The region’s winemakers often bring their out-of-town guests to A-RU, and tell Jina Bae, the restaurant’s head chef and co-owner, of their friends’ surprise to find sushi in Buellton. “‘Sushi in Buellton? That sounds horrible!'” joked Bae. “I’ve heard a lot of people say that sounds really bad.”
A-RU literally means “to exist,” and the existence of a sushi restaurant in a small town known for steakhouses and country diners seems unlikely. “Everybody said, ‘Don’t open it here, not in Buellton,'” Bae explained. “They told me not to try opening anywhere in the valley.” But the decision to open A-RU in Buellton was based more on family than business tactics. As a single mother, Bae didn’t want her son growing up in the big city. “I work at night,” she said. “I need him to live in a safe place. That was the main reason I chose Buellton,” adding, as almost an afterthought, that the town “could use more variety.”
The restaurant has changed since opening in 2002. Six years ago, the dining area was dimly lit and the high-pitched wail of traditional Japanese singing played softly in the background. The wasabi green walls contrasted with the black cabinetry, giving A-RU a sophisticated urban feel, jarringly different from Buellton’s other restaurants. The wasabi walls remain, but now the atmosphere is convivial and unreserved. The animated chatter of the diners nearly overwhelms the music, which now ranges from reggae to Korean rap.
Although Bae doesn’t like change in general, she does admit to adding more cooked food to the menu, like organic chicken or beef teriyaki, and sushi-grade glazed salmon. “When I first opened A-RU, it was too much for Buellton,” she said. “I still have customers who have never had sushi before : they start with tempura.” Bae is proud to help educate people about sushi. “A lot of customers have had a learning experience with us. Eventually, they begin to taste differences between fish, like they’ll notice big eye tuna tastes better than yellow fin.”
On a Saturday night, the restaurant is packed with families and small groups of young adults. When patrons enter, they are greeted warmly by the chef behind the sushi bar, and often receive a few friendly waves from their neighbors across the room. Ten-year-olds deftly pick through bowls of udon noodles with their chopsticks. The clientele is mostly local. “If I don’t recognize the face, I know they’re tourists,” Bae said, laughing.
One of the reasons why the locals keep coming back is Bae’s commitment to health-conscious cooking. She only uses organic, hormone- and antibiotic-free meat and seafood. “Going out is not cheap. People going out should have healthy food, better than they can make in their house,” she said. “Not just taste-wise, but health-wise. Being a restaurant, you’d be surprised at how much you can cut corners, but if I wouldn’t serve it to my child, I’m not going to serve it to my customers.”
Bae learned her craft as a sushi chef growing up in her parents’ Japanese restaurant in Korea. Her early exposure to working with fish has given her an intuitive feel for flavor: “When you’re making sushi, the fish is your recipe. And every aspect of how that fish was caught, where it was caught, who caught it, and how it was cared for in transit affects the taste of the dish. Sometimes the right-hand side of a fish will taste different from the left-hand side, and you have to see it and handle it to be able to tell.”
Every week, Bae drives to the fish market in downtown Los Angeles to select her fish. “I’m standing there before 5 a.m. to pick out the fish as they are coming off the truck from the airport,” she explained. “Sushi is very much a man thing. Some Japanese chefs cannot stand me. I’m Korean-not even Japanese-a woman, and I’m really picky about my fish. I drive them crazy.”
Bae strives to make each item on her menu “the best of what it is.” This ethos is in everything from the sushi, to the edamame, even to her salsa, which she serves with potato-wrapped shrimp tempura. In fact, her secret to salsa sounds a lot like her secret to sushi: using only the most flavorful individual ingredients. “I make the best salsa in this valley because I use really good tomatoes.” Even the smallest ingredients have her full attention; she insists on using sea salt and 100 percent pure rice bran oil in her kitchen.
Salsa isn’t the only surprise to be found next to the sushi and sashimi. Bae, who has more than 10 years of experience baking, is also very proud of her cheesecake. “Next time you come, you have to try the cheesecake,” she said. “I like to say I make an ‘almost perfect’ cheesecake.”
For those who appreciate excellent sushi, salsa, and cheesecake at the same restaurant, there’s a spot in Buellton that awaits you.
A-RU is located at 225 McMurray Road in Buellton. Call 686-9001.