Two new Sushi and Ramen experiences have opened recently in San Diego, Ramen Nagi and Kinme Omakase. Each is vastly different in menu and presentation but both will saturate your tastebuds in deeply satisfying ways. One is a quiet, rarefied, and exclusive event requiring reservations. The other is brightly designed, casual, and bustles with energy. Whichever way you choose between sushi and ramen, these spots are well worth seeking out.
The Kinme Omakaze Experience
From the moment I stepped into the secretive entry in Banker’s Hill, I knew the evening would be memorable. The repurposed room is adjacent to the long-established Azuki Sushi Lounge, whose owners, Shihomi Borillo and long-time mentor, business partner, and Executive Chef Nao Ichimura, have worked to pay homage to centuries-old Japanese dining traditions. Inside Kinme, ten comfortable seats face a deep, wooden plank bar set before panels of dramatic marble. It’s an exclusive and theatrical setting with relaxed, local touches.
First of all, Kinme is exclusively omakase, a Japanese phrase that literally means, “I leave it up to you.” Omakase is about trust in the chef’s expertise, their team, and choice of ingredients. At other omakase sushi places in the area, I’ve had one chef bring out dishes until we cried ‘Enough!’ Another spot served one plate of small bites – to share. Neither disappointed in flavor or vision, but in choosing to be exclusively omakase, Kinme takes it to another level entirely and the price reflects that as well ($175 per person with drinks extra.) It’s worth every penny.
Dining there was like witnessing a heart-felt and well-orchestrated concert. Chef Nao Ichimura led the team that moved in a nearly wordless flow. They wound seamlessly around each other in the close space as they prepared each dish, sometimes facing the audience of ten less than a yard away, sometimes turning to access prep tables and the rice cookers.
Each serving followed a progression of the Kiseki and Edomae style. I noticed how each course complemented the previous in taste and texture. This took the dinner to a new level that defied my expectations.
And there were surprises like the Chef creating a sashimi piece and reaching across to place it in my hand. A cup of umami – pea soup dotted with wild nettle oil was served as a palette cleanser between the seafood and Wagyu beef course. Finishing with a ceremonial matcha was the perfect conclusion. Watching the ritual allowed a few moments to savor all that had transpired and to speak with Chef Ichimjura. As Kinme continues, the menu will evolve to reflect the seasons and complement the daily catch. I floated home with a full heart and tummy. I so hope that San Diego and its visitors embrace Kinme.
Here’s a short video about the experiences:
Ramen Nagi – Renowned Satisfaction by the Bowlful
My introductions to Sushi and Ramen were inglorious; sushi at heavy on the swollen rice, all-you-can-eat spots when I needed an affordable place to feed my voracious teen. Ramen was more common. Who hasn’t doctored the dried noodles for a quick, cheap meal? But Ramen has a rich culinary heritage that can’t be reduced to little, mass-produced bags. Americans may have slacked their hunger but were denied the delicious, memorable experience of traditional ramen flavors until recently
Ramen Nagi, was founded in 2004 by a twenties-something chef, Mr. Satoshi Ikuta, and with focused passion, he develop a beloved, internationally renowned Japanese brand. It didn’t happen overnight. Ikuta trained in famed Hakata ramen shops then borrowed a bar space once a week to host a pop-up ramen shop. Word spread and he then won a contest for a coveted spot in Tokyo’s famous Tachikawa Ramen Square noodle park. Continuing to gain recognition as a creative ramen pioneer he eventually won the top award in Tokyo’s Best Ramen ‘Try’ Magazine’s rankings. Today, while the brand has expanded to nearly 40 locations throughout the world, San Diego is only its fifth U.S. location. I was fortunate to attend when Master Ramen Chef, Satoshi Ikuta visited San Diego for the first time to open the location inside University Town Center.
From a concise menu, I chose one of the five classic flavors which include the Original King, made with award-winning tonkatsu pork broth, hand-crafted noodles and classic Nagi Pork chashu (a simmered, braised pork.) My companion choose the Red King, a blend of garlic, chili oil, and cayenne pepper in a velvety broth that was topped with minced pork and Nagi cayenne. I dove into the Black King. The dramatic, silky broth was fragrant with a hint of sea drawn from blackened garlic and calamari ink, combined with chashu. It was a heady concoction, finished with minced pork, black sesame, and Nagi spices. The Green King broth focuses the senses on fresh basil and olive oil in a complex pork broth. Veggie King, a plant-based option, was made with Japanese soup stock immersion with mushroom and cauliflower puree and a hashed potato ‘chashu,’ among other delectable vegetables.
As I ordered each bowl was customized for broth density, flavor richness, noodle done-ness, chashu selection, toppings, and more. Appetizers complete the meal including Karaage Chicken, Gyoza, Chashu Rice, and Edamame.
And Chef Ikuta wasn’t done. His inspiration and delight in opening the San Diego location extended to Limited King ramen varieties. While only offered during the opening week, I have a sense they may surface at other times of the year. According to the Ramen Nagi tradition, more than 1,000 varieties of “Limited King” ramen bowls have been featured and sold out within days.
All of the Ramen Nagi U.S. locations are designed with a Japanese modernist style by Kenichi Yano, CEO and Creative Prod’s famous producer who’s behind beautiful restaurants all over the world. The Westfield UTC location fits the brand in a clean style featuring black cedar wood, playful artwork, and Nagi red elements.
Sushi and Ramen Choices
I respect that sushi, raw or cooked, isn’t for everyone but American palates have definitely evolved to embrace fresh ingredients and healthy options served with flair. For others, there’s no competition with fresh noodles and long-simmered broths. Whichever way one goes between Sushi and Ramen, these two destinations will definitely keep San Diego foodies happy.