Noodling with Yakisoba

Release Date: 2002-08-01

When you enter Sushi Zushi in the Colonnade, assuming it's not a jam-packed Saturday night, you'll be greeted with a chorus of shouts in Japanese from the waitstaff and sushi chefs. As startling as it may seem (and many potential diners took great pains to ignore it), "Welcome!" is their message. (Irasshaimase!, if you prefer.) Yes, with exclamation points. And it's typical of the restaurant's enthusiastic attitude. Get used to it.

The exuberance spills over into other areas as well. Despite a pleasant, minimalist decor featuring melon-toned walls, a laminate floor intended to emulate wide-board pine, and some black-and-white images of the sushi-making art, SZ doesn't come across as understated shibui. You can't sit at a counter to watch sushi masters assemble your order with deft hand and quiet dignity. In the place of deferential waitresses in traditional garb, there are kids in grey polos and black pants. And numerous items on the almost intimidatingly long menu, feature chipotle mayonnaise. Get used to that, too.

A plausible reason for the apparent chipotle aberration is that the owner was born in Mexico of Japanese parents and has also lived many years in Texas. The cream cheese that appears in at least 16 different items, with such Western companions as sun-dried tomatoes, smacks more of California. It's difficult to avoid, but with diligence you can.

One good way to take a more traditional tack is to start with the elegant Sea Garden Squid appetizer salad: tender pieces of squid, brilliant green and resolutely crunchy seaweed, a little sesame oil ... what's not to like? Even the presentation on a matte black plate was handsome. Presentation, in fact, has been carefully considered everywhere, with each order tailored to a specific serving dish. The Green Mussels Dynamite, our first encounter with the notorious mayo mentioned above, accordingly looked sensational. And they tasted equally good, ignoring the tendency of chipotle to dominate practically anything in its path. But the sleeper of the appetizer section was the agedashi tofu, ordered almost out of a sense of grudging duty. Super-silky in texture and served in a delicate broth with shavings of dried bonito and mere hints of ginger, this was a dish that managed to whisper and shout, all at the same time.

The house special yakisoba was also ordered out of self-imposed obligation, and though none was left on the plate, the stir-fried blend of buckwheat noodles with carrot, beef, and chicken had sweet undertones and a sheen of oil that seemed out of place in the company of the evening's otherwise clean and focused flavors; it wouldn't be ordered again if only for the strength of the competition.

Especially when the competition includes the stunning rainbow roll, a creature-like composition with a tail of shrimp and "scales" of alternating tuna, avocado, and salmon, all formed over a long uramaki, or cylinder of rice with a core of crab, cucumber, and avocado. Pre-sliced to facilitate eating, this edible rainbow is worth every penny of its hefty $10 price tag in visual appeal alone. Smaller, but still eye-catching, is the spider roll with its antennae of soft shell crab, a filling of avocado and a topping of chipotle mayo that, in this case, didn't totally dominate. More mayo is suspected in the spicy tuna roll as well, another inside-out composition featuring extremely soft tuna and peppery sprouts.

The usual complement of nigirizushi, or hand-formed oblongs of vinegared rice topped with raw (usually) seafood, is available at SZ, along with the sashimi that is simply fish without the rice, and you can inspect the raw ingredients at the prominent display case before making a decision. Makizuzhi are rolled in a bamboo mat with an outer layer of nori, or dried, toasted seaweed, and it's here that the flavor combinations get truly inventive (and the cream cheese comes to the fore). The San Antonio roll, for example, even omits the rice, and rolls salmon, spicy crabmeat, and sprouts inside a thin wrapper of cucumber. The jalapeño roll celebrates the Mexican connection with finely chopped chiles, crab, squid, and a coating of masago, or tiny smelt eggs. For the more classically inclined, however, there are simpler items such as the musubizushi, a rice cake with a triangular shape that is filled with either flakes of smoked salmon or pieces of Japanese pickle, then drizzled with a little sesame oil and briefly baked. The salmon version was good in a low-key way, but benefited with a shake or two of the house sauce, a kind of ponzu of soy with lemon and orange juice added. The standard wasabi (horseradish paste) and soy combo was especially good on the batterazushi, a box-formed rectangular oblong of rice topped with sublimely smoky eel. Share it; there's more than enough.

Yes, there are desserts at SZ, and of the two sampled, the mochi, or glutinous rice cakes filled with ice creams, were the most successful—in both visual and taste terms. Vanilla, cappuccino, and mango were the three flavors selected, and each revealed itself subtly through the translucent wrappers. The ice cream tempura, on the other hand, was "irrational exuberance" carried to an extreme. The core of green tea ice cream was fine in its own right, but the batter coating seemed stodgy and the strawberry jam topping frankly weird (chocolate, the other choice, would have been even stranger)—not to mention the train-wreck aspect of the plate after a few bites.

Still, as the old Japanese proverb says, if you have the pleasant experience of eating something you have not tasted before, your life will be extended by 75 days. Multiply that by all the new taste experiences at SZ that are indeed pleasant, and you can add significant life extension to a simple act of dining out. One could get used to that, too.