Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Sushi Gallery of Rotorua, New Zealand

When in Rotorua, stop by Sushi Gallery, where a friendly Korean owner and sushi master takes pride in filling display cases six days a week with everything from Teriyaki Salmon Inari to Chicken Tender Sushi wrapped with a band of seaweed—all sold by the piece. You can pick up a pair of tongs and a flimsy clear box and grab a single piece, or fill up the entire container if you so desire. The box is so flimsy, it doesn’t even snap shut—a piece of scotch tape is used to seal it when you take it to the counter to pay for it. There’s also a “Party Pack” available if you want to fill up a large round platter and take that to go (these, thankfully, look like they come with a snap-on lid).

The sushi prices here seem to range from NZ $.90 for a piece of Teriyaki Chicken Roll to NZ $2.50 for Salmon Nigiri. The most unusual item? Probably the Spring Roll sushi for NZ $1.90 (two tiny spring rolls sitting on a block of sushi rice, held together, apparently, by the ribbon of seaweed that encircles it all). It is such a work of novelty that I want to laugh and coo at its cuteness at the same time.

A smaller heated display case offers six different types of snacks, most of them fried-looking, from crab nuggets on skewers for NZ $1.50 to onigiri for NZ $3.50. There are also prawn dumplings and shrimp shumai.

“Ginger wasabi?” the owner asks as you pay. “Soy sauce?” The soy sauce comes in little squeezable fish-shaped containers with mini red caps that unscrew. (I infer that the ones I’ve seen with the green caps are the low sodium soy sauces.)

I decline the powder wasabi, the ginger and the soy sauce, but assent to the “honey sauce” and Japanese mayonnaise. He squeezes the mayonnaise onto the Deep Fried Crab Stick sushi I chose, then dribbles some kind of honey syrup into one corner of the box before taping it shut. (Later, I dip the Spring Roll sushi into the honey sauce, which goes perfectly with it. The honey sauce, in my opinion, actually goes well with everything.) I’m given a bowl of miso soup, a napkin, a pair of chopsticks, then it’s time to leave the tiny shop—most customers that sidle in, I notice, take their sushi to go, for there aren’t any tables inside. (The sign does say “Sushi Gallery: Japanese Takeaway.”) Outside, there are a couple of wooden tables at which to sit.

I love the “Pineapple Avocado Cream Cheese Roll” for NZ $1.50 and the “Deep Fried Crab Stick Sushi” for NZ $1.90, because they are unusual. I love them all, actually, because this is a fun, inexpensive way to try multiple types of sushi, though you do have to get here early for the best picks from the fullest display cases. The first time I went in happened to be right before closing time. The owner looked aghast when he saw that I was taking photos of near-empty cases, the arrangements were wonky and a few pieces were tipped on their sides. “Come earlier next time,” he said, embarrassed.

Like Melbourne, Rotorua maintains the strangest “trading hours” for restaurants that I’ve ever seen—open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays.

I went in at 9:20 a.m. on a different day and the owner was still in the middle of the displaying process, lining up each row of sushi and putting up the corresponding name and price signs. Rotorua is a slow-paced town, where one feels relaxed, never in a rush, for everything, it seems, is within walking distance or a short bus ride away. People are friendly in this laid-back, touristy atmosphere, where time seems to stop.

Outside the restaurant, you might catch a whiff of air that’s tinged with the scent of sulfur, thanks to the city’s geothermal activity, which seeps from cracks in the streets (though the smell is only extremely noticeable when you visit a thermal park).

Sushi Gallery
1230 Tutanekai Street, Rotorua, New Zealand
+64 7 348 2828

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