There's at least one upside to reviewing four sushi restaurants in three weeks (besides, that is, the nagging fear that my body contains more mercury than a barometer): I can now understand why the bluefin tuna is critically endangered.
I'd already eaten more than my share of bluefin tuna during the first half of this month's sushi expedition ("Roll 'Er Derby," October 9, 2008). But things spiraled out of control at Tani Sushi Bistro. Here I ate so much candy-pink maguro and dusky purple toro that even today I feel hung-over. It's an imaginary hangover, of course, but no less painful for that.
Tani opened in July at the Clayton address last occupied by Candicci's Italian restaurant. The space is longer than it is wide, with the sushi bar and bar tables in the front half and the dining room in the back. Both rooms have a laid-back lounge vibe, the bar very dark, the dining room brighter, with cushy banquettes. The service is friendly and efficient — a step above the usual new-restaurant hiccups.
The restaurant is owned by executive chef Jenny Eun Kyung Heckman and her husband, Eric Heckman. The menu features the expected selection of nigiri sushi, sashimi and rolls both familiar and unique, as well as a few appetizers and non-sushi entrées.
While I can be swayed by a unusually tasty roll, I tend to judge a sushi restaurant by its nigiri sushi, so on my first visit to Tani I ordered a selection of individual nigiri sushi. And, because I couldn't resist the name, the "Memoirs of a Geisha" roll.
First, I enjoyed a bowl of miso soup: rich, fragrant, not too salty. If nothing else, this month's sushi expedition has shown me that though miso soup will rarely knock your socks off, it's an underrated pleasure.
Then my sushi arrived, the precisely sliced fish arranged across an oblong plate: maguro, salmon, red snapper, hamachi. There was an additional piece, which I hadn't ordered; its shade of purple looked an awful lot like toro's. My server explained that this was bluefin tuna, a treat from the chef. I was grateful, if somewhat confused. Both maguro and toro come from the bluefin tuna; toro, which is further subdivided into chutoro and otoro, is the much sought-after fatty belly meat.
Later, I spoke with Eric Heckman by phone, and he explained that what the menu calls "bluefin tuna" is a better cut than maguro, but not quite as good as toro. This much was obvious during my lunch: The maguro and the other nigiri sushi I'd ordered were very good. The texture was supple, the rice was well seasoned and packed neither too loosely nor too tightly, and the wasabi was a hint rather than a bludgeon. But the bluefin tuna had that extra something — in this case, an especially buttery texture — that elevates a piece of sushi beyond "very good."
The "Memoirs of a Geisha" was impressive to behold. The roll is plump with tempura-fried soft-shell crab, and the pieces are topped with alternating colors of tobiko roe. Though it looked as though there was a lot happening with this roll, the delicate flavor of soft-shell crab shone through, with a definite edge of heat. Cream cheese, the bane of many a bland sushi roll, here provided a contrasting texture to the crunchy crab.
On my return visit, I tried two other rolls. Like the Geisha roll, the cucumber roulade had a striking presentation: a spiral slice of cucumber wrapped around cream cheese and salmon. The flavor didn't quite match the appearance, however, with each element competing to be the most mild. A traditional futomaki was more indulgent, pairing the sweetness of Japanese melon with the uncommon addition of sweet, savory crab meat.
Not yet knowing how the bluefin tuna compared to toro, I wanted to try them side by side. There was no bluefin tuna, our server explained as she set down our order, but the restaurant had just received fresh toro, so the chef had given us four pieces for the cost of two pieces of toro and two of the bluefin. A treat, especially as each piece of melt-in-your-mouth toro had a spike of flavor from a little sesame oil and two commas of chopped scallion.
I can still taste and feel that toro now. The memory might have to last me a while.
Kampai isn't a new sushi restaurant so much as a reinvention of the fairly well-known Sansui. This restaurant had two locations, the original on the ground floor of the Del Coronado building in the Central West End and a second location on Manchester Road in Rock Hill. The second location is now the home of Sansui's founder. The employees of the original Sansui bought the restaurant earlier this year and gave it a new name.
Regulars at the old Sansui might notice some cosmetic changes, but the restaurant looks more or less the same. The sushi bar occupies the center of the space. A bar is tucked into a corner to the right as you enter; tables and a few booths sit in front of and to the left of the bar.
Again, on my first visit, I tucked into a plate of nigiri sushi: maguro, red snapper, hamachi and mackerel. It's easy enough to tell good sushi from bad sushi, but as I said above, the line between very good and fantastic — or, in the other direction, from very good to good to satisfactory — is more difficult to pinpoint. At Kampai I found the nigiri sushi to vary between good and satisfactory. The individual pieces were fresh, but the flavors didn't pop. And several pieces were cut too thick. It was difficult to judge, let alone enjoy, the texture.
The roll selection is broad, but few of the choices stand out from the standard array of California, Philadelphia, etc., etc. rolls. On this first visit, I tried the "Central" roll. As befits its name, this was rather middle-of-the road, with (cooked) shrimp inside the roll and a sweet, tangy "cocktail" sauce drizzled atop it. On my second visit, I tried the more promising "Fire Dragon" roll, a spicy-tuna roll with unagi (grilled freshwater eel) on top, dressed with sriracha sauce. This was very spicy — so much so that I couldn't really taste the unagi.
Best was the "Kampai Special." All you need to know about this roll is that its interior features deep-fried lobster tail. It's indulgent, yes, though the light tempura batter keeps it from being overwhelming.
I also had better luck with nigiri sushi on this return visit. While nothing jumped into the category of fantastic, the pieces were the appropriate thickness, and a piece of salmon had that vibrant flavor and buttery texture that mark very-good sushi. Those seeking a sushi fix, if not a transformative experience, will find Kampai a rewarding destination.
For me, however, the tension between these two reactions — a pleasant sushi fix and a transformative experience — is what I take away from my multiple sushi visits this month. Has sushi become too commonplace? This isn't just idle speculation. This very week, three separate organizations issued consumer advisories on which kinds of sushi to avoid because demand has led to the collapse of fish stocks.
Most at risk? The bluefin tuna. Our love of this creature, from prepackaged supermarket rolls to the occasional toro splurge, has driven it to the point of extinction. It's something to consider the next time you sit down for your maguro fix.
I love maguro and toro and even, sometimes, those cheap prepackaged supermarket rolls. I love them enough not to eat them again for several years.