Restaurant Reviews

Life Proverbs

As the old Japanese proverb says, if you have the pleasant experience of eating something you haven't tasted before, you life will be extended by 75 days. Never heard that proverb before, but real or not, Sushi Zushi milks it, turning dining into a full-fledged life-extension process. But for this to be true, you would have to contend with the old proverb common among Germanic tribes that says, "If you put some new thing into your mouth and are suddenly stricken with paralysis, unsure of whether to spit or swallow, then your life will be shortened one hour for every second of indecision, by two extra months if you swallow, and by four extra days if you spit--unless the person sitting across from you has a Texas right-to-carry permit, in which case all life measurements downshift into milliseconds."

From this you can deduce that the Japanese are optimists and the Germanic tribes represented a huge untapped market for antidepressants. This is why, when you walk into Sushi Zushi, you're met with solid walls of optimism. Every member of the staff says uerukamu, or some such word that is Japanese for "welcome" (there are at least four words for this). They also say arigato, which means thank you, only no one in the place seems to be Japanese and some members of the staff have to check with management to see what the words mean when pressed. Imagine if some sadist drilled them with Japanese profanity during the training sessions. It wouldn't matter; it all sounds poetic. And not even the men behind the sushi bar appear to be Japanese, so the offense would drop into the "what if a tree fell in a forest and no one heard it?" category.

Sushi Zushi was once Citizen, Mico Rodriguez's and chef Chris Ward's attempt to craft Frenchified Japanese cuisine. But many pleasant eating experiences did nothing to extend its life, and it was purchased by Al Tomita, who launched this three-unit chain in San Antonio. Near the end, Citizen's sushi bar was a chorus of clean, sharp pleasantries. At moments, it offered some of the best sushi in the city.

That bar hasn't changed much. The same curved back-bar with reddish slate embedded with hexagrams from I Ching, the seminal Confucian book of changes depicting success and well-being. The sushi, alas, has changed. Not that it isn't competent. It is. It's just a competence speckled with raw fish acne. (Saying on a Sushi Zushi T-shirt: "Life is too short for scary sushi." Indeed.) Some of it is warm. Some of it, like the flounder--strips of white fish with pinches of Asian basil--is sinuous and a little fishy. Octopus is tough, smelt roe is fluffy and separate. Bonito is topped with pinches of Asian basil.

Bonito is also called a skipjack tuna. With a deep red color and a rich racy flavor, bonito is seared, framing the deep rosy piece of fish in dull grey outlines. It flakes easily, even if it is a little dry. Hamachi (yellowtail) is buttery smooth and well-chilled. Yet this bar had no uni (sea urchin gonads). We asked for it at each visit and were told "yes, we have it," before the truth--"no, we don't"--came out.

The slices of raw fish and other sea creatures on the Sushi Zushi rice billets are generous. And the new elements are pleasant, so much so that you can almost feel the life extensions unraveling. These specialty rolls are things of beauty. Tiger Eye is smoked salmon and asparagus wrapped in baked squid. The warm squid has ridges and crunch, which slyly flirt with the vegetables within. The flavors are rich, and thin plumes of salmon smoke foil the sharp asparagus pungency elegantly. The roll pieces are seasoned with slight brushes of eel sauce. In the center of the plate, rising out of a cupped piece of rippled squid, are stalks of carrot and asparagus. Behind this a huge Asian basil leaf spreads, rising like an enormous fan.

Sushi Zushi roll is beautiful, too--a riceless thing served on an opaque glass plate. Instead of seaweed, the roll slices are bound in thin sheets of cucumber wrapping cream cheese, smoked salmon, asparagus, avocado and pieces of chopped imitation crab. The pieces ring long thin sheets of cucumber that are cupped and sharply pointed, rising from the murky plate like shark fins. The riceless demeanor is a pleasing departure from the sticky rice parade that dominates the typical sushi meal, an easy 75-day life extension.

But how does one calculate life extensions from a fish cheek? The fish cheek seems to be hacked from somewhere behind the gill. Meat of the hamachi kama, or yellowtail cheek, is spongy and dull on the top side. But flip it over, where that cheek is kissed by grill bars, and the flavor broadens. In some areas, the meat takes on a rich, gamy hue instead of clean sweetness, but this may just be the cheek's charm.

Yakimeshi rice is the value stud in this lengthy menu that includes yakitori, tempura, ton katsu (Japanese pork cutlet, a comfort food) but no teriyaki, which has become the standard emollient to allay sushi fears. The rice rests in a deep bowl, fried and studded with assorted lightly cooked vegetables: bell pepper, carrot and onion. Upon this is dumped a choice of chicken, beef and seafood or an assortment thereof--or not if you're strictly a vegetable eater. The chicken version is hearty, with white and quite a bit of dark meat. It's simple, well mannered and, at four bucks, filling. It's hard to get your jaw to move for four bucks at the typical sushi bar.

Sushi Zushi has an extensive sake list, from a handful of hot sakes to a long list of premium and cold sakes complete with tasting notes. Junmai-Shu, for example, has a round full taste that has great depth with no tail.

There's a wine list, too. Better: there are wine flights, which include Rieslings (Big bad German ones--good sushi choice), Texas wines, Cabs, Merlots, and Australian reds among others. Find a few unfamiliar wines, and you can easily strap a year onto the life extension.

Yet it wasn't long before the gluttonous life extension weevils attacked, the ones that chew and gnaw at your life expectancy, egging on the impulse to scrap your retirement deductions and invest them in a fish hatchery.

Soft shell crab is beautiful--like a bloom. The fried crab was fully dismembered, with its spindly bronzed parts carefully arranged like petals around a center mound of daikon radish shreds crowned with thin and twisted lemon slices like citrus origami. The shell is delicately crispy, the meat within lithe, sweet and unsodden. But it was laden with grease. It bled the stuff. The fingers sparkled, like a freshly waxed quarter-panel.

Teppan yaki is grilled meat in a swarm of bell pepper, onion, zucchini and asparagus. Salmon, orange pillow-like chunks that seem to hover above the veggie throng, was rich and delicious. You could feel your life slip away with the rib eye, though. Cut into stew-like chunks, the steak is dry and gristly. Instead of trimming the cuts, the fat globules were left to mingle with the meat. There they were, these spongy blooms of creamy fat, mimicking the bits of beefy burlap without a speck of meat on the fringe.

The heart quakes with visions of sudden arrest, leaving the proverb in a shambles. 3858 Oak Lawn Ave., 214-522-7253. Open 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Friday; 12:30-11 p.m. Saturday; 12:30-9 p.m. Sunday. $$$

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz