Innocents turned loose in Continental restaurants have been known to blithely order steak tartare and then, when served, to exclaim to the waiter "But I didn't order it raw!"
There's a Japanese eatery named Katsu in Old California Restaurant Row, the sizable restaurant village in San Marcos, that evidently takes a wary view of plying its customers with too much raw fish. The separate sushi menu blares the fact that 70% of the sushi is garnished with cooked items and makes the practice seem both a virtue and an accommodation of timid tastes.
Most Californians are sufficiently versed in the ways of Japanese cuisine to know that sushi does not, in any case, specifically denote raw fish; these little bundles of sweetened rice can be garnished with any sort of tidbit, including, but not limited to, raw or cooked seafood.
Katsu's "you can play it safe" approach takes the challenge out of ordering sushi, although the list is amazingly comprehensive and runs from all the usuals to things like tuna and octopus marinated in chili sauce; a Philadelphia sushi of lox and cream cheese; a tempura roll that combines a variety of seafoods with omelet and avocado, and a seaweed cone rolled around a filling of halibut, smelt roe, asparagus and white sauce. All cooked varieties can be rolled inside a fried crepe for an additional 50 cents.
But, although the selection is grand, the preparation is heavy-handed; the sushi bar seems more interested in impressing diners with size than delicacy. Simple tuna rolls were too large to be eaten at a single bite, and sushi filled with salted cucumber had been so loosely packed that it fell apart on the plate.
The dinner menu runs to less length but is no less aggressive in its efforts to please every taste and create a sort of common denominator variant on traditional Japanese cuisine. The entree list even includes fish blackened in the so-called Cajun style and sauteed squid steaks in a wine-butter sauce.
Boat-shaped wooden platters, served for two or more and described with such names as Love Boat and Fantasy Boat, are stuffed from prow to stern with vast collections of such items as steak and chicken teriyaki, sashimi and tempura. They make a good choice for the truly ravenous and seem, because of the sheer quantity they contain, bargain priced.
Diners who opt to jump ship and order from the simpler side of the menu have the option of any of 12 combination plates, all of which include either vegetarian tempura or one that includes a few shrimp in the mix. The tempura lacked flavor--both the batter and the soy-based dipping sauce seemed tasteless.
Indelicacy--the opposite of what one would expect at a Japanese restaurant--seemed the general rule for the entrees.
A serving of salmon teriyaki was both dry and hard. A New York sirloin teriyaki came off better, although the kitchen would have done well to trim it of fat, an operation most difficult to achieve at table when using chopsticks. The beef in a serving of sukiyaki was thickly sliced, tough, dry and similarly edged in fat. The best things about the dish were the tender, transparent noodles and the sweet broth.
The restaurant takes the style of a Japanese country inn and depends for this motif upon a heavy, beamed wooden ceiling from which hang immense paper lanterns. Despite the cavernous qualities of the dining room, the noise level is within the comfort range, as is the informal mood.
San Marcos, 1020 W. San Marcos Blvd.
Hours: Lunch and dinner served daily Tuesday through Sunday; closed Mondays.
Cost: Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, $20 to $45. Credit cards accepted.