Sunday, December 28, 2008

Taiwan Sushi, a la carte

Taiwan Sushi, Revisited

How about sushi a la carte, for 30 cents a piece?

When I first started to enjoy sushi back in the early 90s, I used to purchase nigiri and maki at 50 cents per piece from the Kaya Seafood Buffet in Temple City. That was considered extravagant. Then I moved up the sushi echelon in the mid-90s by visiting Kabuki in Pasadena, where a six-piece cut roll used to cost as little as $2.50, but only if you ordered the two-item minimum for lunch (or three-item minimum during dinnertime). Today I consider it reasonable to shell out $13 for a six-piece softshell crab roll from Nobu (the rule is, if it’s high quality, it’s worth it). But does the price-per-piece always scale upward?

Not so in Taiwan, where my American dollar stretched farther than normal to allow me that extra sushi-purchasing power.

On a recent vacation in my native country, I clamored for sushi to my uncle (not necessarily to protest the neverending Chinese cuisine, which was also delicious). After a brief hunt for my addiction, he parked his car curbside right before a street vendor selling sushi, a typical sight all over the city of Taipei—although the type of victuals offered is mostly Chinese; it takes a true local like my relative to know just where the rare Japanese food stands are propped up.

And there, neatly displayed in see-thru plastic cases, sat all the mutated versions of sushi—half a globe away, in the states, the seafood may have the same names—smoked salmon, ono, squid, shrimp and eel—but here they wear rare and unexpected toppings: lime-green seasoned seaweed powder (furikake), curly globs of sweet Japanese mayonnaise, crumbly crushed-peanut-like sprinkles, flaky black spices. Here the smelt fish eggs are yellow instead of orange, and wakame seaweed salad is used in the gunkan-style nigiri. Even the encasements of plastic wrap haven’t been removed, as if they’re left on to preserve freshness. It’s a long way from home, where I am used to seeing eel-sauce-drenched pieces and the typical accompaniments of ginger and wasabi. The flavor preferences are simply different here, where creaminess supercedes saltiness and tanginess overrides spiciness.

I don’t have much time to choose what I want. There are throngs of people eager to push me out of the way, and there are motorcycles parked on the sidewalk next to where I am jostling for a spot, and my uncle is illegally parked, as usual (there are never any parking spaces on this overcrowded Asian island, so if you think L.A. is bad…)!

I swiftly decide on six pieces that appealed the most to me, which cost NT $60 (equivalent to our $1.88). I fill a plastic box with renegade ham and corn sushi (just because they’re rare…and pretty); the tried but true ebi (shrimp); the mysteriously black flying fish roe (I still don’t know what makes some of these black and others orange); the pungent white fish that I believe was ono; and the odd creation that was apparently black rice wrapped inside a gooey rice paper of some sort, flavored with crispy peanutty crackles, cucumber and red ginger. Perhaps it’s the Taiwanese version of Futo Maki.

I would have chosen the individually plastic-enclosed hand rolls which resembled bursting salad bouquets, but the appearance of too much lettuce turned me off. It might have been interesting, though, seeing that the mixtures of ingredients were so daring and unusual—ham with crab, ham with eel, ham with shrimp…. Something tells me the Taiwanese love swine.

The result…a sweet lunch! Not only was this cheap, but it was quite tasty for street-vendor food, and because it was such a struggle to obtain it, I appreciated it that much more. (Well, not really, but most people would like to believe that.)

How About an Asparagus Hand Roll?

The Fanciest Asparagus Hand Roll

At the charmingly misspelled “ita basi susi,” which is an actual shop as opposed to street vendor, hand rolls sell for NT $60 each. I ordered the asparagus hand roll, and it came wrapped in a napkin and rubber band, another quirky touch you wouldn’t find in the U.S. The hand roll didn’t just have spears of fresh asparagus, but lettuce, furikake seasoning, and flecks of seaweed as well. I was impressed. If I were to order an asparagus hand roll at an American sushi bar, it would come with just that—asparagus.

But this walk-up eatery has no storefront, which is the style of many places of business in Taiwan. At closing time, the metal grills get pulled down from above and then locked down, which is just as efficient. There is also no dining area in which to sit, so the idea is to order it to go and then stand on the sidewalks eating, like everyone else.


Sushi Express in Taiwan

The chain known as Sushi Express features a revolving conveyor belt, which offers sushi similar to the street vendor kind—lots of sweet corn, ham, mayonnaise, creaminess…. They charge by the plate here, not by the piece—so it’s an ideal setup for sharing with others at your table. Maybe the prices are higher here, but the clean restaurant atmosphere (music and air conditioning and cutesy mascot, as opposed to smog and city noise) makes it worth the money.

Sushi Express locations dot the city, with a brand-new spot that just opened in the Global Mall. Last year, I was so disappointed when I found out I would already be back in the States by the time Sushi Express started passing out little collectible figurines that look just like the statue in the photo. I guess it’s sort of like their version of Happy Meal toy. Luckily, I at least have a photo souvenir.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Of BBQ Eel, Apples and Chocolate Sauce

Introducing: Sushi Gallery Miki

Miki has done it again.

The South Bay crowd can consider themselves lucky, for they no longer need to drive all the way to Laguna Beach for a taste of Miki Izumisawa’s genius. Appropriately titled “Sushi Gallery Miki,” the new restaurant is a tributary monument that offers a glimpse of the artistic talent of its owner and executive chef–as well as a splendid view of the ocean.

This extension into Manhattan Beach, open since July, is a reflection of its sister restaurant, the revered 242 Café Fusion Sushi on Coast Highway. Both are tiny, arty dives right by the beach, but although boasting the exact same sublime menu, this new three-storied version oddly lacks a sushi bar. Where the counter would normally be found, a glass deli-style case sits and displays bottles of Miki’s behind-the-scenes magic-potion sauces. Diners instead can choose to sit on glassy highchairs with matching tables on the upper deck, or down below in a modest dining area.

Miki herself is behind the design of all the space-age décor—down to the very projector in the bathroom that creates the illusion of outer space with its constellation of day-glow stars made of moving laser pinpoints. Try and find that quirky touch at another restaurant!

Even the menu is a sight to behold. Smirky titles such as “Fried Holes” grab at you…until you find out it’s just a fun way to refer to slices of lotus root. Most of the item descriptions are paired with images of nature that depict the look or flavor of the dish.

Let yourself be blown away by the appetizer called the "Fiery Capitol Reef," a jumble of eel slices framed with thin cuts of apple, then covered in a sticky-sweet brown liquid heaven born of sweet soy sake, the ever-versatile balsamic vinagrette and—believe it or not—chocolate syrup. The plate is hot, indicative that the entire dish was placed into an oven and baked at melting temperatures. This doesn’t wilt the apples, however, but merely makes them softer and more confluent with the freshwater fish. The wildly varied tastes join harmoniously, forever dashing my suspicions that eel, apple and chocolate couldn’t possibly go together.

The young blond lad of a waiter tried to retrieve the empty dish from me. “Are you done with this?” he politely asked, even though the platter held no more than the shiny residual goo that the eel was just wading in minutes ago. “Uh…I was going to lick the plate…” I said jocularly, honestly kidding at first. But then he took it seriously and let me keep it, so I thought, Why not? I picked up the dish and lapped up the syrup like it was the last great flavor on Earth.

I have no shame. Not when it comes to really good sauces.

The "FRILL" Hand Roll

Frill Me

If you’re in the mood for a hand roll, why not try the unconventionally rice-paper-wrapped “Frill,” which comes with scallop, spicy tuna, crab meat, almond, avocado and lettuce? A soy vinegar onion dipping sauce complements this refreshing alternative, which at $8 is one of the less pricey items on the roster.

The M 45 (Pleiades) Roll

Of Marinated Purple Cabbage...

The oddly-named “M 45 (Pleiades)” sounded tempting only because of its ingredients listed on the menu: white fish, yellowtail, tuna, smelt eggs, cucumber, marinated purple cabbage, ginger and black pepper. “Spicy olive, soy vinegar sauce” join in on the fun with this one, splashing more flavor into what already sounded like a sumptuous roll.

Instantly I became hooked on this sauce as well, which I am sure tasted even more sour and flavorful now that I had coated my tongue in chocolatized vinegar from the previous order. I decided right then and there that if I had a choice of where to have my final feast on the planet, it would be at either one of Miki’s legendary restaurants.

Sushi Gallery Miki is located at 2201 Highland Avenue in Manhattan Beach. Miki now moves between her two locations to serve her legions of fans, so it’s a good idea to call ahead of time if you want to ensure she is there to cater to your sushi whims and fantasies. Sushi Gallery Miki can be reached at 310-546-7160.

Monday, November 10, 2008

"Sunshine Snow" Sashimi


Talk about a complexity of flavors.

The name alone intrigued me. Curiously titled “Sunshine Snow,” one particular sashimi dish stood out above the rest—maybe because its description read “Ice Cream Sashimi.”

“Is there actually ice cream on this one?” I incredulously asked the waitress, who replied, “Yes, there is…and she makes the ice cream herself.”

Miki Izumisawa, owner and executive chef of the mini Laguna Beach restaurant known as 242 Café Fusion Sushi, is far too busy to answer questions. With her head bowed and a propane torch in her hand, she quietly and efficiently prepares each signature dish with her own unique style, while a staff of about six are assigned to assist. You can walk right off the beach into this one. It’s located next to an art gallery and across the street from sandy resorts, but its beachiness isn’t just geographical. Inside, your chopsticks stick out at you from the holes of beach rocks placed on the bar, while bohemian decor and a laid-back casual beachgoer’s attitude pervade the tiny place.

With a nature & Earth theme, the house specials boast names such as “Moon & Sun,” “Lava Flow,” and “Prarie.” Miki sees her work as art, the plates being the blank canvasses with which she expresses herself.

Tuna, salmon, yellowtail, whitefish and albacore meet serrano chili and green onions in this fanciful order of sashimi known as Sunshine Snow, and it’s drizzled with spicy olive oil right before the flame licks everything. As with most of her trademark entrees, the obligatory torch sears this one till it’s fragrant with with the smoky smell of scorched sauces. She stops right as the fish are slightly blackened at the edges, then dabs on the vinegar wasabi sauce and vanilla-like ice cream.

The wasabi sauce, however diluted with vinegar, is still highly piquant, and it can overwhelm the effect of the sweet ice cream if you don’t scrape some of it off. (That is, if you would prefer the taste of ice cream on fish as opposed to the traditional use of Japanese horseradish.) I for one am not opposed to this most unusual integration of ingredients…it is sassy and daring, and the tart frozen treat seems to resemble a slushy sweet sauce that doesn’t conflict with the part-raw, part-seared fish.

I begin to see the Sunshine implied by the sunburst-shaped arrangement, while the Snow is obviously represented by the glops of gelato. It costs $20 to attempt this bold taste venture, but I highly recommend it.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Seared Beef Roll

Wait! No Soy Sauce!

You wouldn’t think of ordering a Beef Roll at a restaurant specializing in seafood, but then again you wouldn’t expect such a roll to taste so exceptionally divine, either. It all goes back to the sauces, which Miki creates and combines like an artist mixes paint—she is so passionate about her own flavorings, in fact, that there is even a sign that says “Wait! No Soy Sauce! Try My Own Special Sauces…” I somehow wish all the restaurants would do this, thereby forever ridding of the trite and unimaginative soy sauce, which has been far overused and misused.

Miki’s famous Soy Onion Garlic Sauce soaks into this seared beef carpaccio and shredded Daikon radish-topped roll, the inside of which consists of only avocado and cucumber. It makes sense, since the meat and sauce are so strong in flavor that the balancing side needs to be something simpler, plainer, greener. The Beef Roll costs $16 but tastes like a million bucks.

The Leafy "Laguna Canyon"

The Laguna Canyon Roll...

With its leafy headdress, the lettuce-spiked Laguna Canyon Roll is a visual banquet. Crispy fried noodles add the final touch to the rainforesty crown, and while it may look like a fine mess with its crumbling roof and sagging foundation underneath, the sauces save the day again, for this would otherwise be just a plain California Roll topped with seared fish and rabbit food. Spicy olive oil and soy vinegar sauce pool at the base of this one, an orange-colored oily sheen that sings in your mouth…go figure!

Not surprisingly, Miki is a former protégé of Nobu Matsuhisa, known for the famous namesake restaurant chain. But what Nobu may have invented, Miki perfected. Her outrageous creations don’t reflect Nobu’s simpler, streamlined style, but rather expand upon it. Her beachy, nature-oriented take on sushi is refreshing, and quite opposite of Nobu's trendy approach and upscale affectation.

Lest you forget the street address, it’s in the name! 242 Café Fusion Sushi is located at 242 N. Coast Highway in Laguna Beach. It is open only for dinner from 5:30 to 10pm, Monday through Saturday. Miki also has another location at 2201 Highland Avenue in Manhattan Beach, appropriately called Sushi Gallery Miki.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Making My Own Sushi, Part One

Softshell Crab Roll with Garlic Mayonnaise

Eel and Avocado Roll with Soy Paper, Topped with
Snow Crab and Wasabi-Marinated Flying Fish Eggs

Freshwater Eel, Snow Crab, and Tamago (Omelette) Sushi

Hand Rolls with Crab, Avocado, or Freshwater Eel

Homemade Sushi

It’s the one thing I know how to make in the kitchen besides rice crispie treats—sushi.

It sounds surprising, for who is willing to create such an intricate delicacy at home, and who would possess the know-how? I’ve often been asked how I learned to do this. Did I take a class? Did someone teach me? The answer is, I learned the way we all learn everything: through observation, imitation, and trial and error.

I observe the sushi chefs, first and foremost. At the majority of Japanese restaurants, you can grab a seat at the sushi bar and watch how the rolls are, well, rolled. If you don’t want to risk making the sushi masters uncomfortable by standing up to gain a full view of their stations, you can usually still see the action through the refrigerated glass display cases of fish. While making nigiri, the chefs normally mold the rice cubes and shape the slices of fish against them with bare hands raised high above the level of the glass cases, so from wherever you’re seated you can get a clear shot of this visual learning lesson.

It is in this manner that I learned how to scissor the sheets of seaweed down the middle, as most sushi places will use only half a sheet. The rice gets applied to the matte, not shiny, side of the nori; then it’s usually rolled inside-out (meaning with the rice on the outside) with the stuffing on the inside. Rolling them the other way around produces super-ultra-mega-skinny rolls, good for making traditional tekka (tuna) or kappa (cucumber) maki, but it also means you must add less rice and leave a blank ridge on the nori with which to seal the roll. When it comes to rolling fatter maki with heavier fillers like softshell crab, then the seaweed-and-rice wrap gets rolled from the narrower side.

It helps to be overly inquisitive and unafraid to ask. Dirty looks and language barriers don’t dissuade me from hounding the harried chefs, who invariably ask if I’m a spy for another restaurant or if I own my own restaurant, thereby explaining my efforts to leech their wisdom.

“No, I’m a critic,” I reply, “and I just love sushi.” Then I take photos of their food-art and they fancy I’m not so much a spy as a fanatic. Or just a plain weirdo.

Everything else I learned through osmosis—which sauces go with which fish? What accompaniments enhance the flavor of a certain sauce? Through regular dining experience and personal preference, I gleaned, for example, that garlic is amazing when mixed with ponzu sauce, and that Sri Racha hot sauce married with Japanese mayonnaise produces a toned-down, orange-colored spicy dressing. Add chili flakes, chili oil, or masago to that at your own discretion.

My first endeavor with making sushi occasioned at the tail end of 2004, when I went home from the Mitsuwa market with bagfuls of the works—everything from snow crab and pickled radish, to rice and sheets of seaweed. With the advice of the stock gal, I decided to cheat my way through what I still believe is the hardest part of constructing sushi: flavoring the rice. She sold me on the idea of sprinkling a certain white seasoning mix known as Tamanoi Sushinoko on the rice, which would probably be ingenious if it weren’t so lazy and wrong…and this resulted in a grand first attempt with sourish dry rice (tasty though it was with its high MSG content).

Later, I experimented with my own blendings of vinegar, sugar and salt, and enlisted the help of friends who suggested that I cook the rice with kombu, a dried seaweed often used for flavoring in Japanese cuisine, and incorporate a sweet rice wine known as Mirin.

I still have not perfected the rice in my perfectionistic opinion, but I can build some good-looking sushi in maki, temaki and nigiri form.

Recently, I held another sushi-making party, swamping a friend’s kitchen and dining area with all the messes that come with making a meal at home. Somehow, in the midst of drunken debauchery and a little dog that kept swarming around my feet, some amazing sushi (as well as some fine friendship moments) were formed, if I may say so myself….

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Cactus Dragon Roll at Niya Sushi

Thinking Outside the Roll

A friend of mine recently asked me to eat more rolls that DON’T have a California Roll base with fish on top. “I can’t stand those,” she said. I echo that sentiment, in fact, for I believe it is the chintzier sushi dives that serve this roll model.

I know exactly what she is talking about. She’s referring to the flaky imitation snow crab that gets hauled to restaurants in plastic bags, which sushi chefs tear into during prep time (before the restaurant opens for business) and dump their contents into large mixing bowls. The preppers then proceed to fluff up the faux crab meat, making it all creamy and moist by adding as much Japanese mayonnaise as possible without creating a white wading pool.

Right before the lunch or dinner rush, the chefs use this pink-and-white stuffing to mass-produce the ever-popular California Roll, by simply adding two more ingredients: cucumber and avocado. Then they lay the finished products on trays covered by plastic wrap, where they sit for hours and supply the demand in ready-to-go fashion. One sushi chef will crank out as many as eight of these inside-out rolls at a time, rolling them en masse with a plastic-wrapped bamboo mat known as makisu. Well, who wants assembly-line sushi?

I certainly don’t.

Sometimes, the chefs will try to get creative with these rolls by using them as a base for others such as the Dragon or Rainbow Rolls. They simply add eel on top to turn it into a Dragon Roll, or line up colorful raw fish slices over the base and call it the Rainbow. Likewise, a Caterpillar Roll is often nothing more than avocado draped over an “eel and cucumber roll.” Eel sauce drowns out everything, so you can’t see or taste what is in the roll anyway.

Kudos to Niya Sushi (formerly Kiki’s Sushi) of Huntington Beach, for charging about the same price as what some of these other restaurants will charge ($9.25), for a roll of a similar name and style—only way better. Introducing the Cactus Dragon Roll, which uses spicy crab stick meat (much more exquisite than the stuffing I mentioned) and the surprising addition of shrimp tempura, which normally is not integrated with a roll with "Dragon" in its name.

This roll packs a spicy bite as well as a crunchy munch, and the minced crab stick meat with Sri Racha sauce (normally referred to as “Red Rooster Sauce,” since it has such a logo on its green-tipped bottle) is not too hot as it coalesces with the sweet mucky delight of eel sauce. Ahh….

The chef went out of his way to dress up the Dragon, adding a mint leaf collar, yamagobo feelers, and eyes made of the suction cups of octopus (yikes!)—even a touch of shaved bonito for effect.

Items Featuring the Dynamite Sauce

Niya's Amazing Dynamite Sauce...

All this was not meant to subdue the importance of Niya’s outstanding Dynamite sauce, a mayonnaise-saturated concoction with smelt fish eggs and bits of red chili peppers stirred in. This highly addictive combination is used in many of their rolls—the Tony Special (one of my absolute favorites), the Huntington Beach Roll, and the Lettuce Wrap. I often ask for an extra side of the dynamic Dynamite sauce just so I can overdo it for fun. And then I get sick to my stomach (may I recommend natural Charcoal supplements to take care of the mayo-hangover!) but I know it was well worth it.

The Tony Special contains cream cheese, scallop and asparagus, and is topped with whole Dynamite-sauce-soaked shrimp. Unbelievable! The Huntington Beach Roll, with its scallop and cucumber inside, is still an honorable mention, even with the ever-decreasing portion of Dynamite-sauced king crab flakes on top. And finally, if you really want an extra crunch (lettuce crunch, that is) which is also super-healthy and will definitely offset the effects of the power sauce, order a Lettuce Wrap--only $5.75 each. The crisp, refreshing lettuce cools your tongue as you get burned both by the temperature of the freshly fried shrimp tempura and the flavor of the chili-infused Dynamite sauce.

Niya took over Kiki’s sometime in 2002, and has rocked the joint since then with an even more exciting menu of countless items, all with very colorful and appropriate names. Very clever of them to keep the same Dynamite sauce as Kiki’s once served, I say. When I found out about the takeover, I nearly had a heart attack until I was assured that one of my favorite guilty-pleasure sauces was retained.

Niya is located at 5910 Warner Avenue in Huntington Beach. They can be reached at 714-840-3024.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Miso Harney Sushi: Comfort Roll, Andy 2 Roll

Miso Harney!!!

This sushi bar is called “Miso Harney.”

As in miso soup and Harney Street in San Diego where the restaurant sits, what were you thinking???

Although cleverly named as if to attract tourists, this sushi bar is really more of a local’s hangout. It’s a long trek anyhow from the hubbub of Old Town, where visitors wander about and Mexican restaurants dominate the food scene.

But even out-of-towners like myself are greeted and treated like family here; the staff is friendly and efficient as they seat you in the plushy lounge-like dining area or at the oversize sushi bar. A DJ spins cool cacophony from a corner booth and a menu filled with creatively named items tempts you to read every exasperatingly fun description.

Names like Rollz Royce Roll and Grey Poupon Roll jump off the page, screaming ingredients such as “money sauce” and—you guessed it—Grey Poupon mustard. I am adventurous with sauces, but I wasn’t in the mood to shout over the din and question the chef what exactly is money sauce, and somehow mustardy goop didn’t sound like it would pair well with deep-fried lobster in a sushi roll, so I settled for the less crazy-sounding (but still creative!) choices.

The Comfort Roll may sound placid, but the pungence of its contents contradict. Spicy tuna, tart lemon slices and chili powder are just a few of the key ingredients in this formidable roll, which bristles with shaved bonito on top. A little dipping bowl of “spicy ponzu” sauce comes with it, giving it even more flavor that it doesn’t need. $15 sounds hefty but the roll reflects its price.

By comparison, the “Andy 2 Roll” smacks of plainness (perhaps I should have tried this one first, before the other fiery one numbed my tongue) but that’s kind of nice too—at least you can taste the fresh fish, without all the torrid palate-torturing spices. This one is a milder version of the previous: spicy tuna and lemon slivers recur, but raw salmon steps in for the other flavors.

The Marina Roll

The Winner is...the Marina Roll!

The Marina Roll takes the crown—spicy lobster meets cool and refreshing cucumber and radish sprouts, topped with the rare but wondeful escolar (also known as butterfish) which is just as buttery and slick as any fish can hope to be. The menu says this roll comes with a creamy soy sauce, but I think the dollops of white are more like a salty-sweet mayonnaise…perfect nonetheless with this zesty roll, which is finally finished off with chili powder.

Miso Harney!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Origami Sushi in Minneapolis

The Diva Does Minnesota

Minnesotans eat good sushi. The Diva has proof.

You wouldn’t think that the humble metropolis of Minneapolis would be a place one would find hip, trendy Japanese cuisine; after all, this north-midwestern city evokes wintry images of icy slush and idyllic small-town charm, and it’s certainly not known for the big-city culture normally associated with ethnic restaurants.

But along with fresh breathable air and lightly trafficked roads, the City of Lakes unexpectedly offers some refreshing epicurean delights, even if leaving your car presents a challenge with the lack of parking lots in this labyrinth of brick buildings and one-way streets.

Take Origami for example. This uber-cool Japanese eatery in Downtown Minneapolis features a multiethnic chef brigade serving items such as the “New York, New York” Roll, a dish that appears ordinary but which actually uses apples in place of cucumber. Crunchy tempura flakes crust the outer layer while a spicy crab mix and slices of apple sit inside, with eel sauce to accompany it all. (I have seen apples used in sushi rolls only three other times in my decade-long sushi odyssey, twice in Hollywood and once in San Francisco. It is not a shocker, merely a nice treat stumbled upon once in a great while at restaurants with boldly experimental sushi makers).

TiGERSUSHi !!! & Mall of America Roller Coaster


At the famous Mall of America in Bloomington, “TiGERSUSHi” breaks the stereotype that all sushi found in shopping malls is cheap n’ crappy. Located on the second floor in a rotund structure and directly across amusement-park-size roller-coaster rides (yes, this is a mall), this super rad sushi-factory speedily cranks out plates (as well as boxes to go) of edible art. They even have a color scheme of orange and green; and the servers are not referred to as Waiter or Waitress—the backside of their tee-shirts read “Macho Maki Man” or “Tigress”.

“J.R. & The Volcano”—narcissistically named after the chef who created it—is a fruit-infused pile of lawn with a hint of sesame. (By that I mean the cucumber-based slaw looks as green and tastes as fresh as newly cut grass; and there are slices of strawberry and mango thrown in.) Its description on the menu reads “An Explosion of Flavors! A mountain of seafood, strawberries, mango and kaiware sprouts—all tossed together in a tangy mango-chile sauce and masago. Topped with crunchy flakes.” For $9.50, this is like a gourmet salad that fills you up and is good for you. How could you pass it up? I sure didn’t. And an explosion of flavors it was indeed!

The Dyna-Mighty Roll, which I also tried, is just a fancy name for a yellowtail roll with sprouts and cucumber. The reason I ordered it is because the menu said it comes with “Dynamite Sauce,” which turned out to be a (!!hot!!) white-colored muck comprised of Japanese mayonnaise and Habanero chiles. I pressed the chef for what else was in the sauce and he shrugged. “You can’t say, can you?” I asked. He laughed and replied, “No, I don’t know!” After the meal, I sighed with gratitude and told the chefs I was now going to get on a roller coaster. “So I can toss my sushi,” I joked. (I did go on the ride, but I retained my food.)

Musashi's Shiitake & Sunami Rolls


On Hennepin Avenue, Musashi sits in yet another stately brick building, waiting for the next lunch or dinner rush to occur. During all three of my visits I either went right before or after the mad lunch crowd, thereby ensuring I get all the service to myself. This Japanese restaurant makes the best shiitake mushroom roll I have ever eaten in my life. The fungi are sweet, as if marinated in vinegar and sugar, and the sweetness is highly addictive. This roll can be ordered individually for only $4.50, or in a lunch combo with two other basic rolls (such as spicy tuna or shrimp tempura) for only $12.95.

But no visit can be complete unless a specialty roll is ordered (i.e., a unique creation that is not a generic roll found in other restaurants), and that was why I returned for the pure indulgence of the pricey “Sunami Roll” (perhaps it’s “Tsunami” misspelled). The menu described the roll as having king crab, avocado, spicy mayo, and red tobiko on top, but mentioned nothing of the giant scallops they put on top of the roll upon which the flying fish eggs are heaped (pleasant surprise!). Even more eye-pleasing: the tobiko come in a vast spectrum of colors, mostly due to the marination with fruit juices or wasabi, according to the chef. The roll costs $17.95, but you can find a 10% off coupon for the restaurant in City Pages (Minneapolis’ version of L.A. Weekly).

Azuki Sushi: Mango Tango & Boston Rols

Azuki Sushi

Azuki Sushi on Oak Street also loves to incorporate fruit into their sushi dishes. Their Mango Tango roll, which costs $11, is an eel, cucumber and mango roll topped with avocado and…more mango! Eel sauce drips from the top, sweetening the deal. Azuki is yet another restaurant in Minneapolis where I have seen the Boston Roll, which is also as commonly seen on menus in Florida as the California Roll appears on our menus. Hmm…must be a regional thing. The Boston Roll, however, is all about shrimp, lettuce, cucumber and Japanese mayonnaise; whereas the California Roll always combines crab, avocado and cucumber, with mayonnaise and masago sometimes added, sometimes absent altogether. Which makes me wonder if the Boston Roll actually appears on sushi menus in Boston….

The Butterfly Roll at FUJI YA

FUJI YA's Happy Hour

Meanwhile, it’s Happy Hour at FUJI YA on Lake Street! From 5 to 7 p.m., and late at night from 10 to 12 a.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays (8 to 10 p.m. Sundays), appetizers and sushi can be enjoyed at half the price. This explained why the place was so packed during my visit on a Wednesday around 6:30 at night. The atmosphere is chaotic and upbeat (think 80s songs like “Brand New Lover” by Dead or Alive emanating from hidden speakers) while dimly lit paper lanterns that dot the dining area lend a soft touch.

From the Happy Hour menu, I ordered the four-piece Spider Roll for only $5.95, and it was perfect—fresh, crunchy, with the softshell crab still piping hot. More unusual choices offered on the discount menu were The White Toro and Green Onion Roll for $3.95 (very delectable, although they could have added more of the scallions), and the six-piece Butterfly Roll for $4.95. Because I don’t like mysteries, I asked the chef for the ingredients of the Butterfly, and was not disappointed by the answer. I decided to order it and it turned out to be entirely covered in shaved bonito, the salty confetti-like dried flakes of the bonito variety of tuna, which he had not mentioned. Fortunately I was very partial to the topping, but I had to flip a piece of the roll upside-down to really see the inside: salmon skin, avocado, cream cheese, green onion and eel sauce. Delicious.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Dreamy, Creamy Dungeness Crab Hand Rolls

One Crab, Two Crabs, Red Crab, Blue Crab...

You must have seen them all…softshell crab, king crab, snow crab, blue crab, even imitation crab stick…but have you seen the Dungeness crab in a sushi roll?

I have seen it one other time.

I was overjoyed to happen upon the first of its kind, years ago, in Ari-Ya Sushi Café (now called Tani) in Pasadena. The item was listed on a “Specials” dry-erase board menu on the wall behind the sushi bar, novel and tantalizing: “Dungeness Crab Hand Roll.”

I gorged myself with one, then another, then another…until I could eat no more of the soft, delicate flakes of white and brown swirled with Japanese mayonnaise and avocado on sushi rice, then wrapped in conical folds of crisp, blackish-green nori.

I returned another day and the item disappeared.

“No more,” barked the grumpy no-nonsense sushi master, as if anything else they offered at the time could have replaced the One I had been dreaming of. I asked if it was gone for good, and he said “Next time, maybe we have.”

When another trip and a couple of “stock-check” phone calls were also made in vain, I had just about given up. Desperately, I thought perhaps I could figure out how to cook a Dungeness crab myself, then hollow out the meat and bring it with me into a sushi restaurant, whereupon I would order avocado hand rolls and stuff them in myself, a sort of bring-your-own-crab feast (BYOC?). Once, I had hidden some chili powder in my purse and taken it out in a restaurant, and the staff stared in amusement as I seasoned the food with my own smuggled-in spices.

The elusive Dungeness, perhaps a personal favorite of mine because it is nearly impossible to find (at least in sushi restaurants), has finally reared its pretty claws. The sighting: Yabu, a small Japanese restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard in West Hollywood. But even on the menu, it’s slickly tucked away at the bottom of the Special Items sheet; you won’t even find it listed in their regular sushi or online menus. There it was, the Creamy Crab Hand Roll, available with Dungeness or King Crab, Seaweed or Soy Paper. The price for my long-awaited Dungeness was a steal at only $7.50, even though the rolls are super slim, and the crab meat meager, dabbed with a little bit of Japanese mayo for the flavoring and creaminess.

The King version of this roll is golden and rich, but just doesn’t have the same texture and isn’t as satisfying as its counterpart. King crab is meaty and chewy; the Dungeness is flaky mincemeat that breaks apart easily and has its own rare, exquisite taste. And unlike Ari-Ya's long-lost original, this one doesn't come with avocado (though it can be added upon request); in my opinion, it is perfect the way it is.

Just the other day (perhaps because they knew I was taking photos of everything), the chef made them especially presentable, serving the rolls in soy paper of various hues. I recommend the soy paper wrap over the seaweed; the mamenori here is unusually soft and buttery (perhaps because their crab—Dungeness, to be sure—is out of this world).

Ah...Tuna...Oh, Toro!

Toro! Toro! Toro!

If you must order anything else, ask for the Crispy Rice Roll or the “Toro! Toro! Toro!” Roll. (Just don’t say “Tora! Tora! Tora!”).

With cooked spicy tuna and asparagus inside and a colorful rice cracker coating on the outside, the Crispy Rice Roll is edible art sitting in a red pool of spicy sauce (looks and tastes like chili oil mixed with ponzu sauce to me). The Toro (fatty tuna) specialty, on the other hand, is not so much spicy and saucy as it is oily and filling. Its toppings of onion slivers and freeze-dried chives offset the otherwise Totally Tuna experience—the filler is raw toro, the roof seared toro. So if you love fatty tuna, this is The One.

Yabu is located at 521 N. La Cienega Boulevard and can be reached at 310-854-0400.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The REAL Seafood Cocktails...

Drink Your Fish

I am not much of a drinker…but that doesn’t mean I won’t have a glass of fish once in a while.


Of course I have seen it before: a fancy martini glass literally brimming with chunks of raw fish and garnishes like slices of cucumber and sprigs of sprout. (And if you read last week’s blog, you’ll know I have at least been a fan of spring rolls served in elegant glassware.)

Kanpai Sushi in Los Angeles may not have invented this form of food presentation, but they have certainly perfected it in their “Kanpai Cocktail” by adding unheard-of toppings like tosazu jello, a brown gelatinous substance made of vinegar and bonito (a type of baby tuna), and by throwing in the more expensive items such as king crab and caviar, which most restaurants are far too stingy to add to seafood medleys.

And at only $9 per dish (or rather, glass), how can you beat it? You hardly notice the base of filler items consisting of seaweed salad and cucumber, which help add size to the portion without robbing them of too much of the meatier stuff they put in there, such as tuna and yellowtail. Besides, you need your kelp.

You don’t really drink it—not right away, anyway. The idea is to pick all the meat off the top with chopsticks, then eat the roughage, and then finally, quaff the residual jellylike mass (about the size of a shot) in a big gulp.

You do this and your body reminds you, after you swallow, that it is not really a liquid you’re imbibing, nor is it sweet like dessert or seductive like alcohol. It is salty, and pungent and sour and strong, like doing a soy-sauce-and-vinegar chaser that is tinged with the taste of fish. You do this only if you want to polish off the gelatin-sauce-thing, no one will force you. You do this…and you have completed your daring fish-cocktail undertaking. You are proud.

The sushi chef stares at you and for a moment you think he is disgusted that you have actually sucked down all the fish-jello, or maybe he’s astonished that you have not gagged; but then you realize he is merely curious what you think of his creation as he asks, “You like it?”

Of course…you will love it.

Zen Sushi in Hollywood calls their version the “Poki Martini,” a bit pricier at $13 but the fish cups runneth over. The chunks seem bigger here, and maybe crab is absent but the salmon surface. Toppings on this one: smelt fish eggs instead of caviar, and burdock root (yamagobo) in place of sprouts. Sorry, no brown gooey jelly stuff to inhale on this one, but ordinary fish-followers may love that about it.

Find Kanpai Sushi at 8325 Lincoln Blvd in Los Angeles, and Zen Sushi at 8163 Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood.

Monday, August 18, 2008

NOBU: Spicy Creamy Crab

Must Eat at Nobu

It should be on The List of things you need to do at least once in this life: You must eat at Nobu. The famous restaurant name is often heard in sushi circles—“Oh, Nobu makes a better version of that…” “Nobu has the freshest fish…” “The best presentation is at Nobu…” “Nobu should be called ‘No Food’.”

The statements are all true, the latter perhaps for the trendy restaurant’s propensity to serve diminutive portions of their tasty creations. But is that because they’re snooty? Yes, but with good reason. Here, the lofty prices are not justified by the portions, but by the high-end quality and art form of their servings.

Nobu is also famous for being frequented by the famous (I am not yet a tabloid journalist, so I will not go into the names of celebrities who have been seen dining there, but you get the idea) and by the well-heeled wannabes who followed suit, making it the seen-and-be-seen sushi spot that it is today. Its Malibu location certainly didn’t hurt, nor do the other big-city links of this restaurant chain: London, New York, and the latest addition in West L.A. on La Cienega Boulevard.

Behind it all is the one and only chef Nobu Matsuhisa, master chef and restauranteur who not only has written four cookbooks and runs the ultra-posh Matushisa sushi restaurant on La Cienega, but has trained proteges like Miki Izumisawa, who opened 242 Café Sushi Fusion in Laguna Beach. A giant portrait of him, smiling, hangs from the wall next to the sushi bar—and why wouldn’t he be smiling? The man’s exuberant creations certainly reflect his love of modern, inventive Japanese cuisine.

Some might argue that his fusion style caters too much to American taste buds—take the Spicy Creamy Crab, for example, a casserole-looking dish that is nothing more than a hodgepodge of dungeness crab chunks slathered in a super-salty mayonnaise-and-smelt-eggs sauce and then baked on a clay plate. But the taste is utterly crabulous, unexpected considering the melted-cheese appearance. Its only downside—it’s extremely oily and fills you up quickly in the bad way, with lots of the fluffy pure fat known as mayo, so for $19 you can acquire the “stomach swimming in grease” sensation. Well worth the experience nevertheless….

Salmon Kelp Roll, Yellowtail Sashimi

With your stomach well-lubed, it’s now time to satisfy both the eyes and the palate, and that can be accomplished with the Salmon Kelp Roll. From its decorative purple blossom garnish (edible?) to the orange marbled salmon wrapped with the rare clear kelp known as kombu, this roll is ablaze with both color and flavor. The taste assaults your senses: it is at once crisp garden and citrusy ponzu sauce and top-grade fish, with the clear kelp lending just the right finish to it all.

Another signature house favorite: the Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalapeno. No imitator has ever done this dish justice; Nobu is the master and everyone must obey. The $20 price for this dish? Cheap! Considering the extreme freshness and aesthetically perfect presentation. Oh…and a flower petal, of course, but hold the cilantro, in my opinion. Brush those aside and get to the good greens: jalapenos.

Seafood Spring Roll with Caviar

Sunday, August 17, 2008

But back to the Americanized stuff: it’s deep-fried spring roll time with your choice of either softshell crab or seafood with caviar. Any economical genius will tell you to order the four-piece for $19 instead of the single Seafood Spring Roll with Caviar for $18, but the choice may not be the wisest. Less is best with this selection, for the solitary piece served in a martini glass is not just prettier, but tastier as well. Daubed with a smidgeon of glossy sturgeon eggs and surrounded by well-arranged filler veggies, this scant fried thing will tease and make you want more…but it won’t leave you drowning in oil.