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It doesn’t mean raw fish.
If you already know this, forgive me. But in American culture, there’s a persistent and durn- nigh indelible myth that eating this exciting and healthful Japanese cuisine is the equivalent of wading into Tinker Creek and biting the head off of a live perch.
To be clear, this is not what sushi is.
Sushi is a category of Japanese food that is based around sticky rice cooked in vinegar. And yes, some of the things that are served along with this rice are indeed seafood that has not been cooked. But it would be a huge mistake to just dismiss this wonderful, diverse food based on such whispers and half-baked (or unbaked, as the case may be) innuendo. If you’re already a fan, you know what I’m talking about. But if you’re not – if you’re a newbie, if you’re scared, if you’ve just never been exposed – take my hand, trust me and come along as we explore some of the multitude of sushi on offer in and around the Roanoke Valley.
And to quote Douglas Adams in his indispensable “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” “Don’t Panic!”
Ben Gui Sushi
4353 Starkey Road | Roanoke | 540-772-6888
We had been hearing about Ben Gui for a couple of years, but had never heard the name. As far as I knew the formal name of the restaurant was “That Great Little Sushi Place Out Near Where Old Country Buffet Used To Be.” This was probably too much to fit on a business card or the sign out front, so owner Ben Chen opted instead to call his place Ben Gui.
Warmly lit and tastefully decorated with modern and not-so-modern images from Japanese culture, the dining room’s raised platform may suffer a bit from being a bit too tight, but it’s a matter of inches (and perhaps perception). The sights and fresh smells were enough to distract me from the close quarters. I was particularly charmed by the clock above the hostess stand on which the numerals had all been replaced by images of different sushi dishes. (My wife, it must be noted, was less charmed with my Krusty the Klown impression. “It’s a quarter past eel!” Classic.)
Our waitress, Jane, was a genuine peach. She was patient, informative and efficient. She had a great sense of humor and was gracious enough to pretend not to believe me when I said I was planning on stealing some of the dainty ceramic tableware. She directed us to a special appetizer consisting of slices of chilled snapper served with slivers of cucumber and avocado slices in a dark vinegar sauce. Light, fresh and delicious. Another more hearty appetizer from the menu was the wasabi shumai, steamed pork dumplings with plenty of juicy pork and a wasabi-flavored coating.
For dinner, Jane had recommended a Red Dragon maki (tempura shrimp with avocado and eel), and since it was listed with the specialty maki on the menu designated as “Trust Me Rolls,” I trusted her. And I’m glad I did. I’ll confess that I had never had eel before, but I was determined to try something new, and I went for it. The texture of the eel was a bit softer than I had anticipated, but the flavor was quite mild and pleasant. This allowed the flavor and crunch of the tempura shrimp to emerge, and before I knew it, all eight slices were stowed away.
My wife chose the “Dynamite” roll, which consisted of spicy mixed fish and masago (another type of fish), and she enjoyed hers as well. All too soon, the sushi and sake were gone, and we were promising Jane we’d meet again.
214 Market Street | Downtown Roanoke | 540-904-6254
At least once a week for the past year, an old high school friend of mine has been updating his Facebook status to indicate that he is at Wasabi’s and everybody he knows needs to join him. And I’ve always meant to, but I’m kind of a klutz with the ol’ computer and tend to get these messages about three days later. But after a fun night recently, I just might make an effort next time.
We got there pretty close to closing time, but our energetic and smiling waitress seemed happy to usher us to a table and get us fixed up. As is typical with downtown eateries in Roanoke, the dining room is narrow and cozy with a high ceiling, and the dark red and black décor gives off a warm and comfortable vibe.
Our spicy tuna appetizer was delicious, though a bit lacking in spice. If you’ve ever broken bread with my wife, you’ll know that she’s often gotten in trouble by challenging the servers in Thai or Mexican restaurants to “really spice it up.” So when she mentioned to our server at Wasabi’s (the very name of the restaurant is making my sinuses cringe in fear) that she hoped the entrée would be spicier, I was very familiar with the twinkle in the server’s eye as she uttered the phrase “habanero roe.” This, I quietly predicted, was going to be good.
And good it was. I had asked about the “Volcano” maki on the recommendation of a bike-riding buddy who haunts the place, and though it wasn’t yet on the menu (a future addition), our server was eager to show it off. My wife ordered this and enjoyed it a lot: tempura shrimp topped with a spicy sauce, this was a delicious selection and would have been a great choice for a beginner or intermediate sushi-ist. My “Lover’s” maki featured more of the spicy tuna, fresh avocado, and a mild sauce. A bit less adventurous, but still quite tasty.
Regarding the habanero roe, this was really tasty as well, though the heat from the peppers thoroughly dominated the mild flavor of the roe. A word of caution: If your chopstick has some of this on it when you accidentally drop it and a bit of the roe flies up into your eye… Well, just don’t do this. It hurts. It hurts a whole lot.
A bit of ice cream (red bean for her, green tea for me) was enough to dry up most of the tears, though.
125 Campbell Avenue | Downtown Roanoke | 540-400-8728
One of the newest players on the Roanoke sushi scene is Formosa Lounge Restaurant on Campbell. Owner Sam Hsu, who has lived in Roanoke for around 10 years, opened his restaurant just four months ago, but is already cultivating a group of regulars eager to taste new things and sample his varieties of sake. Half sushi bar and half Japanese grill, Formosa similarly blends old with new in its décor; the exposed brick indigenous to Downtown Roanoke blending with the modernist furniture and Asian design elements.
Though tempted by some of the grilled teppanyaki on the menu, I was a man with a mission, and bellied up to the sushi bar. We didn’t dine in, since the day’s agenda called for a soggy picnic (where was the sun this spring?), but Hsu was good company while I waited for the expert knife of the sushi chef to prepare my selections.
We tried a two pieces of smoked salmon nigiri, and the firm flesh of the fish was delicious, with just enough smokiness to complement – but not overpower – the delicate flavor of the meat. The “Joker” maki – scallops, spicy tuna, and avocado topped with eel sauce and flying fish roe – was very nice as well, all very fresh and light.
It was a bit quiet in the restaurant during my late-afternoon visit, but as Hsu left me to help another patron with a sake selection, he mentioned that the crowd usually picks up in the evenings and weekends. I’ll have to come back and see for myself.
14 Campbell Avenue SE | Downtown Roanoke | 540-345-6645
When I hear the phrase “happy hour,” I don’t think of sushi. I think of my bartending days and the clamor of unrepentant inebriates shouting my name to try to get one more 99-cent highball before 7 p.m. Similarly, when I think of Metro! on Campbell Ave., I also don’t think of sushi. I think of high-energy music, big crowds, and the night there that a locally famous public-access TV man-ape tried to steal my wallet. But I digress.
Imagine my surprise to learn that Metro! has a “Sushi Hour!” every day from 5:30 to 6:30! Most items are half price! And all sentences end in exclamation points!
No, I kid. There are two things I really dig about Metro! for sushi. First and foremost, the staff really knows their stuff. And not just about the food, but about the questions you might have about it. We sat at the bar during a recent visit and were quite impressed with how hard the bartender worked to walk us through the menu items and to anticipate the most likely questions and issues to arise.
But more importantly, their sushi menu is simultaneously inventive and accessible: more of their maki feature cooked items than raw ones, perhaps in a nod to the Western tastes that many diners bring to this type of fusion restaurant.
Moreover, items like the Crispy Beef Roll and the Sweet Potato Roll take seafood – the raw and the cooked – out of the equation, ensuring that even the sushi neophyte will be able to find something to sink his or her teeth into.
In addition to a number of specialty maki, the menu features some 15 selections of nigiri and sashimi (tuna, salmon, cuttlefish, octopus…) and several varieties of tezema maki, or thinner versions of the traditional maki roll.
We opted for the Crispy Beef Roll with stir-fry vegetables and scallions and the Cabo Tuna Roll, which was a real stand-out. Seared tuna and fresh cilantro and jalapeños with thin-sliced roasted garlic, all wrapped up in a thin, yellow soy sheet. Everything was a riot of colors and flavors.
1560 South Main Street | Blacksburg | 540-951-0068
Since Sake House left its long-time home in Salem and moved to Blacksburg, a short road trip was in order. Luckily, its South Main Street location in Blacksburg is just a half hour and change away from the ‘Noke. On a recent visit, as I was wiping my hands with the hot towel our attentive and friendly waitress brought, I spent some time checking out the menu and the surroundings. Austere white walls enveloped much of the room, and both the bar and the sushi bar in the newish building were a bit lacking in atmosphere for my tastes.
But luckily, the food had enough color and flavor to make up for this. Bragging some 19 specialty maki, along with a broad assortment of sashimi, nigiri and tempura, there was plenty on the menu to draw the senses.
For an appetizer, I lost my case in favor of the Rumaki, a deep-fried quartet of large scallops wrapped in bacon. Her argument: “You can get bacon and scallops anywhere.” My argument: “It’s large scallops. Wrapped in bacon. And deep-fried.” I’m still bewildered that I lost that one.
However, I’ve got to admit that the Wasabi Shrimp were pretty fantastic. Huge, sweet shrimp, battered and fried, and served smothered with a sweet and tangy wasabi sauce. And since there were five, we got to have fun fighting over who got the odd one. (I won that one. I have no shame.)
I got a little crazy and decided to try two pieces of ika nigiri. Ika, I’m sure you already know, is the Japanese word for squid. Now I figured if I love calamari, and I’m thinking of stepping outside my comfort zone, this is a perfect place to try it!
There was nothing wrong with it. It was fresh, and obviously well prepared. I did not enjoy it, but this says more about me and my damnable provincial Western tastes than it does about the restaurant. I am chalking it up to experience, and taking great pleasure in the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed everything else I had from there.
The “Christina” maki (why Christina? Our waitress either didn’t know or wouldn’t say) was very tasty; spicy shredded tuna and ripe avocado with a sweet tangy sauce. This was the most flavorful avocado I’ve ever had, and the tastes worked well together. Not to be outdone, the “Hawaiian” maki, coconut shrimp with mango, avocado and “our sweet home-made sauce” was also a hit. (This and the “Cowboy” maki, which features grilled ribeye steak, would be first-rate starter maki for the timid sushi noobs on your social register.)
Sushi Newbie Glossary
Sushi: Sticky rice cooked with vinegar. [Note the lack of the phrase “raw fish” in this definition].
Sashimi: Very fresh raw fish, sliced thin. You know how some restaurants use the phrase “sashimi-grade” when they want to brag on their tuna? That means it’s high enough quality to serve it raw.
Nigiri: Take a piece of sashimi, lay it on an oblong mound of sushi rice, bam! You’ve got nigiri.
Maki: Cylindrical roll of rice with seafood, other meats, and/or vegetables wrapped in edible seaweed or some other wrapper. Sliced into wheels. Sort of like that pinwheel fudge your Grandma used to make, but with less fudge.
California Roll: Common maki, usually containing imitation crab, cucumber and avocado. Good beginner sushi dish.
Wasabi: Often called “Japanese horseradish,” this green paste will hurt you if you don’t show it the proper respect.
Roe: Fish eggs. Oh, quit being a baby. It’s like caviar!
Sake: Rice-based wine, served hot or cold. Be careful with this until you really know what you’re doing.
Tempura: Anything battered and deep-fried. Vegetables, seafood, beef, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, whatever.