Café Japengo: Sublime Staying Power
If a restaurant is going to take up prime real estate at La Jolla’s Hyatt-adjacent Aventine dining complex, it needs to have the goods to keep those who live and work in area coming back for more. Such is what makes Café Japengo a gem in The Jewel. The combination sushi bar and neo-Asian eatery has made a point of keeping up with the times while remembering the twists and turns in the long and ascending route leading to its success.
Because so much of Café Japengo’s clientele is made up of long-tenured regulars, the restaurant makes a point of listening to them. Even when certain dishes are retired from the menu, they are still available for those who know and love them enough to plea for them to qualify for seats on an underground railroad-style “secret menu.”
As such, guests can opt for current sushi staples like sweet, unctuous, Catalina-sourced uni nigiri or the ahi and avocado-based Carne Asada roll (not what the name suggests, which is part of the fun), or take a trip back in time care of a combination crab and shrimp roll topped with yellowtail and garnished with ponzu sauce and truffle oil. The latter was once all the rage but has since joined the ranks of sun-dried tomatoes as items modern foodies turn their noses up at with most gusto, however, it seems en vogue again with this throwback, bringing an invigorating bouquet to the layered, tasty party.
More in line with the times are plump Fanny Bay oysters dressed in ponzu then baked and topped with braised scallions and flying fish roe. A lovely, colorful feast for the eyes translates to the palate, with umami and a lovely tang replacing typical bivalve brininess. Executive chef Jerry Warner also utilizes his stone oven to produce an entrée of stunning, addictive complexity. Miso-glazed butterfish is cooked to a succulent, melt-in-one’s-mouth consistency then presented in a warm two-day halibut stock sweetened with raw sugar along with herbed shrimp dumplings, bok choy, and fresh hearts of palm. It’s hearty yet delicate with the fish so luscious it feels like it’s barely there except for its oceanic flavor.
Also filling and hidden from the everyday menu is a salad mixing Thai, Japanese, and Polynesian mainstays. A green papaya salad served with seaweed and healthy portions of octopus, seared albacore, and salmon sashimi, it’s the best of three tasty worlds made delightful by a pleasant, acidic kick and mounting spiciness.
Whether new or old, hot or cold, it’s easy to see and taste the recipe for Café Japengo’s staying power, and understand how this consistently top-rated restaurant has justified its high-profile real estate for as long as it has. (858.450.3355, www.cafejapengo.com) Brandon Hernández