Monday, November 06, 2006

Sushi & Spice

Sushi AND spice? Sweet, I thought to myself, and counted down the days until it opened, one of the many new eateries blossoming at the CNU Village in Newport News.

A few months later, my husband and I decided it was finally time to indulge. Although it still looked dark from the outside, the interior was bright, open and airy. Smooth bamboo flooring extends back to the open sushi bar, where the chef cheerfully welcomed us in, inviting us to sit where ever we liked. Our waitress was soon with us, proffering menus, and taking our drink orders. Sadly, there was only plum wine available, so we opted to go with old faithful: Bud in a bottle.

Dave took care of checking off our selections on the sushi menu, while I perused the appetizers. Then, the wait was underway. The dining room was buzzing with the energy of two groups of college students, while the two waitresses seemed to be struggling to keep up. Fifteen minutes passed before our server finally returned with our beverages and took our orders..

I hadn't been aware that soup and salad came standard with sushi orders, but here they do. Miso soup has never really resonated with me, and this one was no different. Dave, more of a fan, found it to be a nice rendition.

The salads were very fresh, and came with the quintessential orange dressing. Once again, I typically don't care for the usually overly-sweet dressings, but this had a light touch with a pleasantly gingery background.

The first of the official appetizers arrived, an order of shumai ($3.95). The shrimp dumplings are delicately formed into small, squat cylinders, then steamed and presented with a dipping sauce. They proved to be an adequate beginning. Gyoza ($4.25) followed shortly thereafter, steamed dumplings filled with an undetermined mixture of meats, then pan fried. Instead of the usual crispy texture, these retained a frustrating chewiness, while the filling seemed very dense, almost pasty.

The waitress cruised back by the table, depositing a tiny bowl in front of us. Dave and I looked at each other in uncertainty-- all we could see were bits of seaweed, a slice of lemon and a smattering of orange roe. I used a chopstick to dig into the bottom of the bowl, then realized that this was our ika sansai ($4.25), or cuttlefish salad. The squid was nice and fresh, but vastly outnumbered by its accompaniments.

The moment of truth finally arrived in the form of sushi, sushi, sushi! The What's Up roll ($9.95) was composed of shrimp tempura and cucumber, topped with spicy tuna and "crispy" tempura batter. What the menu hadn't mentioned was that it also came covered in a disconcerting amount of spicy mayonnaise, completely overwhelming everything else. The bits and pieces of tempura weren't crispy, but sodden and perhaps a bit stale-tasting. Spicy tuna with cucumber ($4.95) turned out to be a shy, retiring wallflower, mild and unassuming.

In addition to the rolls, we also sampled some nigiri, the familiar fingers of vinegared rice that support a variety of toppings. The unagi, or eel ($4.00) seemed rather small and tasted dry, even with the drizzle of sweet sauce that zigzagged along it. The tuna ($3.95) and white tuna ($3.95) seemed to follow suit; they were withered, dull in flavor and didn't taste very fresh. Luckily, a heavy dose of wasabi-infused soy sauce was close at hand, and we used it in abundance.

I love sushi. I love independent business owners. This should have been a no-brainer. While the chef was very welcoming and personable, our waitress was lacking when it came to service, in no small part due to the attentions she was lavishing on a young male gentleman. There were long waits where we simply couldn't find her, and this was after the large tables cleared out. I had questions about three menu items, all of which she was unfamiliar with. She promised to check with the chef, but by the end of our visit, had only returned with one answer (teriyaki was indeed in the What's Up roll).

Service aside, the food was a greater disappointment. The appetizers were passable, but the sushi was a huge let-down. The sashimi seemed faded and dull, with the rolls following mostly in similar, bland fashion. The exception being the What's Up, which tasted only of the thick sauce that covered it. Good sushi should be an artful homage to the simple purity of its ingredients.
Not so much so here.

Additional photos may be seen here.


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