Sea Change: Miso on Meramec's new sushi chef is the best thing since sliced fish

Miso on Meramec

16 North Meramec Avenue, Clayton; 314-863-7888.
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tue., 5-10:30 p.m. Wed., 5-10 p.m. Thu., 5-10:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 5-9 p.m. Sun. (Bar open till 1:30 a.m. Tue.-Sat., midnight Sun.)

Sushi How-To: Chef Harris shows us how to make the Papasan roll. Slide Show.

Miso on Meramec
Salmon sashimi...$14
"Magic Mushroom Roll"...$13
"Araka Roll"...$13"
Papasan Roll...$16

Our order of salmon sashimi at Miso on Meramec came with the usual lump of wasabi paste stuck to one corner of its platter. You know it: unnaturally green and toothpaste-like but with the waxy surface and crumbly texture of Play-Doh.

Play-Doh wasabi has become such an integral part of the American sushi experience — swirled into soy sauce, a combination that looks like algae blooming atop an oil slick — that most of us never stop to ask why. The salmon sashimi certainly didn't need it. This was a simple, exquisite pleasure: The thinly sliced salmon had a clean, pure taste and a supple texture that yielded to the slightest pressure from the tongue. It required no accent.

But then our server brought us a small dish of what appeared to be, in the restaurant's dim light, more wasabi paste. In fact, our server told us, this was the real deal: freshly grated wasabi root. It did look different — a paler shade of green, with a looser, flakier texture. Our server instructed us to skip the soy sauce and dab the real wasabi directly onto the salmon.

The result wasn't what I expected. The grated wasabi root was stronger than its paste cousin — no surprise there — but it didn't overwhelm the fish. Instead, the wasabi and salmon worked in concert: a burst of heat chased by the fish's gentle sweetness — like the smack of diving into the water on a hot day, followed by the coolness under the surface.

A sushi revelation is rare enough here in the heart of the heart of flyover country. That this revelation occurred at Clayton's eight-year-old Miso is downright shocking. For the sushi cognoscenti, the restaurant-slash-nightspot was known as a pretty good nightspot.

Enter Eliott Harris. The Johnson & Wales University graduate worked at sushi restaurants on both coasts before returning to his hometown a few months ago to take over the kitchen at Miso. Here he has invested the menu with a respect for traditional ingredients (freshly grated wasabi, enoki mushrooms) and a welcome streak of creativity.

I wish I could claim credit for discovering what the restaurant humbly calls "The Miso Revolution." In truth, Miso was completely off my radar until it gained publicity for a visit by George Clooney during his St. Louis stay. But then someone told me about the new menu. "Told" isn't the right word, though. He was raving. Whenever I saw this person, he asked if I'd been yet. Equally intrigued and browbeaten, I put Miso on the schedule.

If you've never been to Miso, know that the restaurant is much larger than its narrow storefront suggests. You enter into a small room with only a few tables, usually empty, and a sign imploring you to join them downstairs. The staircase is a time machine, of sorts, taking you back to the heyday of turn-of-the-21st-century restaurant trends — in particular, the sushi lounge. The space is dark, the soundtrack pulses house music, the seating includes sofas and tables made from two overlapping glass discs, one about six inches higher than the other.

In other words, it still gives off the vibe of being a meat market for $30K millionaires. But don't let that keep you from visiting. The sushi substance transcends the style.

I must admit that, in general, I'm not a fan of the rolls so prevalent at American sushi joints — your Philadelphia, California and spider rolls. I'd rather concentrate on nigiri sushi, sashimi and traditional futomaki rolls. At Miso I happily ate my words. Harris' rolls, grouped together on the menu under the "Miso Revolution" tag, are the stars of this show.

The "Papasan Roll" is the standout. Inside is a straightforward combination of cucumber, avocado and snow-crab meat. Draped atop the rice outside the roll is a piece of striped bass. (The most underrated sushi fish, in my estimation: It possesses a lovely ocean flavor without being at all fishy.) Atop the striped bass is a sliver of raw jalapeño and a red-chile aioli. The top of the dish is lightly seared, imparting a subtle but enticing aroma as your server presents it. The contrast in textures between the jalapeño, the soft fish and the unctuous avocado is wonderful. The avocado and cucumber offer a cooling antidote for the jalapeño's heat, while the crab and bass anchor the roll with the perfect balance of sweet and savory.

Another common sushi fish that tends to play second fiddle to salmon, tuna and crab is hamachi (a.k.a. yellowtail or Japanese amberjack). At Miso it's prepared in a way I'd never seen, encrusted with wasabi peas to create the crunchy exterior of the "Shaw Park Roll." The texture and flavor — wasabi's sharpness without the searing heat — of this is so striking that the roll's interior (salmon and cream cheese) is beside the point.

The "Magic Mushroom Roll" looks more like a tray of stuffed mushrooms than what we commonly think of as a sushi roll. A blend of fresh salmon, crab, enoki mushrooms and avocado topped with red-chile aioli and lightly baked, each piece looks like a mushroom cap and yields a beguiling meaty, spicy flavor.

Miso owners Frank Romano and Brad Beracha are also partners in the upscale Clayton restaurant Araka, which explains the "Araka Roll." This takes standard roll components — tempura shrimp and cucumber inside the roll, salmon and avocado on top of the rice — and adds an unexpected ingredient: Asian pear. If the combination isn't as flashy as the rolls I've already described, it succeeds on its elegance, especially the crisp, sweet, graceful note from the pear.

The "Godzilla Roll" sounds ridiculous on paper, almost a parody of the American sushi roll. It contains eel, salmon, avocado, cream cheese, kani kama (you know it as imitation crab — or krab) and the familiar tiny orange beads of masago (the roe of capelin, a fish in the smelt family). All of this is then tempura-fried and served with a sweetened soy-sauce reduction. The roll lives up to its name: Each piece seems twice as big as a piece of a normal sushi roll. Yes, it has too much going on, lacking either the subtlety of the "Araka" or the textural and flavor counterpunch of the "Papasan" — yet overstuffed as it is, it is still much better than any ordinary roll.

You can still find your caterpillar roll or your rainbow roll at Miso, in a section of the menu titled "Miso Classics." Yet given the creativity at play behind the sushi bar, that would be a shame. Here, in one of the area's more conservative restaurant neighborhoods, is something refreshingly new.

And who knows? Visit Miso these days and you might even see someone as strikingly handsome and charming as international megastar George Clooney. If you do, stop by and introduce yourself to me.

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