Monday, November 9, 2009

The Orange Bowl at Sushi Fever

Orange Bowled Over

I’m a big fan of recipes that incorporate citrus fruit—lobster paired with grapefruit in a sushi roll or salad, lime-based marinades—and who can deny the popularity of orange chicken?—but never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined this one: Orange slices baked with salmon, cream cheese, scallop and imitation crab on top.

Introducing Sushi Fever’s “Orange Bowl”—it’s probably not what I would have named it, but whoever came up with this combination was certainly a genius.

I first discovered this dive in Las Vegas six years ago, when weariness of the Strip and the yellow pages had me driving west on Sahara Avenue for what seemed like forever, taking me miles from tourist central, as I searched for more of a local’s hangout.

The place sits in a nondescript strip mall, marked by a single purple awning bearing the restaurant name. Inside, the relaxing sushi bar atmosphere offers a nice oasis from the desert heat and the chaos of the neon-lit jungle that’s about seven miles east. Everything about it seems pretty traditional except for the menu, which offers “Screaming Orgasm” (seared tuna with spicy chef’s special sauce), and “Sex on the Beach” (spicy scallop with crab-topped salmon). There’s even the “Mistake Roll” and a “Something Wrong Special,” and twisted titles like “Japanese Burrito” and “Japanese Lasagne,” the latter of which comes with crab, avocado, cream cheese and eel sauce, which I can already picture to be gooey and melting in its lasagne-likeness.

Today the Orange Bowl is off-the-menu, surprisingly, but (thank God) you can still order it. The stiff-upper-lipped chefs whip it up quickly, almost surreptitiously, before you can plead that they make it extra crispy (charred, not burnt), or ask what exactly is that clear liquid is that they squirt on top of the dome-shaped delights right before they pop them in the toaster oven (past experience tells me they’re not gonna tell this time either). My guess is that it’s some type of sugar-water, for the crab sure is sweeter than you’d expect, and the liquid seems to help with the retaining of moisture in the baking process. But I believe the secret lies in the release of the citrus essence when the orange is toasted with the other ingredients.

The price is $9.50 for two mounds of orangey heaven, but I’m actually willing to pay more, because it’s that good. I don’t though—I simply order more of it and tip generously. The service is perfunctory and less than personable, but ultimately it’s the food that matters. It also helps that their prices are not those of a tourist trap. Here, you’re treated like a local…even if you’re secretly a transient.

Sushi Fever
7985 W Sahara Ave., Las Vegas

Sunday, October 18, 2009

CREATIVE SUSHI of Santa Monica

Gettin' Creative with Sushi...

“What’s so creative about your sushi?” It was a question I had actually asked over the phone back in 1997, when I first discovered the Santa Monica restaurant. Its name, after all, was Creative Sushi.

The waitress had no idea what I was asking, and after much drivel, I thought I’d better just go and find out for myself.

Back then I was still a fairly new inductee to the world of sushi, so the rolls there were some of the most creative I had ever seen up until that point: Calamari Tempura Roll, Crab-Wrapped Cucumber Roll with Ponzu Sauce, Asparagus Special Roll with Avocado Sauce….

Nine years have passed since my last visit to the artsy beach city sushi bar, but I never forgot that avocado sauce. Today I still love that chunky verdant dip rendered of avocados and mystery ingredients undivulged by Masa, the Japanese sushi chef behind all the inventive flavors.

“That is top secret,” he chuckled when I asked him to reveal the method to the mixture. “I cannot tell you or you will make it yourself.”

Why do they always think that?

I took in the ambience, still in shock that so much time had gone by. The restaurant still looked the same—funky décor and nature motif in the dining area; kitschy knickkancks behind the sushi bar; fish-themed artistic doodles by customers and autographed photos of celebrities hanging from the wall; and of course, chef Masa, who was still there and looked like he had hardly aged at all. The photo-album-style menu, as I remembered it, contained pictures of most of the dishes, next to their names and prices. (The prices were notably higher since my last visit—but hey, it’s been almost a decade.)

I ordered the Asparagus Special Roll with Avocado Sauce for $14 straight away. Unless you stare carefully at the photo of the roll, or ask questions, you may not learn until it is in front of you that it is actually a roll with asparagus and real crab on the inside, with avocado and masago on the outside. The sauce brings this roll to life; it is tart and tangy and just a tad salty, as if a smidgeon of soy sauce is part of its secret.

From a small board menu that sits on the bar, I ordered yellowtail sushi with “jalapeno lemon sauce” for $6.50, along with tuna sushi with “garlic black pepper” for $5.50. The fish was fresh in my book; the jalapeno lemon sauce is really more lemony than spicy, while the garlic flavor trumps the black pepper essence on the tuna nigiri.

The Spicy Shrimp Boat for $14 will leave an impression long after your meal, and not just because of its chili oil aftertaste. Devoid of rice and seaweed, this unconventional dish of four capsized shrimp—with their cargo of real crab mixed with a spicy creamy mayonnaise sauce and chili oil, green onions and masago—is one of my favorites.

One particularly interesting dish, known simply as “Creative Sushi,” is actually a plate of “box” sushi, usually shaped with a special rectangular mold that presses the rice and fish together into a block before it is sliced into smaller rectangular pieces. This self-titled special, which consists of a mid-layer of nori and a top-layer of tuna, salmon and yellowtail demarcated by cucumber bits, comes with a soupy sweet dressing—sort of like a creamy eel sauce. Both regular and wasabi-flavored masago speckle the rice, which add more flavor as well.

I told Masa I’d be back again soon…“It won’t be another nine years,” I promised.

Creative Sushi
2518 Main St. Santa Monica
(310) 581-9753

Note: Creative Sushi has closed down

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

TORO SUSHI of Ontario

The Trendy TORO

I consider sushi to be highly addictive in general, but every once in a while, a sushi bar will come along and prove to be so habit-forming that you actually think about going back twice in the same day—even if it’s 20 miles away. That’s when you know they’ve got you.

Toro Sushi of Ontario is such a restaurant. I had spotted the place off the 10 East freeway several times before I finally got the chance to eat there. Each time I saw it, I made a mental note: Must eat at Toro. But it was never the right time, I was either on my way somewhere else or had other plans. But it beckoned me; experience and instinct told me that based on their name, logo and architectural style, it was one of those modern sushi joints that catered to sophisticated, contemporary taste buds.

My instincts proved to be right.

Their signature rolls, for one, come with daring sauces such as sweet and spicy vinaigrette, garlic-onion vinaigrette, or wasabi-cream sauce. The toppings range from crispy red onion and garlic chips to bacon, an unprecedented but not unacceptable sushi roll ingredient in my opinion. Each roll varies in price—ranging from $8.50 to $15, the pricier ones certainly bearing more ingredients.

I chose the Paka-Lo-Roll for its blackened salmon, crispy red onion, and sweet & spicy vinaigrette, although the rest of it—spicy tuna, tuna tataki, crab and veggies—didn’t sound bad either. The $14 roll turned out to be quite a whopper—an enormous rice-and-fish monstrosity sliced into about ten pieces, topped with minced crab stick squiggles battered and deep-fried, which replaced the crispy red onion promised in the description.

Not to be shorted, I asked for a side of the crispy red onion, and discovered the hairy-looking fried crab was actually better than their original intention. I have seen minced crab stick sitting atop a sushi roll, but never minced and fried crab stick. The genius behind this is that every single strand gets coated with crunchy tempura batter—far more effective than if they had just fried an intact crab stick, which would leave the center still gooey and soft. In my opinion, this roll was ultimately enhanced by the sauce, blackened salmon and fried crab, for it would otherwise have been rather plain, with its basic center of spicy tuna, flaky imitation snow crab and cucumber.

The single roll filled me up, but I decided I would have to go back and eat more to satisfy my curiosity and to make this restaurant more blogworthy. And so a second visit was in order, and this time I ordered the Pink Lady roll (shrimp, spicy crab, masago, avocado, veggies rolled in pink soy paper and served with ponzu), and the funky-sounding P-Whip hand roll (shrimp tempura, spicy crab, avocado & veggies wrapped in soy paper, finished with dynamite sauce). The Pink Lady was tangy and refreshing, but the P-Whip was what I craved again later.

Toro Sushi’s version of dynamite sauce didn’t look like much—a hazy light-orange liquid stored in a huge hot sauce bottle, appearing watered-down and generic—but when mixed with the minced crab stick to form the spicy crab, then combined with the shrimp tempura and soy paper, it was something beyond ordinary.

I nearly ordered a dessert known as The Happy Ending (something about tempura and ice cream served with a milky “Happy Ending sauce”), but then I was told by the waitress that I really, really should try their Pepper Salmon sushi, served with ponzu and wasabi-cream sauce, which is one of the dishes for which the restaurant is famous. I rationalized that sushi is as good a dessert as any Happy Ending, and settled with glee on the salmon. Fearing the wasabi-cream sauce would overpower the taste of the fish, I asked for it on the side. But as it turns out, Toro’s version of this sauce is also stellar, as it is mild and creamy and not overly horseradishy. It brought out the taste of the pepper-infused salmon, which was also excellent.

Toro Sushi, I learned, is not new to the Inland Empire. It relocated from Chino a few years ago, where it had been open for business since 2000. The new building is far more spacious than their old one, and this move certainly exposed the restaurant to new clientele while it continued to cater to their devout followers. But taking over a better location is not the only way Toro Sushi promotes itself. Every week, the restaurant comes alive with “Fuego Fridays,” a party that turns the restaurant into a bit of a nightclub, complete with dance floor, drink specials, and deejays playing various types of music which include salsa and Spanish rock.

Toro Sushi
1520 N. Mountain Ave., Ontario
(909) 983-8676

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Mentaiko & Yama-imo Hand Roll, Shake-Toro, Prosciutto & Walnut Salad at Valencia's MARU

MARU: A Class Act

When you hear about the city of Valencia, it’s almost impossible to avoid thinking of Six Flags Magic Mountain—but what of the sushi in this thrillseekers’ paradise?

I considered it the perfect opportunity to hunt down the perfect purveyor of my favorite food in this area when I parted with friends at the theme park last week; it was still early enough to catch dinner, and it was the first time I had driven to the city alone, which meant I was unfettered and free to roam. Unhampered by the schedules and opinions of others, I set off on an adventure that would have corkscrewed headaches into the skulls of anyone who had been crazy enough to accompany me on that fickle night. Sometimes, solo journeys have their advantages….

After a couple of Japanese restaurants appeared on my G-1 cell phone when I googled “Valencia sushi,” I briefly wondered how anyone ever survived the pre-Internet, pre-GPS days while searching for a place at which to dine (what did we do, really? Call 411 or comb the streets randomly?). Kyoto and Maru both popped up, and rather than yelp it (I have mentioned previously how little I trust the opinion of others), I decided to wing it.

Trying to make sure that at least one place was open for business, I dialed Maru first, but when no one picked up the phone, I tried Kyoto. The latter confirmed it was indeed open for dinner, so off I went.

As GPS units go, we all know they sometimes mislead and confuse us just a bit, so somehow I detoured into a shopping plaza I had to find a way out of…until the words The Kona Crisp caught my eye, making me take another detour. I knew it wasn’t sushi, but it sounded unique and I was curious about the menu. I stopped inside this self-dubbed “Vintage Beach Canteen” for a quick look and was disappointed. The place was nothing more than an upscale burger joint with a nice Hawaiian theme, and the aroma was that of a fast food restaurant. I sampled their homemade cole slaw, which was so flavorless that it made me long for the sweet liquidy cole slaw of KFC.


When I finally found Kyoto, the logo made me realize this place was part of a chain I had already visited before. With locations all over the Valley, Kyoto is better known for its all-you-can-eat option and overuse of that Americanized “Sweet Sauce.” At the last branch I went to in West Hills, I had chosen scallop sushi over the super-fried or crazy mishmash rolls with a California Roll base. Although it has its devout followers of cheap overeaters, I consider its sushi very basic and rather unimaginative, reminiscent of Crazy Tokyo Sushi, another chain known for its cheapness in both price and quality.

Curious, I sauntered in anyway. Its ambience was casual and quite rowdy, which can be conducive to a fun dining experience, but a quick skim of the menu confirmed this was not where I wanted to heartily feast after an exhausting, sun-and-water-drenched day, even though the casualness of the atmosphere seemed to more than welcome my still-wet-from-the-water-rides shorts.


Maru answered the phone and assured me they were open when I tried calling again, but it was their menu that assured me right away of their caliber. Boasting exotic fish flown in nightly from Japan, the sushi menu offered rarities like fatty bluefin tuna belly, live scallop and live sweet shrimp, white seabass, jellyfish marinated in vinegar, and pike mackerel. According to Maru's website, executive chef Jason Park uses only the freshest and highest quality ingredients, even personally handpicking fresh produce from the Santa Monica Farmers' Market every week.

But what I found to be more intriguing was that this was a sushi restaurant with a French influence, with a whole other menu that listed roasted duck, foie gras on puff pastry, steak pasta and organic potatoes with bacon tossed with crème fraiche. Listed with the description of each dish is a recommended wine pairing. Classy.

It was at Maru that I learned of the difference between yamakake and yama-imo, which describe the different ways in which Japanese mountain potato is served (grated versus sliced), and it was Maru that paired my yama-imo with mentaiko (spicy cod fish eggs). $12 was a handful for a hand roll, but the taste was spectacular considering the simplicity.

I went for the shake toro (salmon belly) sushi, impressed that the restaurant even spelled it so that it was phonetically accurate, unlike most restaurants which translate their salmon into sake, like the alcohol, confusing poor Americans further. The description even read “More tender and oily.” The chef may not have seared this like the last chef did when I ordered salmon belly, but he did perk it up with strips of battera kombu, also known as pickled kelp, and a sauce he dubbed “nikiri sauce,” which consists of soy sauce, sake, and mirin, a popular Japanese cooking wine.

I would have ordered more sushi, of course, but the Proscuitto & Walnut Salad with sliced organic apples for $12 caught my eye, and the mention of sun-dried tomato vinaigrette didn’t hurt, either. But this turned out to be a ginormous salad, so in consideration of my wanting more sushi, the bad thing is that it filled me up....The good thing, though, is that it filled me up.

Somehow, I just can’t see families and teens coming into Maru for dinner after a bout at the theme park—the place is simply too posh and high-class, and its menu hardly agrees with the funnel cake and roasted corn you’re sure to have eaten all day. This reminds me again that I truly know how to enjoy the best of both worlds.

24250 Town Center Drive, Valencia
(661) 290-2595

Note: Maru has closed down

Saturday, August 8, 2009

ALOHA from Laguna Beach...

Flower Fusion

Just when you think you’ve seen it all before, along comes the Aloha roll, bearing edible flowers, a spectrum of vegetarian toppings, and a sprinkling of black pepper.

It doesn’t sound as pretty when you read its ingredients on the menu, or rather, plate—the daily specials are listed on little cards taped onto a gold platter that is handed to you as soon as you sit down at Miki Izumisawa’s Laguna Beach restaurant, otherwise known as 242 Café Fusion Sushi. These cards are changed from time to time, depending on availability and the mood of the executive chef, who is constantly experimenting and creating new dishes.

The Aloha roll is a brilliant stroke of inspiration—is it coincidence, or pure talent? The seeming randomness with which these concoctions are drummed up suggests it is chance; the way the tastes coalesce perfectly on the tongue tells a different story. It is the silkiest blending of the most unlikely ingredients: beets, radishes and turnips sliced thin and draped in rainbow-like formation across the top before a row of homegrown flowers is arranged on them.

I am surprised to learn that the only meat part of this bountiful roll is tuna, for Miki is known for including a wide assortment of fish in a single sashimi dish or roll, and I suppose I never realized that you didn’t need that much seafood in a sushi roll to have it taste this spectacular. The tuna sits snugly next to avocado, cucumber, and the tropical-ish mango.

Aside from the blooming garnishes, other parts of the roll seem to say Aloha, such as the macadamian nuts and mango. The consensus is usually the same amongst me and my fellow comrades: right next to the freshness factor, the magic sauces Miki mixes are what make the dishes so extraordinary. The Aloha, for example, comes lightly painted in spicy olive oil and soy vinegar sauce. It is a veritable work of art, and could win awards for most beautiful maki if there were such a thing as a sushi pageant.

So imagine my chagrin when I went back two weeks later, this time with a new group of friends, in a quest to have that roll again, to own it, to indulge in it, to be overwhelmed by its sweetly floral and fruity and not-so-carnal essence, the black pepper crunching in my mouth, and was told it was unavailable! Apparently, the Aloha was not the special of this day, or it would have been listed on the gold platter. The base menu, which is still highly desirable, still featured all the other amazing tastes Miki is so famous for, but none of them were the Aloha, and I wanted so wanted the ALOHA! The pretty Lithuanian waitress pleaded with her eyes: Please understand…

And so I had to move on…

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Peppered Salmon & Cajun Albacore Sushi, Crab Hand Roll at Ichikara of West Covina

Tricks of the Sushi...

The name of the restaurant, Ichikara, didn’t do it for me. Nor did its location—a shopping plaza in West Covina, nothing fancy as far as the eye could see. But one of its chefs, a young peppy lad by the equally peppy name of Kirby—you guessed it—did it. He turned the sushi tricks.

“No, I’m a rookie,” he replied when I asked if he had worked at another restaurant prior to this one. I was always curious; chefs will migrate from one sushi bar to the next, and by asking this question I either get to learn of a new place to try, or I can share my opinion of one I’ve already visited.

From the flair by which he wielded the knife and mixed his own sauces, I was surprised he wasn’t a self-professed sushi master. He was one of those rare service providers who catered with such gusto that you felt good about ordering with special requests, knowing he was having fun with making it just right for you.

On a board behind the sushi bar, the names of special rolls abounded—Godzilla Roll, Diablo Roll, Mexican Roll—all of them with abbreviated descriptions of the ingredients used. But the contents were not so dashingly bold, containing recurring themes of spicy tuna, crab meat and shrimp tempura; and the prices ranged from $9.95 to $14.95, which sounded very much like I had to commit to one big roll that was likely to make me full right away.

Soon I overheard Kirby enlighten my bar neighbors about the virtues of his special onion-garlic-ponzu sauce, and there were hunks of spice-slathered fish in the frosty glass case, so it was settled. I ordered up peppered salmon nigiri and asked for some of that signature sauce on the side, to be followed by cajun albacore sushi, presumably with the same sauce.

Once the albacore was garnished, I almost didn’t recognize it. Slices of red onion and leaves of cilantro crowned the top and an oily, light brown dressing trickled—I was told this sauce was a sweet vinegar mixed with garlic, chili and sesame seeds. According to Kirby, the cilantro is pre-mixed into the sauce, but the red onions are tossed in about five minutes before serving, so as to prevent sogginess. Although I generally abhor cilantro, it was hardly noticeable in such a myriad of other flavors.

The “Whatever Roll” is what Kirby calls one of his own creations—a soy-paper-wrapped roll consisting of shrimp tempura and imitation snow crab on the inside, and minced crab stick on top mixed with spicy mayonnaise, masago, crunchy tempura bits and eel sauce. I decided to be flip by ordering a hand roll with just the top part of that roll inside it. The eel sauce looked likeit was about to seep through the diaphanous soy wrap, the only visual blip on an otherwise aesthetically perfect hand roll. No tricks to the taste, thoughit was virtually divine.

450 S. Glendora Ave., West Covina

Note: Ichikara has closed down

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Introducing RuKasu of Studio City

It's All About the Fusion...

From its name and architecture, you would never have guessed that RuKasu serves sushi. At least not until you catch the words “Japanese Fusion” below the name.

Driving down Ventura Boulevard one evening, I whizzed past this stately palace whose building style was clearly Russian, but whose signage denoted Japanese cuisine. Valet parking attendants who might as well have been tending to horse-drawn troikas waited outside the entrance of this twinkly-lit, fairytale-like fortress; even the palm trees in the background seemed to have more of a sense of belonging.

Perhaps this is another fine example of L.A.’s potential for fusion, I thought; be it food or culture and even architecture, our complex melting pot never ceases to show its capacity for crossovers. I made a mental note: Must come back to eat Japanese at Russian-palace RuKasu.

A few days later, I returned to the vicinity. The thing about outstanding buildings is that they stand out, making them easier to find the second time around. I stepped into an elevator at the left side of the building and was lifted to the next floor, enveloped by predominately red lighting and…Russian music? I soon found myself in the lobby area of what looked to be a restaurant/lounge for raucous Ruskies. A Russian singer entertained a rowdy crowd as everyone clapped and clapped and—

I consulted the pile of business cards on the front desk: This wasn’t RuKasu, but their neighbor Romanov. It seemed to fit the architecture, anyhow. I learned that RuKasu, in the center of this unique building, is actually flanked by Romanov and a business called Valley Eye Professionals.

The name was explained shortly enough. Rob Lucas RuKasu, co-owner and former chef at Koi of West Los Angeles, had decided it was time to fulfill his dream of opening a restaurant. Inside, the cool and tranquil ambience is a great contrast to the riotous atmosphere of the upstairs scene.

Still pretty new to the Valley’s ongoing sushi bar war, RuKasu has hope for it yet. The simplistic yet indulgent menu seems to distill the essence of three major Japanese restaurants: Katsu-Ya, Asanebo and Sushi Roku (perhaps due to the similar dishes it offers, such as the Baked Crab Roll and the Spicy Rock Shrimp Roll).

In my opinion, the Spicy Rock Shrimp Roll should come with avocado, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t ask for it on the side. I ordered the soy paper-wrapped specialty as a hand roll for $6 (it is not available as a cut roll, according to the menu). Moments before that crunchy love-at-first-bite moment, I had a hunch it would put Sushi Roku’s version to shame. Perhaps this is because RuKasu’s brims with masago and spicy mayonnaise, unlike the drier, plainer version at Roku; and perhaps it was a newbie chef at Roku that day, who hadn’t really meant to flood my hand roll with Sri Racha sauce which seeped through the mamenori when I asked for extra spicy sauce, at which moment I vowed never to return….

I grunted my approval and moved onto the Baked Crab hand roll for $5 (it is $8 if you order it as a cut roll). And this is the item that is highly reminiscent of one of Katsu-Ya’s most popular rolls of the same name. There are subtle nuances that hint at a different taste; you can tell it’s not Katsu-Ya’s, perhaps because it’s not as blackened from the bake in the good burnt food way, but it’s definitely a winner. Somehow it’s more buttery and soft, without being overly oily and cloying.

Crispy Rice with Spicy Tuna & Jalapeno, "818" Roll & Ono Sushi with Cucumber Slush

More Than a Mouthful

The Crispy Rice with Spicy Tuna and Jalapeno, which also conjures up memories from Katsu-Ya (although this trendy dish is appearing more and more on the menus of restaurants everywhere), is a visual banquet with the decorative purple flower in its center. And this flourish brings me back to Koi, where a sushi roll known as the SSC (Sauteed Shrimp on California Roll) is presented in the same fashion. It’s yet another crossover, the beautiful by-product of interchanged ideas as sushi chefs migrate and cross-pollinate their art form. While it may appear simple, RuKasu’s version of this dish is actually dynamite-hot, with a creeper effect to the spiciness that doesn’t hit you until you’ve taken several bites.

For good measure, I was treated to samples of the “818” roll, an amalgamation of albacore, spicy tuna and fried onion. But it was the gratuitous piece of ono sushi with cucumber slush on top that got me. It’s not on the menu, but it certainly ought to be.

How to do an UNI SHOOTER

Just Shoot It!

I am not an uni die-hard, but something about an uni shooter (as recommended by the gracious RuKasu himself) sounded tempting. Tempting because I had only tried an oyster shooter before; tempting because a shot glass of sea urchin, sake and sauce sounds sick and wrong. But one little shot is hardly a glass, barely a mouthful; and with the sake added, you’d assume you would hardly notice or mind the gaggy ingredients. So I agreed, and into that shot glass went the works: uni, sake, ponzu sauce, hot sauce, masago, green onions, a single raw quail egg, and the surprising but wonderful addition of crushed garlic chips.

The top half of the shot looked innocuous enough, but a glance at the bottom where the spongy-looking sea urchin had settled provided a flashback to my high school Life Science class, where the teacher stored many a pickled specimen jar in the verboten cabinets.

I didn’t even like sake!
Think of it as a sake shot….

The last time I downed an oyster shooter, I chewed the kaki thoroughly, slowly, so as to savor the flavor. Not so with this one. I cheated. I imbibed everything else in the glass for taste, but the spongy brown stuff which left muddy streaks in the glass afterwards…that, my friend, I swallowed.

RuKasu Japanese Fusion
12229 Ventura Blvd., Studio City

*Note: RuKasu has closed down

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

NIJO of Seattle: Cheezee & Chili Cha-Cha Rolls, Soft Shell Crab Appetizer & Madai Sushi

NIJO Sushi Bar & Grill

When you’re in a new city for a limited number of days, you just don’t have the time to be disappointed by a bad sushi restaurant. Whether you read the online reviews (dodgy, as there are always conflicting opinions and I don’t trust the taste of the masses), skim the menus of the restaurants’ websites, or check out the city’s free publications for cool-looking sushi ads and articles, there is always a way to get an idea for what to expect—but it’s still a crapshoot.

Although I was reasonably happy with my selection of Seattle’s sushi bars, I still wish I had extra time to explore even more restaurants. But the number of places to eat in every city always outweighs the number of things to do there, so once all the touristy stuff is out of the way, inevitably I find myself just staring at the wall and waiting for my stomach to settle before I begin the next feast just for something to do. It’s what happens when there’s nothing left to do but eat.

Nijo and Mashiko, two of Seattle’s most popular Japanese restaurants, run parallel in my book—I couldn’t pick a favorite of the two. Nijo, located in Seattle’s famous Post Alley, is a hip joint with rock music, a two-page sushi roll menu and long list of impressive appetizers.

As a general rule, I never order many appetizers at a Japanese restaurant. I’m too busy trying to leave room for sushi and maki. I don’t care much for soups, salads, or edamame (unless there’s something so outstanding about them, say, edamame drizzled with garlic-teriyaki glaze, or perhaps lobster salad with grapefruit vinaigrette). But Nijo’s description of their soft shell crab appetizer—fried blue crab with wild mushroom and asparagus over a garlic cream emulsion—was an entreaty for experimentation.

Somewhere between the “Franks & Beans” and the “Ponies & Rainbows ” (rather whimsical names for rolls with shrimp tempura paired with spicy tuna or crab), the maki menu listed the “Chili Cha-Cha,” a splashy interpretation of softshell crab, cucumber, jalapeno, avocado and tobiko.

Either I am a huge fan of molting crustaceans, or I felt there just might be a wide enough difference between the soft shell crab appetizer and the soft shell crab roll, because I ordered both.

Like a cream of garlic soup, the bowl of extra garlic cream emulsion on the side (per my request) made the perfect complement for the single fried critter sitting atop a bed of onions, mushrooms and leafy greens. There was more than enough emulsion, which meant the vegetables got heavily doused in it, as if it were a salad dressing; the remainder I used as a dip for a few pieces of the rolls, to give them a garlicky kick.

The Chili Cha-Cha is reminiscent of a shrimp tempura roll with similar toppings, only it’s with soft shell crab and jalapeno slices, sans eel sauce. It is simply divine, mainly due to the well-seasoned rice and freshness of the ingredients, and the potent combination of tempura soft shell crab and chilis.

Listed right under the “Oh! No! Roll” on the chalkboard behind the sushi bar, the “Cheezee Roll” piqued my interest—was this a mutant monstrosity of melted mozzarella cheese topping a baked salmon roll, such as the one appropriately called “Oh My God” that was once featured at NODA of Pasadena? I was curious. The chef described the roll: spicy tuna, avocado and cream cheese on the inside; and then—check this out—panko-fried unagi on top. I thought it sounded infinitely more interesting than the former, which I heard just has albacore and escolar.

The Cheezee Roll might have been tried and true if it hadn’t been for the panko-fried freshwater eel on top. Panko, which is the Japanese word for bread crumbs, makes a much crunchier, grittier coating for fried food than tempura, a buttery batter which is soft and light by comparison. This is quite a creative way to expand on the eel-and-cream-cheese combination, which not many sushi restaurants have yet figured out. I discovered a long time ago, in several San Francisco sushi spots, that unagi and Philadelphia cream cheese go amazingly well together, and since then I’ve only seen about two or three restaurants unify the two ingredients. But panko-fried eel was unprecedentedly brilliant and absolutely delicious….

For dessert I wanted sushi, sushi! I hadn’t maxed out the meter on my maw yet, and the madai—a close cousin of the red snapper—sounded tempting. I ordered it and the chef whipped out his propane torch, much to my delight. Not only did he sear the fish, but he smoked the entire nigiri, so that the rice beneath was charred as well. I asked for garlic ponzu for the final touch of magic…

Kibinago and Geoduck Sushi; Spyder and Temptation Island Rolls at Mashiko

MASHIKO in West Seattle

The bottom line is, you have to be a lover of garlic to concur with my recommendations. For at Mashiko, it is also garlic sauce galore.

Located in West Seattle, Mashiko is what I would call a sushi bar with a sense of humor. It is also small and busy, which translates into crowded. When you first walk in, you are greeted by a sign that says “Please wait to be seated (unless you’re illiterate).” On a weeknight, if you don’t have reservations, expect to wait 40 to 50 minutes for a seat while you are penned in by a booth on one side and an ample aquarium on the other; you will be waiting, standing up, along with many others who keep piling in through the entrance, and soon you will assume a defeated-looking, hunched-over stance, occasionally glancing hopefully past the fish tank to see if it’s finally your turn. Overhead, a skylight is more than likely to show the pitter-patter of the city’s infamous rain.

Printed on the menu is a funny list of rules to be followed: Chopsticks are not drumsticks; Tip well…live long; After you eat, eat more; Soy sauce is not a beverage.

The first thing that caught my eye on the specials board was Geoduck sushi. I am as appalled as I am intrigued whenever I stumble across a baffling food word that is completely foreign to me (aren’t I supposed to be an expert, especially in the sushi arena?). I thought it was duck sushi at first; I was more confounded than ever when I learned from the waiter that it was actually clam.

Geoduck, pronouced gooey duck, is a large saltwater clam native to the Pacific Northwest, thereby explaining why I had never heard of it in the nether Southwestern region. Oh, what treasures we uncover when we travel! This is like the time I discovered Arctic Char Roe in Iceland, but I digress…

Kibinago sushi didn’t sound familiar when I ordered it with the Geoduck, but when it appeared, I vaguely recognized the small silver-striped fish from the herring family. I had tried it before at the celebrity-haunted Koi in Los Angeles and disliked it; it was rare and pretty-sounding but too fishy and metallic-tasting. The simple Geoduck, which tasted like regular clam to me, thankfully balanced out the outright exoticness of the other choice.

Both the Spyder and the Creamy Scallop rolls possessed only a mild garlic mayonnaise, but the Temptation Island roll—one of the most popular items—was slathered in a garlic sauce that has to be tasted to be believed. What’s more, the Temptation Island featured nothing but crunchy tempura onions on the inside, with albacore slices as its roof, so the double-punch of garlic and onions really makes an impact. A dish like this would probably be constructed inversely at most other restaurants, with fried onions thrown on top of an albacore-encased roll; this way, however, is far more efficient—the squiggly onions are snugly and tightly wrapped inside, while the sliceable fish sit neatly on top, not so likely to slide off.

Visit Mashiko of Seattle at (Now why didn’t I use that domain name?)

The Trump Towers and Bruce Lee Rolls

YAMA of Bellevue

In the neighboring city of Bellevue, Yama will blow you away with its three-part roll known as The Trump Towers. $16 may sound like a lot for three pieces, but you get a lot for your money; the tempura is rich and uber-crispy, and the size of the bites enormous. After deep-frying an extra-large California roll which is used as a base, deep-fried oysters are placed on top of each piece, then dabbed with a creamy Bearnaise sauce and accented with black truffle caviar. This roll wins the prize for combining the most unusual components. The usage of fried kaki on a roll is unique in itself; to introduce Bearnaise sauce is splendid. You feel full after one piece, but trust me, that’s just the oil and batter….

Only in this state would it be considered fitting to name a sushi roll after Bruce Lee (he is buried here in Seattle, after all); perhaps that is why they decided to call one of their featured dishes “The Bruce Lee.” With hamachi, tempura prawn, snow crab, chilis, garlic chips and “Fist of Fury” sauce, this legendary roll will slay your taste buds with its spicy ponzu sauce and fried garlic effect.

Business lunches may take place here during the day, but at night, Yama comes alive as a nightclub with three bars and a large outdoor patio. And while Yama may have a strong emphasis on Japanese cuisine, it is really an Americanized Pan-Asian restaurant—it even features Pad Thai and Korean Hamachi Tartare.

Cinco de Mayo Roll, Seared Tuna Sashimi

Blue C Sushi

Blue C Sushi, with locations in both Bellevue and Seattle, delivers more of the casual style that is customary of the “conveyor belt” restaurant. On yet another typically rainy day, I sought refuge—and sushi!—inside the Bellevue branch of this up-and-coming sushi chain. Robots are their theme, and for some cute reason I’m sure, little robot action figures can also be picked up off the conveyor belt along with your food.

Another cute gimmick: every month, the restaurant showcases a seasonal sushi roll. In April it was the “Egg Roll,” which suited the Easter theme; in May it was the “Cinco de Mayo” roll, a four-piece softshell crab ensemble with avocado, jalapeno, sprouts, masago, and a tangy red chili sauce.

While Cinco de Mayo still burned in my mouth, I plucked another item off the metal “belt”—a plate of seared tuna sashimi with garlic ginger soy sauce. For $4.25, you get three thick slices of tuna that is seasoned and cooked on the edges, along with their signature house-made dipping sauce. The least pricey plate goes for $1.50; fancier editions like Cinco de Mayo runs you $5.25.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Gigantic Botan Shrimp Sushi and Soybeans at Sushi Kuu in HONG KONG

Rare: Alfonsino, Akamutsu, Salmon Trout

Sushi in Hong Kong...

Many sushi aficionados are probably already well aware of this, but the sushi in Hong Kong is more innovative than the sushi in Japan. I uttered that same sentence just earlier tonight at Iroha of Tokyo, one of Studio City’s many fine sushi restaurants, and the chef vehemently disagreed. He was Japanese.

“I don’t think so,” he said as he shook his head. “I like traditional sushi.”

I pointed to the board behind him on the wall, a dry-erase board with colorful scrawls (and drawings) of their offerings—rolls that featured cream cheese, baked salmon, sauteed king crab—and I replied “I like the crazy Americanized stuff.”

This is not to say I dislike traditional-style sushi. In my previous blog I extolled all the freshness and rare fish that seem to comprise most of the menus in Japan. But sushi in Hong Kong is simply more hip and much more with-it, and based on my experience, sushi bars there abound like fish in the sea, and perhaps more importantly, are easier to locate based on English signage.

I hadn’t expected to like the sushi in Hong Kong all that much. I’d heard rave reviews from people about the Chinese food there (which was also fabulous, for the most part anyway), but never the sushi.

I stumbled upon Sushi Kuu, which shares a building with a nightclub, a billiards hangout, and a couple of boutiques (stacking businesses on top of one another is not an uncommon sight in Hong Kong), when I set off alone to wander about. I had just eaten excellent grub at a fancy Cantonese dim-sum house with my travel buddies, so I wasn’t exactly hungry—BUT!—I could always make more room for more sushi, couldn’t I?

The atmosphere was decidedly high-class, not casual—I could tell by the décor and the attire of the staff. I browsed their menu and quickly asked to speak to the manager. There’s a method to my madness. I explained to the man in the suit: I am a tourist who is here to try as many different types of sushi that is not available in the States as possible (according to their menu, there were quite a few), so I would like permission to order the nigiri one at a time, as opposed to the customary two-piece package deal. He had been acknowledged as one of the powers that be, so just as expected, he agreed. Yes!

First, I was given oversize soybeans I could hardly believe I was seeing. (For the less savvy, the quarter I placed next to the dish is there to show the scale.) Never in my life had I seen anything like this. It was a far cry from those tiny little things called edamame, usually ordered as a side dish but sometimes freely doled out as soon as you plonk down to eat.

Then, through the glass case on the sushi bar, giant prawns called “Botan Shrimp” stared at me with their insidious but dead black eyes, their spiky antennae seeming to jostle for space as they huddled together. They are gargantuan versions of the ama ebi, or sweet shrimp, which can found in most sushi bars in the States; because of their larger size, only one shrimp was needed to construct my single piece of nigiri—unlike with ama ebi, which are so tiny and narrow that two shrimps are required to cover that block of rice. The crustacean’s huge head, which got lopped off and battered and then deep-fried (this is also the normal way in which sweet shrimp are served), appeared later with a slice of lemon and ponzu sauce.

The botan shrimp definitely tastes superior to sweet shrimp (size matters?) and its texture is gooey and glutinous, just like that of ama ebi—unlike the tougher, chewier consistency of regular tiger shrimp.

I ordered more exotic fish—the Alfonsino (an orangey-red fish that seemed a cross between a snapper and a salmon), the Akamutsu (a silky, pink-and-silver number reminiscent of yellowtail), and the Japanese Salmon Trout—all in single-piece formation. Then the grand finale, which could not have been more perfect: a prawn tempura avocado hand roll, laced with Japanese mayonnaise and mixed with smelt fish eggs. Somehow, it was one of the most buttery and satisfying prawn tempura hand rolls I have ever had. It had the properly seasoned rice, the freshness, and certainly, they didn’t ruin it with the filler ingredient of imitation crab and the hyper-sweetening eel sauce, as many sushi joints in the States will do.

After some calculation, I assessed my single-piece botan shrimp cost close to $8, the salmon trout about $6, and the prawn tempura avocado hand roll about $14.


Stop the Car...

After that feast, I hopped into a taxi to head back to the hotel…and just two blocks into the drive, I saw it. A sign that read DOZO!—the word was foreign to me, but I could see through the windows that it was another sushi place. The façade of the place also seemed trendy, fun. (I’ve arrived at a point where I can pretty much tell from looking at a sushi restaurant whether it will be good or not.)

“Stop the car, I’m getting out here instead,” I requested of the confused cabbie. He didn’t care. I had tipped him. I jumped back onto the sidewalk, heavy of stomach, laughing at myself as I rushed right back into yet another heady sushi-binge. I’m an addict, what can I say?

I found out DOZO! essentially means “Here you go” or “Go ahead” in Japanese. So of course it makes a great name for a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant (some call this a “sushi train” restaurant).

One of my travel companions would hardly deign to eat at a place where the sushi had been sitting for a while on a conveyor belt, floating past would-be takers as it wilted. But I had been to countless such dives before, taking what others rejected as it literally passed them by, consuming shrimp tempura rolls that had been revolving round and round for so long that the shrimp was no longer hot…and nothing bad ever happened, I never got sick. So I decided what the hell.

The outcome of this risk was positive, my friends, and how. DOZO! also introduced me to Hong Kong’s penchant for searing sushi with that proverbial propane torch (it seems all the subsequent places after this one used the torch, which I hadn’t seen at Sushi Kuu). First there was the seared salmon sushi with grated Daikon radish and ikura adorning the top, and then the same fish torched with mini wedges of lime, rind and all, reminding me of the Lime Roll at Kushiyu in Tarzana. Then there was the oddly two-toned but tasty yellowtail sushi, garnished with mustard seeds and green onion.

A noteworthy detail: sashimi here sat on ice packs, ensuring its chill and freshness. Perhaps if they put ice packs under the nigiri and maki as well, my friend would make that jump. My total came to HKD $74 plus HKD $7 for the 10% service charge (standard in most if not all Hong Kong restaurants), which made the grand total about $12 U.S. Not bad for the phenomenal vittles.

Prawn Sushi Baked with Sea Urchin Sauce, Mango and Goose Liver Roll

Hanaita Sushi

Hanaita Sushi happened on another day, to everyone’s relief. And this is where I was introduced to the sauciness of Hong Kong, for an entire half-page of the menu was dedicated just to sushi baked with “sea urchin sauce.” I am not a fan of uni, but sea urchin sauce sounded interesting—it certainly looked good in the pictures in the menu, sort of like a burnt-mayonnaise, Dynamite-sauce-looking topping that coated everything. I ordered the Japanese tiger prawn sushi with sea urchin sauce (this was automatically one piece per order), and the colossal crustacean (non-fried head and all) made a perfect picture before making the perfect meal. I nearly swooned when I tasted the amazing sauce. It didn’t have that clammy uni flavor at all; rather, it’s comparable to a well-baked mayonnaise sauce, tinged with a hint of the sea. (Note: I revisited this place during the slow afternoon of another day, and this same dish didn’t taste as good. Perhaps they had a less experienced chef working, since it was during happy hour, when everything was half-price.)

The Mango & Goose Liver Roll may sound overly gamey and weird, but it actually rated pretty high in my book. The tart mango combined rather well with the soft and tender foie gras, which tasted like the fat on a steak, only without the oiliness. The mango sauce gave the dish a nice touch, and it actually overrode the taste of the shallots which sat on top of the roll in slivers.

There were still too many other specialties I didn’t have enough room to try—there was another page of sushi in the “Sauce Roast” category, which listed items such as “Sauce Roast Fish Dorsal” and “Sauce Roast Tuna Neck.” Hand rolls dominated a whole other page in the menu.

Fried Conch with Cheese; Lobster & Mango