Consistently ranked among the best Japanese restaurants in San Diego for its Asian style seafood, Cafe Japengo allows guests to venture into exotic culinary territory while surrounded by warm woods, Asian–style furnishings and subdued lighting. “While some of our sushi and hot food have changed and progressed throughout the years, we have stayed true to serving the highest quality of product presented with simplistic artistry,” says Executive Chef Jerry Warner.
Earning a degree in Fitness Management from Humboldt State University, Warner also worked at a Japanese sushi bar owned by one of his college professors. From there, he moved on and began his sushi career at Cafe Japengo when the restaurant first opened in February of 1990. Warner spent the next six years as the personal apprentice to Master Sushi Chef Osamu “Fuji” Fujita, who eventually became Corporate Sushi Chef for Hyatt Hotels Corporation. “My mentor, known as Fuji–san, was the one who really gave me the tools to be a respected sushi chef,” explains Warner. “He was from the old school of sushi, where discipline and attention to detail was the rule to live by.”
Since his promotion to Executive Sushi Chef in 1996, Warner has helped lead Cafe Japengo to numerous awards and accolades, including the California Restaurant Association’s Gold Medallion Award for Best Sushi in both 2005 and 2006. Warner was named “Master Sushi Chef—Best of Show” at the 2005 California Rice Commission and Sushi Masters Competition.
Warner believes the best part of being a chef is to immediately see the pleasure a guest experiences when they eat the food you prepare. He views cooking as a social event where people come together to enjoy the simple pleasures in life, such as good food, company and, of course, a nice bottle of wine. “First and foremost, a sushi chef must have the discipline and passion to learn a skill that has been around for hundreds of years,” he says. “It definitely helps to have an artistic eye in arranging your creations and a skilled hand in cutting each fish to maximize its freshness and beauty.”
When entering the front door of Cafe Japengo, one is immediately faced with three distinct dining venues, all arranged to maximize the social environment so important to chef Warner. To the right is an intimate bar area and small outdoor patio for more relaxed dining. Further into the restaurant is a spacious dining room with booths and tables perfect for the more formal dining experience. But the centerpiece of this location is a wrap–around sushi bar where you can sit face–to–face with the experts as they create signature items fresh from the sea. No matter which you choose, expect to dine on some of the best dishes in San Diego. The menu at Café Japengo has stayed true to its history with original items, such as the ten–ingredient fried rice, Japengo Pot Stickers and the Char–Siu Roasted Duck. Other items change with the seasons and the sushi is always prepared with the personality and skill of the individual chef. In addition, Warner tries to use organic ingredients whenever possible. “When you have such a wide array of dishes like we do here at Japengo, it is impossible to use 100% organic ingredients, but we really do strive to use local and sustainable products as much as we can,” he says. “We stopped serving Toro a few years back because of the reduced population of Bluefin tuna.”
During my most recent visit, I opted for some favorites that I’ve enjoyed for years. Starting with a traditional feast of spicy edamame, I immediately scanned the selection of specialty rolls. My choice was the ever–popular Summer Roll, stuffed with spicy crabmeat, broccolini, grilled shrimp and avocado and topped with velvety salmon slides, lime and sweet ponzu. The Curry Dusted Calamari is just right, served with a tangy Thai–lime vinaigrette and chuka salad. The preparation of the Fire Roasted Fanny Bay Oysters, delivered fresh from the cold waters off Vancouver Island, is a nice surprise, boasting subtle flavors of braised leeks and lemongrass butter and served with a slightly salty tobiko roe. Another favorite is the Miso Butterfish, brought to the table floating in a warm truffle broth and accompanied with jemiji mushrooms, shrimp dumplings, bok choy and gobo root. The flesh is so tender, it is difficult to use chopsticks, so I recommend scooping every drop with a large spoon. For the grand finale, I had to indulge in the Tempura Banana dessert, served in a traditional style with vanilla ice cream, caramel sauce and chocolate ganache. This luscious concoction proved irresistible in presentation and flavor, but a challenge for my healthy mantra. -Maria Desiderata Montana
Cafe Japengo/Hyatt Regency La Jolla at Aventine, 8960 University Center Ln, San Diego, CA 92122/(858) 450-3355/www.cafejapengo.com