Put sushi on the menu and Nak Joon Kim behind the bar and you have Haru Sushi, La Jolla’s “neighborhood” sushi bar since fall 2018.
“I don’t want a big restaurant,” he said. “I prefer a smaller, quiet one (it seats 60) where we’re part of the neighborhood and our customers are our friends.”
Kim believes that good food makes you comfortable and 90 percent of Haru’s patrons are locals: “They come in and enjoy the environment, the experience and the food.” They must. Kim claims that 50 percent of first-time customers come back. One customer told Kim he enjoyed Haru because he “didn’t like to feel like a mackerel in a can.”
Nak Joon Kim is the owner and sushi chef of Haru, his fourth sushi restaurant in San Diego. (He sold the other three.) Originally studying to be a computer engineer, he said he discovered: “I can’t do this for a living. I like to cook. I like people.”
So, he enrolled at the Japanese Culinary School in his native South Korea, and worked for Sheraton before coming to the United States and joining his sister’s sushi restaurant in Denver. He opened his first San Diego sushi spot in 2005, and in 2018, found the ideal location for his neighborhood concept on Girard Avenue, just south of Pearl Street.
He understands the challenges of operating a restaurant in competitive La Jolla. “I know La Jolla is very tough,” he reflected, “The food has to be high quality. People can afford the best.
“So all our dishes are cooked one at a time. When a customer orders, that’s when we start cooking. Good preparation takes time.”
At Haru, the emphasis is on taste and texture. Kim takes meticulous care of every piece of fish coming into the restaurant. “Fish tastes its best eight hours after being caught. Then it starts to lose flavor,” he explained. “When we get a delivery, we clean it, wrap it, bag it and refrigerate it in water four degrees cooler than the refrigerator. It has no contact with oxygen.”
Each day, Kim takes out only the number of fillets he anticipates serving that day. “Our daily special features the freshest fish we have,” he offered, “not day-old fish we need to get rid of.”
The only menu item pre-cooked is the ramen broth. It needs to be. Kim boils the stock for four hours to bring out the strong flavor.
“I don’t like oily stock. After boiling, I skim the oil off the top. We only make enough for 25 servings each day,” he said.
In addition to the ramen, he points out other house specialties such as the teppanyaki sizzling plates or the sashimi salad, which features seasonal fresh fruit and edible flowers. He also suggests hibachi dishes and tempura shrimp or crab.
For sushi neophytes, he recommends a hand roll with cooked fish such as salmon or yellowtail. “Miso-marinated black cod is also a favorite,” he said, “it goes very well with sake.”
In addition to 25 varieties of sakes, Haru features wines from local winemakers Ofelia and Hungry Hawk. “I think it’s important that the wines are grown in the same climate and soil conditions that our customers live in,” he opined. The beer selection is made up of Japanese lagers that also pair well with sushi.
Haru Sushi is at 7441 Girard Ave., La Jolla, serving lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; and dinner 5-8 p.m. Monday-Sunday. (858) 329-7800.
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