Tuesday, June 2, 2009

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…

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