Monday, September 29, 2008
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.
Sunday, September 21, 2008
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).
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.)
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 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….
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.