

He steams the chewy muscle from the live scallop, marinates it in a sweet, salty, spicy mixture of mirin, soy sauce, sake, chilies and sesame oil and wraps it chilled with finely shredded daikon instead of rice; it’s refreshing and different.

Steamed, marinated squid wrapped with wood ear mushrooms and daikon is also very good. Broiled salmon skin roll with pickled pokeweed — it looks like a slender carrot — was surprisingly delicate. Finish the meal with a traditional Japanese palate cleanser: tart, salty ume (pickled plum paste) with bonito flakes, shiso and thin strips of crisp mountain yam (yama imo).

It’s a little confusing, but the aesthetic of a sushi bar — everyday, simple and unpretentious — has become expensive. And Daiko isn’t cheap; it’s easy to spend $40 a head and you can spend a lot more. If you do go, sit at the bar and I think you’ll like Daiko very much.

Daiko Japanese Restaurant And Jerry-San’s Sushi Bar
400 Derby Ave., West Haven

Very Good

ATMOSPHERE — Spacious, cool and friendly.
NOISE LEVEL — Moderate to noisy.
SERVICE — Excellent; also cool, but friendly.
RECOMMENDED DISHES — Everything from the sushi bar, sautéed soft-shell crab, hijiki salad.
PRICE RANGE — Appetizers: $3.50 to $8.50; Entrees: sushi bar dinners: $10.95 to $35; simple sushi and sashimi: $3 to $5.50 a piece.
CREDIT CARDS — All major cards accepted.
HOURS — Lunch: Monday through Saturday: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner: Monday through Thursday: 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday: 5 p.m.-11 p.m., Sunday: 4 p.m.-10 p.m.
RESERVATIONS — Unnecessary.