For the first week of the New Year, we thought it appropriate to have a week of First Bites.
Here are first impressions of three restaurants that opened in December: Sushi World and Sumay Fine Indian Cuisine, both in Puyallup; and Merende, the small-plates restaurant in downtown Tacoma.
Extended versions of these reviews appeared online on the TNT Diner blog this week.
Know of a new restaurant that the TNT Diner crew should check out? Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
729 River Road, Puyallup
It’s unusual for Puyallup to land a sushi-centric restaurant – especially one that has no teriyaki on the menu. Yes, that’s right, a startling revelation – a Japanese restaurant in Puyallup, with no teriyaki on the menu, or katsu, or donburi, or yakisoba or the usual things that many hybrid sushi restaurants offer. It could be a risky thing to open a restaurant in a town that embraces strip-mall teriyaki.
A handful of nigiri choices and a few baked dishes do grace the menu, but the menu is mostly maki – more than 50 different kinds of rolls. (For sushi newbies: I use the phrase maki generically to describe those cylinder-shaped rolls stuffed with raw or cooked fish, vegetables and sometimes other less conventional ingredients. They’re wrapped up inside rice and sometimes seaweed (nori).
Sushi World doesn’t take itself seriously. It goes kitschy with names of several rolls, and the menu is even laced with PG-13 profanity that a family newspaper can’t print, which is quite a departure for a restaurant in Puyallup (I’m as shocked as you are).
There are a few ways to dine at Sushi World. Diners can sit at the counter and order all-you-can-eat sushi, which seemed an economical choice at $17.95 per person. It looked like a decent selection of nigiri and maki on the all-you-can-eat menu, but I opted to order just maki from the lengthy menu.
Ryan’s special ($13) was a typical shrimp tempura roll with the addition of spicy crab, cucumber and topped with slices of avocado and yellowtail tuna. The shrimp was fresh, but the crab was of the krab variety. A follow-up call to manager Patty Won confirmed they do use artificial crab in their rolls, but she said customers can inquire as to which rolls are made with real crab.
The Hawaiian roll ($10.50) is a must order. The texture was silky and creamy, but with just enough interest from crunchy vegetables. Raw tuna was rolled with cucumber, avocado, yamagobo and scallion, and it was topped with more raw tuna. The yamagobo, Japanese pickled burdock root, added a really distinctive crunch and a sharp, but not distracting, flavor in contrast to the creaminess of the tuna. It was nicely presented, like the other rolls, on a black wooden sushi board.
From the fried menu, The Who’s Your Daddy creation ($13) falls solidly in the kitsch column. It was shaped like an oversized shrimp, coated in a golden brown crust and deep-fried. Inside was shrimp, chopped fish, cream cheese – served with a spicy sweet sauce. It was a hot gooey mess. Watch out for dripping hot cream cheese.
For a next visit, I have my eye on the Johnny special ($13), a spicy soft-shell crab roll and topped with albacore and a garlic ponzu sauce. Also intriguing was the Something Wrong #7 ($13), a roll with spicy soft-shell crab, cucumber and topped with five different kinds of fish. It sounds very … interesting.
Sumay Fine Indian Cuisine
12623 Meridian Ave., Puyallup
It’s a dining miracle when a maki sushi restaurant and an Indian restaurant open in the same week in Puyallup. The Puyallup restaurant scene always has been a market ripe for culinary interest. An Indian restaurant, especially an upmarket one like Sumay, is exactly what Puyallup’s South Hill has needed.
Sumay is in the old Noodle Corner Thai restaurant in the same strip mall as a martial arts school. Sumay’s new owners remodeled the interior, muting the décor for a more sophisticated vibe. Dark wood floors – paired with an earthy palette on the walls and fabric curtains on the windows – lend an appealing, welcoming atmosphere. Like the former Noodle Corner before it, the kitchen is small and busy, which is difficult to mute in a small 28-seat restaurant. A soundtrack of Indian music did help drown the minor kitchen bustle (it was not overly distracting, just noticeable).
The menu is solidly northern Indian, heavy on Punjabi dishes and focused on higher-end preparations and presentations. Prices are a bit higher than some Indian restaurants in South Sound – in the $12-$15 range for entrees – but the restaurant is higher-concept. A lunch buffet will begin in a few weeks, owner Ramesh Kumar told me this week. This is the fourth restaurant for Kumar. He also operates Indian restaurants in Silverdale (Gandhi Indian Cuisine), Vashon (All India Cafe) and Bainbridge Island (Spice Route).
We started with the keema samosas, pastry filled with spiced, ground lamb and spiked with peas. They were flavorful and rich and made even better from a drizzle of the tartly sweet tamarind sauce from the condiment tray.
A standard northern Indian lamb curry ($11.95) was a solid choice. Tender lamb chunks came in a rich, tomato sauce heady with garlic, ginger and onion and an aromatic blend of spices. Unlike many Indian restaurants that use a lot of cream or oils to add richness to a curry sauce, this curry had less fat, but was still deeply flavored from the tomato-based sauce. Kumar told me the restaurant uses less cream and oil in its cooking in a nod toward more flavorful, but healthy, Indian home-style cooking.
Lamb curry is one of those dishes that must be enjoyed with basmati rice, but it comes as a separate side. You can order the rice plain ($2.50) or as pulao or biriyani (more complex rice dishes, many with meat). At our server’s suggestion, we ordered the pulao rice ($4.95). It was buttery (perhaps too much), and bright yellow from the addition of saffron threads and spiked with cumin seeds, peas and onions.
Garlic naan ($2.75) was perfectly cooked in the tandoori oven – puffy and smoky charred, and covered with minced coriander leaves and chopped garlic. It made for a great pairing to scoop up the bhartha ($9.95), a vegetarian roasted eggplant dish that was creamy rich and mildly spiced. It was a perfect balance of sweet, creamy and aromatically flavorful.
The dinner for two appears bargain priced at $37.95. It comes with a samosa or pakora appetizer, tandoori chicken, a choice of chicken or lamb curry, a vegetarian dish of your choice, naan, rice and dessert. A vegetarian version also is available for $32.95.
Il Trattoria di Merende Restaurant
813 Pacific Ave., Tacoma
The small-bites restaurant may be new, and the owners, too, but the kitchen is manned by Jeff Bishop, a recognizable toque from around town – formerly of Il Fiasco on Sixth Avenue and Brix 25 in Gig Harbor.
You can go big or small at Merende – a great strategy to attract all kinds of diners. The menu features flatbreads, full dinners and a small-bites menu.
On my visit, a dining partner had to depart for a movie at the Grand. We ordered hastily from the small-plates menu, and the server guided us through a few choices that would come fast (and they did, as promised). We appreciated her guiding us, she was intent on making sure our companion made his show. And her service, throughout the meal, was friendly and knowledgeable.
After our time-pressed dining partner left, I lingered with another friend over our wine and dessert. I like a restaurant where dining options are offered in tiers. Eat a little very quickly and rush off to your event, or linger longer with a more substantial plate, dessert and a port to top off the night – Merende is good for all of the above.
Diners will recognize Bishop’s food from his previous restaurant tenures – incredible ingredients, but prepared simply and straightforward. Diners who ate at Il Fiasco during his stay will recognize his grilled asparagus with pumpkin seed oil. The larger-plates menu looked downright delicious – beef short ribs ($26), rabbit and mushroom risotto ($22) and braised lamb shank ($24) looked very appealing. Flatbreads, priced at $10-$14, also got my interest.
But we stuck with the small plates – a very interesting selection of nibbles.
We started with a mushroom risotto ($6), a sizable mound, deliciously creamy with goat cheese and studded with wild mushrooms. It was the hit of the table. Sautéed calamari calabrase ($8) had a nice kick to the sauce –from hot peppers – and was laced with a just-right dose of garlic. Absolutely delicious. White bean salad with garlic and herbs ($5) was straightforward, and perhaps a bit bland, and seemed one of those menu items that perhaps aims to please everyone’s palate (cheap to prepare and filling). Garlic seared white prawns ($9) with marinated fennel was also a bit of a miss, with slightly overcooked prawns and fennel that lacked flavor.
The presentation was not fussy and actually was a bit one-dimensional with the same herb garnishes used for each dish. But Bishop’s emphasis is on ingredients and flavors, not fancy presentation.
The restaurant has a gorgeous bar and is a beautiful room with exposed brick and great overhead lighting, but I wonder why a restaurant would select a light-colored carpet for the dining room? It’s only been open for a few weeks, and the carpet is already showing wear. How unfortunate. Extending the beautiful tile into the dining room would be a good call.
On a next visit, I would spend more time perusing the extensive wine menu. Dessert also is an interesting selection for the end of a meal. I nibbled on an orange saffron cake ($6) that was buttery, rich and divine. Next time, I’ll linger even longer.
Sue Kidd: 253-597-8270