So Nigiri, and Yet So Far: Café Mochi bets there's room for another sushi joint on South Grand

Cafe Mochi

3221 South Grand Boulevard; 314-773-5000.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat. (Closed Mon.)

Slide Show
Step into the kitchen of Café Mochi. Slide Show.

Café Mochi
Salmon nigiri sushi...$4.50
"Spicy Octopus Roll"...$6
"Godzilla Roll"...$10
"Lemon Drop Roll"...$12

A friend recently asked me a hypothetical question: If I could eat one meal anywhere in the world, and price were no object, what and where would it be?

I would like to claim that I pondered the possibilities, weighing Tuscany against Mexico City, Paris against Vancouver, until my friend grew bored and wandered away. In fact, I answered immediately: "Sushi. From a grandmaster. One of those omakase meals."

I don't know that sushi is my favorite cuisine — though, really, that changes every day — but I certainly find it more fascinating than most. Not just the food itself, but the precise, meticulous preparations, a hushed ritual like something out of the old back-to-the-crowd Latin Mass.

Of course, I don't need to catch the next flight to Tokyo to sate my sushi jones. I don't even have to go to a sushi restaurant. At most supermarkets you'll find prepared sushi, some petals of pickled ginger and a thimbleful of wasabi paste tucked into plastic to-go containers. I'm not surprised that there is such a thing as a sushi vending machine, only that you can't find one in every office break room in America.

Yet sushi restaurants continue to open in swank downtown loft buildings, in suburban strip malls, in my neighborhood. The latest entry falls into the last group. Café Mochi opened in April toward the southern end of South Grand Boulevard's business strip. It occupies a new addition to an existing building at the northwest corner of South Grand and Humphrey Street. A sign overhanging the sidewalk announces the restaurant's name in neon-pink lettering.

The interior is a single dining room, which forms an L around the sushi bar. There are freestanding tables at the front, booths at the back. On my visits the patio facing South Grand was the most popular area. The décor is spare but colorful: The walls and chairs inside the entrance are a vivid magenta; toward the back, much darker colors dominate. Add an eclectic mix of mellow, head-nodding music, and you have a laidback vibe — think sushi lounge rather than a formal experience.

Unsurprising, then, that the sushi menu focuses on rolls. These range from the standard (spicy tuna, California, spider) to what I suppose you could term the "Can You Top This?" aesthetic of sushi-roll construction. Witness the "Kobe Delight," which includes shrimp, crab, squid and grilled steak. I opted for the (relatively) more sedate "Lemon Drop Roll." To a straightforward sushi-roll interior of salmon, crab, cream cheese and avocado, this adds lemon zest, which adds not only the expected citric flavor but also a surprisingly robust texture, almost a chewiness. On the outside is tai (snapper) with "honey wasabi" and a scattering of tempura crumbs. To be honest, I didn't taste or see any evidence of that honey wasabi, but the light, clean flavor of the tai paired well with the lemon zest, and the tempura crumbs added textural contrast.

The "Godzilla Roll" was quite busy — salmon, tempura-fried tuna and avocado inside; tuna, wasabi mayo, Sriracha sauce, smelt roe and diced scallions outside — yet here the effect was rather simplistic: very spicy, very crunchy.

In general I prefer more basic rolls. At Café Mochi, however, these disappointed. The "Spicy Octopus Roll" featured octopus that, while still chewy, was more tender than the usual specimen, but it lacked any spice — or, indeed, much flavor. The classic futomaki was unnecessarily cluttered, the traditional ingredients of tamago (a sweet omelet), pickled cabbage and radish sprouts crowded out by the addition of crab and shrimp.

Nigiri sushi were inconsistent. On one visit the sushi rice was appropriately seasoned (very lightly, with vinegar) and served not long after being formed. On another visit it was clumped tightly — the rice grains stuck-together rather than sticky — and cold, as if plucked from a refrigerator. In general, the fish itself was good, if not remarkable.

The variable nigiri and the sauces apparently missing from both the "Lemon Drop" and "Spicy Octopus" rolls are a few of the symptoms of a restaurant still finding its feet. On all three of my visits, a first round of drinks — nothing more complex than a bottle of Sapporo and a glass of iced tea — took forever to arrive. On one visit an order of unagi arrived after most of our sushi (ordered simultaneously) had been cleared; on another, soup was ordered but salad was delivered. This was more significant than it might seem: The miso soup is very good, but the house salad is dressed with some kind of electric-orange concoction that tastes a little like mango and does nothing for the greens.

In addition to the sushi menu, Café Mochi offers some Japanese dishes: teriyaki, tempura, various meats and seafood served over soba and udon noodles. These err on the side of simplicity. In the case of the gyoza, this was an advantage: The pork dumplings, pan-seared on one side, were a tasty appetizer.

The chicken in the chicken tempura entrée was quite tender beneath its jacket of crisp batter, but it lacked flavor; it was outshone by the tempura vegetables (onion, kabocha squash) that accompanied it. Likewise, a generous serving of soba noodles tossed with vegetables was preferable to the ostensible star of the dish, a chicken breast glazed with a generic, ever-so-slightly-tangy brown sauce. A grilled salmon fillet — ordered medium but served well-done — seemed to have no defining characteristics whatsoever, despite the menu's promise of lemongrass.

Stick with the sushi. It falls squarely into that range with which we Americans have become so comfortable: straightforward nigiri and rolls on one side of the menu, more ambitious, bigger-is-better rolls on the other.

I suppose this is exactly why I chose sushi as my dream meal. What I've described above is, for the most part, the only sushi I've ever known. So when I say that I want to have sushi at the hands of a master, what I'm really saying is that I want to have sushi for the first time.

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