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 http://www.sushiwhore.com/. (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.