Nestled within a nondescript strip mall on Clairemont Mesa Blvd. in Kearny Mesa, Haru Japanese Restaurant is a breath of fresh spring air amidst the chain restaurants and service shops that surround it. This bright and cheerful new restaurant is a welcome addition to the dining options in the area, making it a popular destination for lunching office workers and local residents. Since opening in March 2008, Haru has earned itself a loyal clientele who flock to the restaurant for its refreshing and refined cuisine, its inviting atmosphere, and the elegant artistry of its culinary presentation.
The bright red globe lanterns adorning Haru’s entrance beckon us from across the parking lot, hinting at the exotic culinary travels that await us. The grey concrete jungle disappears as we step through the door and are immediately awash in the verdant glow of spring. True to its name, which translates as “spring” from Japanese, Haru is saturated with sunny seasonal warmth. Walls the color of new leaves and cherry blossom centerpieces evoke the spirit of new growth, while blonde wooden booths and chairs, and brightly colored Japanese screen prints suggest a sophisticated Asian minimalism. The décor expertly blends the traditional with the modern, with hand-painted parasols and bamboo-printed paper lanterns complementing Matisse-like Lucite wall sconces and whimsical pussy willow lights. The result is a warm and charming atmosphere that makes the quaint restaurant feel cozy and inviting, yet unfailingly stylish.
Upon entering we are greeted warmly by the staff in an unfamiliar tongue, creating an ambience that is as welcoming as a neighborhood haunt but with all of the allure and fascination of a foreign getaway. To the right of the door near the back of the restaurant, a sushi chef concentrates on his work as he deftly and swiftly slices sections of fish behind the honey-colored sushi bar. Enclosed in this wooden “island” and illuminated by the golden glow of bamboo-inspired lanterns, he works with a Zen-like calm and expert precision that is mesmerizing. Wooden tables seating small groups of two and four are arranged neatly in the main body of the restaurant, while faux bamboo booths with woven cushions line the far left wall. The thoughtful organization gives the restaurant a surprisingly spacious feel, with the booths in particular creating intimate and individualized dining niches.
The menu is eclectic, offering familiar sushi and Japanese dishes as well as a variety of creative rolls and rare ingredients. Standard fare like Veggie Tempura, Chicken Teriyaki, and Spicy Tuna Rolls share the spotlight with Soft Shell Crab appetizers, Broiled Yellowtail Collar, and inventive rolls featuring jalapenos, lobster, and salmon tempura. Haru offers a variety of options for both traditional and iconoclastic palates, making selection a delightfully daunting task.
Upon being seated at our booth, we are immediately brought a starter of complimentary Miso Soup. The mouthwatering, savory scent of the soup wafts through the air as I lean over the bowl. I dip my spoon through the cloudy broth, swirling the delectable morsels of tofu and seaweed that are obscured by its aromatic depths. It is a simple, yet deeply gratifying beginning to our meal: the slightly salty, slightly sweet, and utterly umami taste whets our appetite for the coming feast.
As dish after beautiful dish arrives at our table, we are awe-struck by the artful presentation of each culinary creation. Four enormously plump, golden shrimp coated in a sunny yellow cream sauce are drizzled with soy sauce like a Jackson Pollack painting. This is no ordinary Shrimp Tempura: upon biting into these massive battered gems we discover that the shrimp meat has been finely diced, battered, and reformed with a shrimp tail handle, giving it both an unexpected trompe l’oeil effect and a deliciously smooth texture. The tart, almost pickled flavor of the rich sauce well accents the buttery tempura batter and the sweet shrimp meat. A drizzling of sesame seeds over the plate adds a satisfying grit, yet another deliciously surprising texture in this complex dish.
The Hawaiian Dream Roll lives up to its name: its colorful construction stretches languidly on the plate next to a sandy-colored sauce, evoking a vibrant tropical sunset over an exotic beach. Each section of the roll is layered with a bright red smear of ahi tuna, diced almost to a pureed silkiness, with a thin slice of jalapeno and a dot of sriracha chili sauce crowning every piece. Tempura shrimp tails and the luscious green of avocado peek out seductively from between each segment, hinting at the rich bounty bound within the white rice walls of the roll. The roll is a shrewd manipulation of flavor complexity, layering the fresh sweetness of the ahi and shrimp, the creamy richness of avocado, and the lingering heat of the jalapeno and sriracha. A dip in the sauce mixture, a blend of pungent hoisin and a slightly sweet, delicate, cream sauce, adds a new level of flavor juxtaposition that further excites the palate. It is a nuanced and novel dish that, as a special of the evening and not a regular staple of the menu, is as ethereal and fleeting as a dream.
Although the Fish Katsu diverges greatly from the light and airy Hawaiian Dream Roll, its presentation on the plate retains the suggestion of paradisal escapades. Delectable panko-crusted fish morsels are carefully placed on a lush, green bed of lettuce leaves. A colorful mound of stir-fried vegetables accompanies the fish, while a delicately supremed orange has been carefully extracted from its peel, placed in a bowl, and then wrapped again in its skin, its round and colorful appearance acting as a visual counterpoint to the stir fry. A little pink umbrella juts jauntily out of the orange, adding a wonderfully playful touch to the dish, and suggesting the same vacation feel evoked by the Hawaiian Dream Roll. The light delicacy of the fish plays well against the crispy crunch of the panko. The presentation offers two options for the fish’s accompaniment: the sweet, acidic orange slice adds a subtle punch, while a cup of the same cream sauce tasted with the Shrimp Tempura adds a more pungent and rich pairing that is more akin to British fish and chips with a Japanese culinary twist. Each possibility transforms the fish, creating a Janus-like personality for the dish. The smoky, savory vegetables, cooked lightly in teriyaki, add a depth of flavor that grounds the light, crispy fish pieces nicely.
The Regular Sashimi platter is a triumph of epicurean artistry and culinary and visual minimalism. Thick cut slices of multi-colored sashimi are carefully stacked over piles of crystalline vermicelli noodles and evenly spaced circularly around the plate. Each stack is crowned with a mint leaf and accompanied by a bouquet of daikon sprouts and julienned carrots. It is the essence of spring, or Haru, a visual and flavor expression of its freshness. It also serves as a delightful lesson in the differences between the fish, educating the palate in the subtle textural and flavor distinctions that make each species uniquely delicious. The eye-catching rouge of the ahi attracts me first, its silken sweetness possessing only the slightest hint of the ocean. The salmon’s fatty richness melts like a pad of butter on the tongue with a flavor that is both rich and subtle. Thin slices of hamachi yellowtail fold delicately over themselves, infusing the mouth with a fishy pungency that is as briskly refreshing as salty sea air. White tuna, or uno, is an exciting new discovery: never before have I tasted a fish that so seamlessly unites the buttery flavor of salmon with the meatiness of tuna. After this experience, I will certainly be seeking out white tuna on every sushi menu, trying to recapture this flavor epiphany.
As accompaniment, we are treated to a sample from Haru’s extensive and well-selected sake collection. The Otokoyama we taste is smooth and light with a hint of floral backgrounds, devoid of the sweet or acidic notes that pervade other sakes. This light and clean-tasting sake amplifies the refreshing taste and discreet complexities of each fish, both uniting and distinguishing them from one another on the tongue. It is a sophisticated and memorable pairing.
The Tempura Ice Cream is a whimsical finale to our meal. A golden, crispy ball balances in the center of a chocolate drizzled plate. Dollops of whipped cream circle the tempura ball, while a matching spoonful of whipped cream topped by a cherry teeters on the top like a jubilant coronet. We giddily break the tempura crust with our dainty forks, releasing the soft ice cream from its warm wrapping. The buttery warmth of the tempura batter melds with the sweet vanilla into a dessert that is both simple and light with an underlying richness that is deeply satisfying. Like the surrounding décor, the Tempura Ice Cream is a skillful fusion of East and West, using both Japanese and Western culinary elements to create an experience that plays with notions of the familiar and the foreign, the refined and the quirky, and the traditional and the unexpected. The result is a resounding success.
As we take our leave of Haru, I reluctantly say goodbye to this spring-inspired sanctuary. Like an imagined visit to a neighborhood restaurant in Japan, our experience has been filled with all of the welcoming spirit of a favorite local spot, but with the exotic allure of a vacation abroad. It is a charming and enticing combination, and one that is sure to make this new restaurant a favorite.