It is an ideal Southern California afternoon with plenty of sunshine and Point Loma's signature ocean breeze as I get off of the 5 South and take the Rosecrans Street exit ramp. I pull into Liberty Station, home to Ikiru Japanese Restaurant and the historic Naval Training Center turned commercial center just off of Rosecrans Street. The shopping center has lots of parking and I immediately find a spot as I turn into the vast parking lot. Upon approaching the restaurant and meeting my guest, I see a hanging sign that reads Ikiru Japanese Restaurant above a pair of elegant forest green Spanish doors which I open to enter the restaurant.
My guest and I are greeted by the owner, CJ, who seats us at a granite table with light wooden chairs with black upholstery. Although compact in size, the restaurant has a simple rectangular layout with tables for two and four arranged on the main dining floor and a small black granite sushi bar towards the rear of the restaurant. The walls are two toned with the top half painted pale yellow and the bottom offset with a dark shade of brown creating a serene and calming ambience complemented by the pale orange stone tile floor. A variety of traditional Japanese imagery including hanging pictures of samurai and geisha decorate the walls. Large Spanish windows on the front wall of the restaurant cast a soft light across the tables arranged in front of them.
Ikiru Japanese restaurant is proof that two heads are better than one-- a dream shared by two friends working together in a sushi restaurant during college. Owner CJ and sushi chef John Hon decided to open up their own sushi restaurant with a distinct vision that sets it apart from the rest: to blend traditional Japanese cuisine with modern innovation.
Serving the same menu for lunch and dinner daily, the restaurant offers lunch and happy hour specials in addition to their extensive menu that focuses on much more than the typical sushi fare. Sea Urchin (Uni) is a featured item that is hard to find in many other sushi restaurants. Additional menu items include appetizers such as Baked Spicy Green Mussels and Tuna and Chips, a selection of salads such as the Ahi Poke Salad in addition to a selection of Udon, Donburi, Ramen, Yakisoba, curry, and combo plate dishes.
An extensive list of Asian beer and sake make up the bulk of the drink menu as well as a selection of red and white wines, from earthy merlot to delicate sauvignon blanc. The drink menu also features lemon, cucumber, and cherry flavored sakes.
Our first dish, Spicy Calamari, highly recommended by CJ, is one of the most popular appetizers and one of the many traditional Japanese small plates available on the menu. Presented in a crisp white porcelain bowl, the calamari sits in a rich brown broth. Lightly breaded and fried, the duo of crunchy crust and tender center creates an explosion of textural delight in your mouth. Taking center stage, the delicious broth offers a simultaneous, sour, sweet, and spicy punch, complementing the flavor of the calamari.
Our second small plate, Negi Chasu (barbecued pork) arrives in an oblong dish dotted with white daisies. Sitting atop a bed of lettuce and sprinkled with green onions, five pieces of pork are placed in the center of the dish. Seared on one side, the pork is crispy but tender with a subtle barbeque flavor. Serving as the bed to the pork, the lettuce is drizzled with a tangy dressing that infuses the palate in between bites of the pork.
Placed delicately on a long, black rectangular dish, we are served the Salmon and Tuna Nigiri. Nigiri is made up of an oblong mound of sushi rice pressed into a small rectangle and topped with a piece of fresh fish and a little bit of wasabi. CJ points out that the fish has a garnish of fresh wasabi— a rarity in most sushi restaurants located in Southern California. The fresh wasabi is mark of introducing authentic Japanese cuisine to patrons. Having never tried fresh wasabi I eagerly take a piece of the vivid orange Salmon Nigiri and pop it into my mouth. The wasabi has a more subtle spice than its dry counterpart but it complements the salmon nicely. The salmon tastes buttery and fresh while the rice provides moist stickiness. The dark red Tuna Nigiri has a clean flavor and smooth texture that is further enhanced by the duo of the spicy wasabi and sticky rice. Both the salmon and tuna have an exceptionally clean and vivid flavor that melts in your mouth.
Honoring its historic surroundings, the aptly named NTC Roll is a specialty seared roll with spicy tuna, avocado, cucumber, shrimp tempura on the inside and seared salmon on the outside, drizzled with mixed onion, spicy mayo, and eel sauce. Chef Hon prefers to break from tradition and sear the salmon using a blow torch instead of using chopsticks and an open flame. Despite the variety of textures and flavors, no single flavor dominates the sushi, creating a balanced roll with layers of flavor that unveil with each bite. A delicate and understated smokiness lingers from the seared salmon after each bite.
Next up is the Hawaiian Roll, which houses spicy scallop, avocado, cucumber,and shrimp tempura on the inside and spicy tuna, crunch flour, spicy mayo, and eel sauce on the outside. The blend of avocado, eel sauce, and spicy mayo makes this sushi roll rich and creamy but still fresh and light leaving your taste buds satisfied. The crispy shrimp tempura adds another layer of sweetness that contrasts nicely with the spiciness of the scallop.
The last dish served is the Ultimate Crab Roll which akin to its name is crab and avocado on the inside topped with crab, mixed onion, and fish eggs. This rich celebration of crab is amped up by the infusion of avocado that adds another layer of creaminess. But there is more to this roll than crab;the fish eggs add nuanced texture while the mixed onion provides spice.
As our meal comes to an end, we have the pleasure of speaking with the Chef Jon Hon about his cooking ideology; he states that he wants to be on the cusp of every sushi trend. He notes using less rice in sushi rolls and more traditional Japanese elements like the fresh wasabi as current trends. Although the chef enjoys infusing modern techniques into his cooking, he prefers to keep most of his cuisine as authentic as possible—especially the Japanese-style small plates. His cuisine is just that-- innovation mixed with traditional Japanese cuisine that offers customers the best of both worlds.
Ikiru Japanese Restaurant is very popular for lunch and dinner so it would be best to avoid peak dining hours for parties of 5 or more. Happy hour on the weekends is hard to come by, so be sure to check out their happy hour specials that are offered seven days a week. During happy hour from 4:30pm until 6:00pm Monday through Friday and 3:00pm until 6:00pm Saturday and Sunday, you can order two rolls and get the third roll for free! If you are a sake connoisseur, Ikiru offers a flight of 4 cold sakes for $9.50 or a flight of 6 cold sakes for $15.00. With these tips, eat, drink, and enjoy!