Sushi, once exotic, is now as conventional as a burger and fries. Even in St. Louis, where saltwater is merely a rumor, you can have luscious, wallet-busting toro, supermarket prepackaged rainbow rolls and everything in between. And if the market is saturated, restaurateurs must be the last to know: The past year has seen numerous new sushi restaurants open — so many that I would have to dedicate a month of reviews to visit them all. Instead, over the next few weeks, I'll be tackling them two at a time.
I begin at Mizu, which opened this past summer on Washington Avenue. As befits a loft-district restaurant, the interior is spacious and sleek. Curving along the west wall are a bar and the sushi bar. A banquette runs along the east wall, and freestanding tables occupy the floor between the two sides. The décor is spare — too much so along that east wall, a long, high blank stretch painted in shades of bland. Though I was grateful Mizu didn't opt for hip house music or some other loft-district cliché, the pop music on the restaurant's sound system was loud, and occasionally abrasive. Eating nigiri sushi while listening to "Rhinestone Cowboy" is a particularly surreal juxtaposition.
The menu is lengthy: Not only is there the standard array of nigiri sushi, sashimi and rolls, but there are also appetizers — everything from Japanese gyoza to sushified jalapeño poppers — salads and entrées both Japanese (lots of teriyaki this and that) and Korean.
Mizu's nigiri sushi ranged from good to very good. Nothing was better than a piece of toro, fatty meat from the belly of the tuna, as fresh as an autumn morning and as supple as softened butter. Toro isn't cheap — the market price on my visits was $12.95 for two pieces — but it's a worthwhile indulgence.
Other pieces of nigiri sushi were distinguished by their clean, pure flavors and properly seasoned rice: salmon, red snapper, yellowtail. My only complaint is that, when I ordered the salmon and yellowtail together, both had enough wasabi between the fish and the rice to distract from each fish's flavor. When I ordered the salmon again on another visit, this imbalance had been corrected.
I tried two of the "Chef's Special Rolls." Unfortunately, as is this case with such rolls at most sushi restaurants, these favor style over substance. The lobster roll overwhelmed the lobster meat with too many squiggles of spicy sauce. It looked great on the plate, but the flavor lacked nuance. The "Volcano" roll provided more heat than flavor, with a spicy-tuna mixture that, really, could have been any fish. A small bowl of miso soup accompanies your sushi. This wasn't as rich as some I've had, but neither was it overly salty (in my experience, at least, a common flaw).
From the list of appetizers, I tried the gyoza, simply satisfying fried dumplings; and the jalapeño popperesque "Heart Attack." The latter are jalapeños stuffed with cream cheese and a spicy-tuna mixture (more of the latter than the former), given a light tempura batter and deep-fried. A sushi chef then splits each jalapeño in half, sets the halves on a bed of rice noodles sauced with sriracha and dresses the plate with several different sauces. The result is a riot of flavors: the jalapeño, the sriracha, maybe a wasabi aioli, maybe a sort-of barbecue sauce. Mostly, though, the result is hot.
Entrées include chicken, steak and salmon teriyaki, grilled mackerel and a strip steak. There are also a few Korean dishes, traceable to owner Eugene Yu's Korean background. Of these, I had the barbecue beef ribs, a generous portion of which are served sizzling hot atop a bed of vegetables. The meat was chewy, though not unpleasantly so, and had an excellent sweet-savory flavor.
One drawback is the service: On one visit I had to wait quite a while to be assigned a server; another time our main course was served mere minutes after our appetizers arrived. I experienced the best service when I was seated at the sushi bar. As fate would have it, this was my last visit, when I planned to eat no sushi at all.
Mizu isn't the first sushi place to open in the loft district, and I'd be surprised if it were the last. To understand how commonplace the cuisine has become, consider Ki Sushi, a small restaurant behind a nondescript storefront in the middle of a suburban strip mall. As I arrived for my first visit, I was struck that, had this strip mall been developed twenty years ago, Ki's spot might have belonged to a takeout Chinese joint. Today the presence of a sushi restaurant is just as unremarkable.
The interior is narrow, with seating for maybe two dozen and a few more seats along the sushi bar. The décor isn't particularly striking — I struggle now to remember details — but that isn't a complaint. What I like about Ki is that it stakes out a middle ground between a more traditional sushi restaurant (of which St. Louis has very few examples) and one that is as much a club or lounge as a sushi joint (of which, alas, we have too many). For sushi without the fuss, Ki is a far better option than premade sushi in a plastic tray.
As is commonplace these days, Ki's menu balances nigiri sushi with rolls both familiar and exotic. The specialty rolls come courtesy of executive sushi chef Nanda Nyunt, who has logged time at Miso and the Drunken Fish. (Ki is owned by brothers Anthony, Tim and William Phung, who also own Egg-Roll Kitchen.) Though I greatly prefer more traditional sushi to specialty rolls, I did like those I tried here.
A "Mediterranean Zeus Roll" had cucumber and salmon inside the roll; the roll's exterior features shrimp and shiso, an herb related to basil and mint. The contrast in textures between the exterior and interior was excellent, and I especially liked the shiso's verdant note. The connection between the roll's name and its contents, though, is lost on me. The "Strawberry Sweet Roll," on the other hand, is straightforward: an interior of shrimp and avocado and, on top, sliced strawberries and bright red roe. I might have added a hint of heat to balance the sweetness, but I enjoyed this more than I thought I would.
Ki Sushi's nigiri sushi is fine, if not exceptional. The rice was underseasoned, and none of the fish I tried — salmon, yellowtail and maguro tuna — crossed that hazy line from pleasant to revelatory. That said, it was all generally satisfying. Only an order of unagi disappointed, the grilled eel dressed with far too much barbecue sauce.
Is Ki worth the drive to Wildwood? Maybe not, when compared to some of my favorite sushi restaurants. But it would be just as fair to ask whether most St. Louis sushi joints are worth the drive from Wildwood. If there were more suburban strip-mall restaurants like Ki, there might just be hope for us yet.