Can someone who's dined on sushi in San Francisco and Shanghai find raw fish satisfaction in the Champlain Valley? I was skeptical. But a recent sampling of local sushi purveyors left me pleasantly surprised.
Three Burlington restaurants - Asiana House, Koto Japanese Steakhouse, and Sakura Bana Japanese Restaurant - offer traditional and modern takes on the Japanese specialty for both vegetarian and non-vegetarian diners. All three serve sashimi- or sushi-grade fish. Koto and Sakura Bana get their fish delivered through the same source twice a week. Asiana buys it every day in smaller batches.
Sushi is also widely available for take-out in the Burlington area - with varying results. Whether you're dining in or taking out, much depends on how long the fish has been sitting in the case and how soon you can get it into your mouth.
Koto Japanese Steakhouse
Koto, on Route 7 in South Burlington, is two restaurants in one, catering to carnivores and fish lovers alike. Seated at the sushi bar, I could hear the clang of spatulas and cleavers on the nearby teppanyaki grills, followed by sporadic applause from appreciative diners.
I started off ordering one-piece servings of toro (fatty tuna belly), tuna, yellow tail and mackerel nigiri. Because of its simplicity, nigiri is the true test of a good sushi restaurant. When my order arrived, I first inspected the edges for dryness and curling. The flesh should spring back when pressed with a chopstick. I know I'm eating quality fish when I bite into the whole nigiri and my teeth sink through the striated flesh like a knife through butter.
Toro nigiri is the flavorful, fatty part of the tuna served on a mound of rice. Mine was disappointing: It arrived finely chopped, like tataki or tartar, atop a mound of rice wrapped in nori, or dried seaweed, like a fish snow cone. Worse, chopping it called attention to the lackluster flavor of what should have been a delicious, top-grade fish.
After watching the New York City-trained sushi chef crank out a Rainbow naruna maki for another customer, I ordered one for myself. The orange, red, white and green swirls of salmon, tuna, yellowtail and avocado rolled in a long cucumber shaving was more pleasing to the eye than to the palate. The avocado was ripe and creamy and the cucumber refreshing, but none of the flavor combinations rose above the understated taste of the various fishes. Even the ponzu sauce, a mixture of soy sauce, lemon and rice vinegar, added only a faint zing of citrus.
Koto's rice is imported premium Japanese short-grain. It wasn't outstanding, but it didn't detract from the fish.
The night of my visit, the restaurant was busy, with sushi chefs frantically rolling and slicing, the teppanyaki tables filled to capacity. Despite the disappointing toro, I would return to Koto for the thick cuts of fish capping the nigiri. Another plus: The option of ordering single pieces of nigiri, rather than the traditional pair, leaves room for sampling a wider variety.
Sakura Bana Japanese Restaurant
Tucked away on the top block of Church Street in Burlington, Sakura Bana Japanese Restaurant evokes an old-school sushi house such as you might find in San Francisco's Japantown or New York City. The menu offers a modest selection of maki named after cities, states and baseball players. The Double Punch maki consisted of tuna, spicy sauce and tiny fish eggs called tobiko. Though commonly a bright orange, these were light green, hinting at the spicy bursts of wasabi produced when bitten into. Paired with the peppery heat of the spicy tuna middle, it was a heavenly combination.
But the restaurant's true talent came through in the traditional nigiri prepared by the restaurant's Japanese mother-and-daughter sushi-chef team. I tried tuna, yellowtail, mackerel and amaebi - raw sweet shrimp. The fish slices were draped elegantly over the pressed oval of rice, like weighty silk or velvet.
The strong-flavored mackerel was thoughtfully marinated. And the succulent sweet shrimp slipped easily from its tail into my mouth without requiring a lot of tugging and mess.
Of the three sushi restaurants I tried, only Sakura Bana's rice achieved the perfect balance of rice and sweet rice vinegar that plucks at the salivary glands without sacrificing the fish's natural flavor.
Sakura Bana is neither flashy nor hip. The décor is nondescript, with unexceptional Asian prints on the walls. But the steady stream of customers the two nights I ate there indicated that people were coming for the food. And with good reason: Sakura Bana satisfies with its delicious rice paired with fresh, quality fish.
While sitting at the counter at Asiana House, located at the corner of Pearl Street and North Winooski Avenue, I watched one sushi chef arrange maki in a martini glass while another brandished squirt bottles, from which he drizzled curlicues of sauce across a platter. Artistic, French-inspired presentation and a wide assortment of vegetarian maki are this bustling restaurant's strong suits. In addition to 16 varieties of house maki and 24 traditional rolls, the menu lists seven smaller-sized vegetarian rolls and five hefty, house-special vegetarian maki.
While many of the maki are those found on most sushi menus, Asiana House's chefs add creative and unexpected touches, such as fried tempura-batter crumbs, which add a satisfying crunch to the usual soft texture.
At first I was doubtful about the snapdragon maki, because its ingredients sounded too ambitious. On the advice of the wait staff, I ordered one anyway, and the first bite won me over. The crisp, flash-fried onions blended well with the raw tuna and white fish. The lemony, house-special soy sauce was drawn in a zigzag pattern across the roll. Broiling enhanced its burst of sweet and savory seasoning.
The Puti maki, an ample roll combining zesty seaweed salad, lettuce, creamy avocado, asparagus, carrot and salted strips of tempeh, hit all the right notes of taste, texture and color.
Refreshing and light, the vegetarian Lo Han maki married the sweet tartness of pickled daikon with the smokiness of shiitake mushroom. It was simple and small, yet packed with flavor - a nice change from the fat rolls with a half-dozen flavors to process.
The sweet shrimp, yellowtail, tuna and mackerel nigiri were all fresh and satisfying, but not the highlights of the menu. The sushi rice was acceptable, if not particularly memorable.
Asiana House has a trendy vibe, and it imbues its expansive maki and nigiri selection with culinary flair. The broad and thoughtful vegetarian maki choices are an added bonus.
Sushi would be the perfect take-out food if only it microwaved well. Rice should be eaten hot, or at room temperature. Refrigerated, it takes on a hard, grainy texture and regresses to the unappetizing taste of uncooked rice.
To make the most of take-out sushi, it's best to have it made while you wait, or else to buy it at a time when you can snatch a just-made container before the package goes on display.
Sakura Sushi & Kitchen in Williston, the take-out branch of Sakura Bana Japanese Restaurant, has great grab-and-go sushi prepared in small batches using the same beautifully seasoned rice served at the Burlington restaurant.
The noontime I was there, I picked up a spicy shrimp roll, broiled spicy scallop, a California roll and spicy tuna. All the elements tasted as they should have. The tempura crumbs in the shrimp were crunchy alongside the cooked seafood, the avocado was green and not blackened, and the fish was tender.
The broiled spicy scallop was less successful: It had way too much mayonnaise dressing and, in spite of its name, was far from spicy. However, because I bought it right after it was made and set out, the rice consistency was perfect.
Grocery store sushi is provided by H.J. Sushi. The company manages the sushi production at both Burlington's City Market and the Price Chopper on Shelburne Road in South Burlington. Sushi maker Hon J. meets the challenge of keeping the rice soft by making it fresh every morning. Although it's a bit too vinegary for my taste, I can vouch for its freshness. In fact, when I sat down to eat it almost an hour after picking it up, it was still slightly warm to the touch.
From City Market, I tried the Burlington Combo (California rolls and salmon and tuna nigiri), avocado and inari maki (thin, deep-fried slices of tofu seasoned with a soy sauce marinade), eel roll and raw tuna roll.
In the nigiri that came in the Burlington Combo, the rice was way out of proportion to the wispy slice of raw fish. That was too bad, as the salmon and tuna looked and tasted good. In the avocado and inari maki, the delicate avocado flavor disappeared against the soy-sauce-marinated tofu skin. More avocados would have provided a complementary creaminess to the salty tofu filling.
The eel roll was my favorite part of this sushi lunch. Usually, eel maki is dripping with the brown sweet eel sauce. My serving had just the correct light-handed application of the sauce to highlight the eel's grilled seafood flavor.
From Price Chopper I chose a Tokyo roll, a Benihana roll (California roll with raw tuna slices on top), a tuna, salmon, shrimp and red snapper roll with broiled eel on top, and a seaweed salad and cucumber roll. The selections disappointed on several fronts.
The sushi had been made and refrigerated that morning. By the time I'd purchased it and driven home to eat it, the contents had warmed to room temperature. The rice had congealed and gone mushy. The seaweed salad and cucumber roll was the only maki that retained all its flavors well. The sliced raw tuna on the Benihana roll looked tired and wilted. And the strong flavors of the fish eggs and salmon in the Tokyo roll clashed with one another to produce a strong, fishy taste.
Bottom line: Even the most sophisticated sushi eater can find raw fish satisfaction in northwestern Vermont. You just have to know where to go - and when.
Fish: It's easy to be impressed by a restaurant's long menu or great ambiance, but when you're ordering sushi, it's all about keeping it fresh. Be as discriminating with sushi served at a restaurant as you would when buying fish at the store.
Reputable restaurants serve premium sashimi- or sushi-grade fish that's immediately flash-frozen to kill parasites. Unfortunately, there are no state or federal regulations defining "sushi grade." When the frozen fish arrives in port, the distributor determines this classification based on the fish's texture, fat content and color, among other characteristics. The best gauges for determining a fish's freshness are your nose and your palate.
Don't be shy about giving the dish a good sniff before you dig in. The quality of raw fish could mean the difference between a memorable dining experience and a long night spent in the W.C.
Sushi Varieties: For newbies, navigating a sushi menu can be intimidating. Some understanding of the different sushi species can go a long way towards reducing the fear factor. Sushi comes in a variety of styles, including stuffed, loose and pressed. Those you're most likely to find on a local menu are nigiri and maki. Nigiri is a small fistful of rice topped with a slab of raw fish or seafood. Maki, which means "roll" in Japanese, is strips of fish or vegetables wound tightly in a sheet of dried crisp seaweed. The roll is sliced into bite-size pieces.
Gari: Sweet pickled ginger, or gari, is a ubiquitous sushi accompaniment. The spicy tumble of thinly sliced root comes dyed a brilliant pink or left its original, pale color. It's a palate cleanser, not a salad or a side dish. Piled on top of nigiri or maki, its strong, sharp flavor overpowers the subtle character of raw fish. For a tasty flavor flow that doesn't compromise the expensive raw fish, try popping a piece in your mouth after a bite of fish and rice.
Wasabi: Nothing satisfies like the heady, sinus-clearing rush of this green horseradish paste, except maybe a good sneeze. Wasabi is used to spice up the soy sauce in which sushi pieces are dipped, but it's sometimes also smeared between the rice and fish on nigiri. Like pickled ginger, this spicy paste should be eaten judiciously; heavy-handed use can overpower the taste of the fish. On the other hand, if the fish is of lesser quality, pile on as much soy sauce and wasabi as you like.
Sushi Rice: It may look like plain old white rice, but it's not. Each master sushi chef concocts his or her own secret recipe using ingredients such as sweet rice vinegar, kelp and sugar to balance the astringency of the fish.
When in doubt: Sushi is a simple meal with complex flavors. If you feel overwhelmed by the menu, ask the wait staff or the sushi chef for recommendations. And don't worry about using chopsticks. In Japan, sushi is traditionally eaten with your fingers. That's why wet towels are handed out before the meal.