Much can be written about the vast sea of sushi. Nigiri, sashimi, maki – all command volumes about individual styles and Japanese regional influences.
But when I consider complexity and interest in texture and flavor – the components that draw me to food of all cultures – I think of maki rolls, those cylinder-shaped rice rolls stuffed with fish and vegetables. Maki appeals to neophyte and expert sushi lover alike because they can be simple and accessible to most palates (think shrimp tempura roll), or complicated and challenging (think unagi roll with a double dose of eel).
Maki can be sour and sweet, savory and spicy, mild and creamy, crunchy and chewy, raw or cooked. They can vary from kitschy to traditional. The components of maki reside in a sushi chef’s palate. Their tastes, training and preferences drive the ingredients and flavors that make maki so interesting.
Here, then, a look at three South Sound sushi restaurants with three sushi chef/owners who take different approaches to maki. Go online to blogs.thenewstribune.com/tntdiner for extended reviews and more maki fodder.
TwoKoi Japanese Restaurant
The fusion sushi restaurant with a Korean-Japanese-French flair.
Where: 1552 Commerce St., Tacoma; 253-274-8999; www.twokoi.com
Hours: Lunch served 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday-Friday; Dinner served 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday
Jackie Young Koh always wanted a fusion restaurant. And now he has that in TwoKoi, where he merges his Japanese and French culinary training with his native Korean palate.
“There were no fusion restaurants here, and I really wanted to try it,” said Koh, who previously worked at Tacoma’s Fujiya.
Add one more culinary twist to Koh’s repertoire: Midwestern.
He went from preparing French cuisine in upscale hotels in Seoul to a Japanese restaurant in Chicago, where he honed his sushi skills for an American palate. Only trouble was that Chicago is a difficult place to get many kinds of fish, which is why he created his signature Angus (beef) roll.
From Chicago, Koh moved west where fish is cheaper and plentiful and diners more receptive to the artistry of sushi – he also likes the weather here better. After five years at Fujiya he opened TwoKoi with a business partner in 2006.
Koh’s menu is full-force fusion – diners can find rosemary and lemon-butter sauce right alongside carpaccio and poki. Koh’s food is inventive, playful and broadly appealing. His flavor play extends to his maki, too.
The menu offers about 25 rolls, a handful of which are unique to TwoKoi. Here’s a sampling:
Salmon Lover’s Roll ($13): Hands down, this was the best maki roll I sampled for this series. Salmon belly and crunchy cucumber are rolled up uramaki (rice on the outside) style and topped with thinly sliced salmon and a lemon-onion sauce that is an intersection of bitter, bright, sour and sweet. The artistry is in the details for Koh – a tiny bit of pith and peel are left on the small bits of thinly sliced lemons, lending a complex contrast of bitterness to the undertones of sweetness from the grated onion and salmon belly.
Angus Beef Roll ($15): Koh nods to his Chicago roots with this kitschy Midwestern meat-and-potatoes spin on a maki roll. He sautés Angus beef with soy sauce and sesame oil and combines it with onions, bean sprouts and Japanese noodles before assembling it into a uramaki roll and topping with very thinly sliced beef and crunchy-crispy-fried potato straws. It’s a savory, meaty treat – and is a meal in itself. This roll would be a perfect introduction to sushi for the reluctant carnivore in your party.
Lava Roll ($12): Cucumber, pickled radish and yamagobo (pickled burdock root) make for a crispy-crunchy-bitter contrast of the vegetables in this uramaki roll with the creamy richness of the poke sauce – chopped tuna mixed with a spicy sweet chile sauce.
Spicy Tuna Roll ($8): Chopped tuna is combined with a spicy sauce that had just the right amount of heat, and the uramaki roll was nicely crunchy with minced green onions, crunchy cucumber and little bursts from tobiko.
Tempura Shrimp Roll ($7): A ubiquitous menu item at most sushi restaurants, but Koh transforms the roll into a study of perfection – crispy, crunchy sweet shrimp rolled up with tobiko roe and crunchy cucumber.
Things to know: A sake list of more than 40 varieties. The scene: TwoKoi is a sophisticated and warmly decorated upscale Japanese restaurant. Sushi is served on beautiful dishes and careful consideration is paid to presentation.
Gari of Sushi
Inventive Osaka-style sushi with saucy overtones
Where: 1209 S. 38th St., Tacoma; 253-475-3456
Hours: Lunch served 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Dinner served 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Gari of Sushi chef-owner Kazuya “Kazu” Kamada calls his Osaka-style sushi more assertive than other styles, and he delivers in the form of bold ingredients and custom sauces with secret ingredients.
In Kamada’s sushi universe, rolls are more fish than rice and sauces add dimension that renders soy sauce unnecessary.
Kamada began his sushi career in Osaka more than 20 years ago learning from sushi masters. The flavors of Osaka sushi, Kamada said, are more a study in contrast than they are complementary. In Tokyo, for instance, diners might be treated to sushi with a sour flavor paired with a complementary sour flavor – a one-note flavor experience. In Osaka, contrasting flavors of sweet and sour or spicy and sweet greet the diner’s palate.
Kamada opened Gari of Sushi in 2002 and experienced a setback in December 2007 when an electrical fire closed the business. The restaurant reopened in August 2008 with a new look, but everything else more or less is the same.
Kamada’s menu has about 40 maki rolls, a dozen of which are signatures that diners won’t find at another restaurant.
Electric samurai ($11): Salmon, sea bass, crab and black tobiko form a rich interior in contrast with the chewy seaweed and crunchy tempura bits outside. It’s a study in textural layers. Each bite yields a creamy, rich crunch, while the flavor plays salty-sweet.
Complex ($12.95): This roll pairs decadence with crunch. A chopped lobster salad contrasts nicely with crunchy asparagus and chewy tempura barbecue eel. A layer of shiso leaf surprises with its minty flavor. Topped with a copious pile of black tobiko, it is at once rich, salty and lightly sweet.
Mango Paradise ($13.25): Soft paired with another soft ingredient work together – mango and salmon make a creamy match. Tempura softshell crab adds a crunchy richness that, like the electric samurai, makes the roll a textural treat. Topped with wasabi-spiked tobiko and a spicy sauce, flavors zigzag nicely between sweet and spice.
Spicy tuna ($5.95): Kamada gives it a textural treatment with avocado, adding a creamy richness to the already rich and spicy chopped tuna interior.
The scene: Gari’s after-fire remodel gave the already nice restaurant an added modern spin, with light-colored wood floors, comfortable and roomy booths, beautiful glass art and more dining space with the removal of a lounge.
Sushi for the newbie, palatable flavors for all
Where: 20649 State Route 410, Bonney Lake; 253-891-2046
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sundays.
Sushi Town’s chef-owner Trapper O’Keeffe has two approaches: Contemporary and accessible.
He said his niche is with maki rolls for the average sushi diner. “A lot of traditional sushi can be intimidating for first-time (sushi eaters). In Bonney Lake … there’s not a traditional Asian population. I’m catering to the people who haven’t had sushi.”
It’s also budget friendly. O’Keeffe keeps prices low at his restaurant, which opened in August 2004.
O’Keeffe got his start in sushi at his brother-in-law’s restaurant in Reno. His brother-in-law, an Osaka-born and trained sushi chef, taught him the contemporary craft of sushi rolls, which O’Keeffe brought with him when he came here to open the Oasis Sushi Bar at the Muckleshoot Casino in 2000.
As for Sushi Town’s menu, it’s heavily focused on the maki, with more than 40 specialty rolls, all accessible to many palates.
Mount John ($9.75): This crystal shrimp roll is covered with tuna and octopus and topped with an addictive sweet, creamy cooked scallop salad with green onion and tobiko. Every time I eat there, I want a bowl of the scallop-tobiko mixture that tops the Mount John. The scallop topper also comes on the Mt. Rainier and Trapper maki rolls and the Jason hand rolls. My advice: Try them all.
Timmy Roll ($8.95): Spicy (artificial) crab, tuna, salmon and yellowtail in tempura and a spicy garlic sauce. It’s a flavorful roll, but the artificial crab should be ditched.
Captain Crunch ($9.95): A decent flavor and textural pairing with King crab, cucumber, avocado and tobiko, and a solidly good crunch from tempura bits.
Sonic ($7.95): This unremarkable roll with tempura salmon in a garlic sauce with cucumber and tobiko absolutely fell apart when picked up with chopsticks or hands. Note to kitchen: Roll tighter, please.
The scene: Strip mall atmosphere in a bustling busy restaurant. Even on a Sunday afternoon or Monday evening, this place always seems packed. What it lacks in fancy atmosphere, it makes up for in speediness and budget-friendly maki.
Kid friendly: It has one of the best children’s menu I’ve seen at a sushi restaurant. Six choices, two of which are sushi options (with cooked sushi).
Sue Kidd: 253-597-8270
Maki (Also called make or maki-zushi or long rolls): A layer of rice wrapped around interior ingredients, or a layer of nori seaweed wrapped around rice and interior ingredients.
Norimaki: A roll with a seaweed wrapper on the exterior. Filled with rice, fish and/or vegetables.
Uramaki: Inside-out roll – rice on the outside with nori on the inside and filled with fish and/or vegetables.
Futomaki: A supersized or very large roll.
Temaki (also called hand rolls): Raw or cooked fish and sometimes rice or other ingredients served inside a nori seaweed cone.
Sashimi: Raw or cooked fish served sliced, and artfully displayed (without rice).
Nigiri: Raw or cooked fish served sliced, and draped atop mounds of rice.
Vegetables and roe
Shiso: Leafy Japanese herb.
Daikon radish: Crunchy white vegetable with a radish bite.
Yamagobo: Pickled burdock root.
Tobiko: Flying fish roe.
Masago: Roe from smelt fish.
Wasabi: Green, spicy condiment with a bite similar to horseradish that will bring tears to the eyes. Use sparingly if you’re a newbie.
Pickled ginger: Pungent pink or white slices of pickled ginger root. 1. Don’t know what to get? Ask your server to be your guide. Or, sit at the sushi bar and order omakase style, where the sushi chef serves you sushi of his or her choice.
2. Eat mild rolls first, then move to more complex. If you start with a spicy tuna roll, the sweet nuance of a kappa maki (cucumber roll) will escape your palate.
3. Go ahead, eat with your hands. Kazuya “Kazu” Kamada, chef owner of Tacoma’s Gari of Sushi, said that using your fingers to eat maki is perfectly acceptable (so long as your hands are clean). Regarding nigiri, Kamada recommends dipping fish-side-down in the soy sauce, then placing the nigiri in your mouth, fish side to your tongue.
4. Ask about ingredients. I was surprised at a few sushi restaurants when I ordered a crab roll, but got krab instead. Has it become acceptable to just substitute artificial crab without telling the diner? It certainly seems that way. If in doubt, just ask to be sure you’re getting the real deal.
5. The Health Department did not make me write this, but I feel compelled to mention that consuming raw seafood might increase your risk of foodborne illness. And it’s worth mentioning that medical professionals advise pregnant women to lay off the sushi. That being said, eat wisely, sushi lovers.
Sue Kidd, The News Tribune