Other Fish in the Sea

We seem to be in the midst of sushi mania. Two new restaurants—Seven and Musashi—opened recently, barely a block apart on Hennepin Avenue, which means that downtown Minneapolis now boasts at least a dozen sushi outlets. (The others; Koyi, Nami, Origami, Martini Blu, Wasabi, Ichiban, a sushi counter at Macy’s Marketplace, Zen Box, and two Tensuke Sushi locations.)

Raw fish is making new inroads into the neighborhoods as well, with Bagu at 48th and Chicago, and Obento-ya at 15th and Como. In St. Paul, the Korean restaurant KumGangSan recently added Sushi World to its name and installed a sushi bar and lunch buffet, following the lead of King’s Korean in Fridley. As the central cities get saturated with raw fish, new outposts of sushi open up in far-flung Woodbury, Maple Grove, Apple Valley, and Edina.

The tidbits of vinegared rice and seafood are everywhere these days—in supermarket delis, Chinese all-you-can-eat buffets, and even on giant party trays at Costco. But as sushi has made the passage from sophisticated and exotic delicacy to mass-market merchandise, something has gotten lost in translation. Most of the local sushi restaurants have little connection to Japan: The owners of Kikugawa, Musashi, Wasabi, and Mount Fuji (the last in Maple Grove) are Chinese; the owners of Koyi Sushi, Bagu, and Zushiya (the last also in Maple Grove) are Thai; and the sushi chefs themselves are from all over (but rarely from Japan). The food may look and taste the same—indeed, most local sushi restaurants serve the same varieties of fish and seafood, purchased from the same suppliers—but the little rituals that are part of the traditional sushi experience are missing.

So how do you go beyond the ordinary and find something more interesting, and less generic, than the stuff that’s offered on every sushi menu in town? You ask for it. In Japanese, the word is omakase, which translates roughly as “I am putting myself in your hands” or as we might say here, “chef’s choice.”

My top choice among the new sushi restaurants is Giapponese Sushi in Woodbury. When I asked for omakase, chef-owner Henry Chan immediately understood my request, and proceeded to serve up a delightful series of courses: raw scallop, Tasmanian salmon, halibut rolled in a thin ribbon of cucumber, a whole small mackerel presented as sashimi, and a roll of tempura shrimp and avocado topped with tuna.

Chan, who grew up in Wisconsin, recently moved here from Eau Claire, where he owns the town’s only sushi bar, the Shanghai Bistro. He clearly has a passion for sushi, and listening to him, he sounds truly committed to bringing in the best quality and most interesting varieties he can find. The selection is still pretty limited, but he says that as his sales volume grows, he will be adding more varieties. He sends an email to customers when he has something unusual to offer, like houbou (blue fin sea robin) from the Tsujiki fish market in Tokyo; to be added to his mailing list, send him an email at twinscroll@gmail.com.

I’d also return to Giapponese Sushi to try the Kobe beef steaks—a sixteen-ounce, bone-in New York strip and a fourteen-ounce rib eye are each $55. This isn’t the original Kobe beef from Japan, where the cattle are massaged daily and fed rations of beer, but it’s the same breed, Wagyu, reportedly with a lot more marbling than even USDA Prime. Chan gets his beef from a friend who has a herd of Wagyu near Augusta, Wisconsin. While $55 for a steak sounds pretty steep, compared to what other restaurants charge, it’s a bargain. Locally, Cosmos has imported Japanese Kobe beef on its menu for $17 an ounce (which works out to $272 for a sixteen-ounce steak), and even that’s a steal compared to Craftsteak in Las Vegas. There, you’ll pay $105 for a fourteen-ounce American Wagyu rib eye, $184 for an eight-ounce Australian Wagyu rib eye, and $240 for an 8-ounce Japanese Wagyu steak (yes, that’s $480 a pound).

Next stop, Musashi in downtown Minneapolis. I asked for omakase, and the sushi chef gave me a puzzled look. “Teppanyaki?” he asked—or something that sounded like that. (They have teppanyaki tables in back.)

“No,” I said. “Omakase.”

“We don’t have that.”

Just then, a second sushi chef, Noua, overheard our conversation and stepped in: “I can do that. How many courses do you want? How much do you want to spend? Four courses? Five?”

We never did agree on a price, but a series of off-the-menu dishes began to arrive, starting with a pair of martini glasses filled with chunks of raw tuna and salmon with thin slices of cucumber in a soy marinade. At the bottom of each glass was a fake ice cube with a little blinking light that changed colors from blue to green. (Actually, mine was stuck on blue.)

Round two was four pieces of raw salmon wrapped around spears of fresh mango, partially cooked with a blowtorch, served over leaves of aromatic Japanese chrysanthemum. The decorative centerpiece was another light-cube, flashing red, blue, and green, buried under a pile of shredded daikon. Then came a seafood medley covered in a spicy mayonnaise the color of Thousand Island dressing, dappled with orange flying fish roe. The flashing ice cube made its final appearance in round four, alongside four little rice balls wrapped in eel and white tuna. This was, the sushi chef informed us, “French-style sushi.”

I have never seen anything like it in France, but the phrase rang a bell. French-style sushi is also how the Chinese chefs at Mt. Fuji in Maple Grove described their neon DayGlo fantasies on the theme of sushi, festooned with red, green, orange, and black flying fish roe.

“Are you all from China?” I asked the Musashi chefs. “We’re from Asia,” sushi chef No. 3 offered, helpfully. “Not me,” shouted Noua, in perfect English. “I’m from St. Paul.”

Overall, some of the off-the-menu omakase dishes were pretty good, some of it was just okay, and mostly it was kind of weird. I did see a lot of “normal” sushi come out of the sushi bar while we were dining, and it looked the same as it does everywhere else.

The most stylish of the new entries in the sushi sweepstakes is Seven, on the second floor of the new r.Norman’s steak house at Seventh and Hennepin. The sushi counter is translucent marble, and white-curtained columns throughout the sushi bar and lounge bathe the otherwise dim space in diffuse colored light that cycles through shades of blue, red, and green—sort of like the fake ice cubes at Musashi, but on a grander scale.

Seven’s menu offers an impressive selection of sakes and a fairly standard assortment of sushi. I wanted to order omakase, but quickly discovered that omakase is already offered on the menu. We chose the sushi-for-two ($40): the chef’s choice of two specialty rolls and ten pieces of “sushi grade” nigiri sushi.

Omakase is a chance for a sushi chef to show some imagination and creativity, but this time around what we got was generic versions of the most popular sushi available: a tempura roll, a spicy tuna roll, and two pieces each of shrimp, tuna, salmon, yellowtail, and flounder. Our waitress mostly ignored us, as did our sushi chef.

Last stop: Obento-ya Japanese Bistro, a little storefront with a low-budget décor that suggests the minimalist aesthetic of Japanese interior design. The owners are a young American-born husband and his Japanese-born wife, and the place just feels more Japanese than most of the glitzier places around town. I splurged and ordered the most expensive item on the menu, the deluxe sushi bento ($12.95), which included six pieces of nigiri sushi and a California roll, plus green salad, Japanese potato salad, sautéed burdock, little wedges of Japanese omelet, and miso soup.

The sushi turned out to be pretty standard, but the rest of the menu is more impressive. First of all, it’s really cheap—most of the basic ben
to boxes are under $8, and udon and soba noodle soups are $4.95-$6.50. Second, there are a variety of traditional Japanese dishes that you can’t find at most of the other places—not just the variety of bento boxes and the noodle soups, but also a big selection of robata—skewers of meat, fish, or seafood, grilled or deep-fried ($1.50-$4.50 à la carte). The only thing that was missing was wine, beer, or sake, but I am told that should be fixed by the time this story is published.

Giapponese Sushi, 10060 Citywalk Drive, Woodbury; 651-578-7777;
www.giapponesesushi.com

Musashi, 533 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612-332-8772
Seven Sushi Ultralounge, 700 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis; 612-238-7777; www.7mpls.com

Obento-ya Japanese Bistro, 1510 Como Ave. S.E., Minneapolis; 612-331-1432;
www.obento-ya.com