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Paradise Found

Paradise Sushi
Robert Scheer

Heaven's Gate: Paradise Sushi chef Joe Stagno (left), owner Ellen Saranyaphiphat and her son Ning are tickled pink over their sumptuous display of rolls and wasabi.

New sushi palace treats its clientele to an ocean view of Pacific Rim possibilities

By Christina Waters

SMART MOVE, adding those curved picture windows along the front of the new Paradise Sushi so you can see the inside action from the streets of Capitola Village. The view looking out is as inviting as everything else about this good-looking new resident of an infamous upstairs dining space. The sleek sushi bar and alcove room-dividers were custom designed and built by owner/chef Sit Saranyaphiphat, who, along with wife Ellen, also operates Santa Cruz's Real Thai Kitchen.

Like glowing sea creatures, a forest of paper lanterns illuminates the sushi bar, while moon-shaped lanterns and deep green cloth banners punctuate and divide up the large dining areas. Semi-private alcoves and tatami rooms nestle at the back of this handsome Japanese restaurant, which offers a few teriyaki, udon and tempura dishes, though the main attraction is sushi, both classic and experimental.

There are enough of the West Coast variations--like the Moon Cruzer and Rage--to please progressives, and the magaro nigiri classic is a masterpiece, featuring scrupulously fresh, almost sweet blue fin tuna. We found ourselves seduced, however, by the specials. A Black Widow tempts with tempura soft-shell crab, tobiko and cilantro ($5.25). The Wild Rose of Texas goes Asian Tex-Mex by combining spicy salmon with avocado, cilantro and--gasp!--nopalitos cactus ($4.25). Something devilishly named Satan Roll--an extra spicy tuna roll--promises to be "hot as hell" ($4.25) and a Waite Up roll blends unagi, scallops, tobiko and mayo ($4.75). Who wouldn't be curious about such edible edginess?

Taking a seat that allowed us a view of what remained of sunset over the ocean, we wipe our fingers on hot towels and inhale the miso soup offered as a welcoming gesture.

Two small salads--one of chilled spinach topped with a cone of ground sesame seeds ($1.25), the other a tangy, pickled cucumber sunomono ($1)--are charmers for the palate and a nice way to engage the taste buds while the more elaborate rolls are being created. A tiny purple orchid decorates our first plate of perfect maguro nigiri and the sinister Satan Roll--our waiter quickly warns that we probably should try the habañero-laced handroll at the end of our meal. We take his advice.

My companion begins on a beautiful portion of broiled hamachi "collar," utterly moist, white flesh with a crisp, sweet-glazed skin. We order some ponzu sauce for this dish, craving the tart tang of lemon, soy and sake--the classic saucings of Japanese cookery. A bowl of sticky rice is brought to accompany the yellowtail tuna--it also is perfect, though we both agree that the glass cruet filled with soy is a bit unwieldy.

As our sushi rolls begin to arrive, we order second installment of sake ($2) and Sapporo draft ($2.25), our longtime individual sushi libations of choice. The Black Widow, crunchy with tempura soft-shell crab and brilliant with scarlet tobiko, is a hit, though my companion is unsure about the addition of cilantro. Could be a nod to the owners' Thai background, I comment, but he feels it's an effort to break new flavor ground. We're probably both right.

After we remove an overabundance of rice, the Waite Up reveals its succulent scallop and molassesy unagi interior. A bite of minty shiso leaf enhances the effect, as does a munch of pickled ginger. Everything is beautiful.

The Texas thing is a bit problematic. I like the lascivious texture of the nopalitos and its chemistry with the spicy salmon, but the slices are so laced with red peppers that it's difficult to detect individual flavors. An Arti Shaw ($4.25)--despite its ingredients of artichoke heart, avocado and cashews--is monumentally bland. Here's where some of that cilantro, or wasabi, would be nice.

My companion finally approaches his Satan Roll. He bites, and I wait for his face to turn purple. It doesn't, though he does reach for the rice and a long sip of water.

By the time we get up to leave, Paradise is full. No wonder--the location is incomparable, the interior is exciting and sushi is one of the funnest foods on the planet.

Paradise Sushi

Address: 200 Monterey, Capitola Village
Phone: 464-3328
Hours: Noon­10pm daily
Price: Moderate
Ambiance: ***1/2 A contemporary, well-designed sushi site
Service: ***Good table service, smooth flow at the sushi bar
Cuisine: **1/2 Excellent quality, fine classics, but some specialty rolls need fine-tuning
Overall: Pretty place with a fine roster of sushi items and real flair in the kitchen

****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *Okay

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From the January 23-29, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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