Sawatdee on a Roll

Sushi Sawatdee
122 N. Fourth St., Minneapolis; (612) 375-9811
www.sawatdee.com
Hours: Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-1:00 a.m.; Saturday-Sunday 5:00 p.m.-1:00 a.m.; kitchen open till midnight, later when busy; happy hour 4:00-6:00 p.m. weekdays; sushi happy hour Monday-Saturday 10:30 p.m.-1:00 a.m.; Sunday 9:00 p.m.-1:00 a.m.

 

"Do we have to buy them drinks?" My friend clutched my leg under the sushi bar with alarm. We had initially headed toward a table off to one side of the restaurant, but the sushi chefs had beckoned us over to the then-empty sushi bar, so we went. "Don't we have to?" she seemed nearly panic-stricken. No, I told her, and let her wrestle with the specialty martini menu while the sushi chef and I discussed what we like, sushi-wise. My friend likes spicy things and I basically like everything, though sushi chefs in Minneapolis never believe that until you prove it.

An utterly thrilling procession of dishes flowed from the bar: A black platter of sashimi featuring tuna cut into elegant little rectangles; crunchy, seawater-scented slices of octopus; squid (ika) sliced tissue-thin and twirled into a white rose with a tobiko(flying-fish roe) red center; and fat little strips of yellowtail layered architecturally with razor-thin slices of lemon. A dynamite roll filled with fresh chiles and minced tuna was dangerously fiery, but also very fresh, and memorably good. Salmon and mackerel nigiri sushi--the familiar kind of sushi presented on a base of rice--were fresh and tidy. A pair of sushi mounds topped with flying fish and salmon roe--tobiko and ikura--were tied in bundles made with nori (the seaweed wrapping) that had been so recently fresh-roasted it smelled like ocean toast. The tails of the nori were left free and stood out like trailing flags, contrasting gorgeously with the springy, salty roe.

My friend was enchanted with a "Philly" roll the chef made for her--cream cheese and smoked salmon wrapped so that the rice faces out, the whole bundle rolled over a scattering of sesame seeds, coming out speckled like leopards. She was so charmed that she was soothed into trying, for the first time, a piece of unagi, the farm-raised imported Japanese eel that is always marinated in mirin, the sweet rice wine, and soy sauce, and then grilled. It was one of the best presentations of unagi I've had, for it was served still hot from the grill, the creamy flesh meltingly tender. "I thought it would be slimy," confessed my friend, her eyes wide, "but this is so good." Then, in the lovely give and take that had developed in our corner, she was rewarded for her bravery with a beautiful black ice cream cone of a hand-roll filled with her new favorite pair of fillings, the cream cheese and smoked salmon, dressed with sesame seeds. I watched her delight, when, quietly, unceremoniously, the dish I've been waiting for all my life arrived: squares of tuna piled in a pyramid, dressed in scallions, flavored oil, and a bit of soy sauce, topped with a raw quail egg. Drag the savory tuna through the egg yolk and you've got an incomparably rich, fine little treat.

By the time we staggered out of the door, sushi drunk, stuffed to the gills, and only about $25 lighter apiece (counting food only, and yes, we bought our chef a drink--but he more than deserved it, it was all I could do to keep my friend from running out to buy him a bouquet), my friend was mourning the years she had lost sitting at tables. "I've been totally misled. I had such a different idea of what sitting at a sushi bar was going to be like. I heard you had to buy the sushi guy drinks, flatter him--basically that if you sat there you became responsible for his happiness." I puzzled over this bizarre myth as we headed out into the night, wondering what other strange thoughts arose in the minds of people growing up in the sushi barrens of pre-1980s Minnesota.

I also didn't have the heart to tell her how much sushi-bar avoiders miss. For example, on a visit to Sushi Sawatdee only a week earlier, when I sat at a table far from the bar I got a meal I thought was both seriously lackluster and alarmingly overpriced. (Why did I do it? Hey, I'm trying to be anonymous here, and it's exhausting lying about my name and identity for hours on end, the way I had to when we sat at the sushi bar.)

On that earlier visit, miso soup ($2) had a thin broth that tasted raw and was unappealingly filled with onions; tempura was heavy and sodden. (It's available as a vegetable tempura appetizer for $5, with shrimp for $6.50, at lunch for $8.50 with vegetables or $12 with seafood, or in a dinner portion made with shrimp and scallops, and served with salad and soup, for $25.) That night sushi for two, a $32 combination, featured a few scant rolls of sushi and only ten nigiri pieces. A caterpillar roll of eel and avocado ($9.95) was all wrong, the rice both refrigerator cold and strangely soupy. A spider roll ($9.50) of fried softshell crab with asparagus, avocado, masago (smelt roe), and mayo was misshapen and sloppy.

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