251 First Ave. N., Minneapolis
Now, I am not talking about the bigger things. No. Not the Enrons, the wars, the irksome, constant suspicion that perhaps Dick Cheney is really in charge, or Donald Rumsfeld, or the first George Bush, or someone we can't clearly see canoeing through an ocean of refined oil. No, not that.
I am talking about only the littlest things. Only those. But as far as the littlest things, the littlest things that fit right into your very own mouth, my God, we are in an unprecedented uptick, aren't we? Consider: At almost every grocery store, fresh salsa and artisanal bread have become de rigueur; there's Niman Ranch pork at the innumerable Chipotle Grills, though the naturally raised meat was previously available only in fancy-tablecloth restaurants; and does anyone else remember how as few as five years ago every local restaurant had a beer list that was basically a palette of corporate corn water, and now almost everyone seems to carry Summit?
And every six months now, like clockwork, another new sushi restaurant opens in the Twin Cities, and it's in some way better than the others, and competition makes the others get better, and--voilà!--sushi around here is literally twice as good as it was five years ago. An undeniable state of uptick.
For example, Nami opened this spring on the corner of Third Street and First Avenue in Minneapolis's Warehouse District, and suddenly the style quotient for sushi bars has been effectively doubled. The place is in the striking, renovated former Minnesota Center for Book Arts, once a carved-up industrial space, and now a vast open warehouse with soaring ceilings, tile floors, a muted earthy palette, and a general air of slick and contemporary. It feels a lot like Ciao Bella or Zelo--actually, like a brand-new design showroom, artfully lit, accented with Japanese raku pottery and seashells.
The seashells refer, obliquely, to the restaurant's name, as Nami means "wave" in Japanese. (A tsunami is a big wave. Question: If you are in a wave eating many fishes, are you a big fish or, perhaps, a shark?) Nami is a family affair, run by 24-year-old Ji Young Choi for her parents, Dae Myung and Sung Soo Choi, longtime owners of the Korean grocery store Seoul Foods, in Fridley. The Chois coaxed longtime Los Angeles sushi chef Aki Fujimori to relocate to Minnesota to helm the kitchen.
"We're a family business, not some big corporate restaurant," said Ji Young, when I talked to her on the phone for this story. "What we wanted most was a place that you could come to and have a full dining experience. At almost every sushi place in town you're rushed through the experience. We wanted Nami to be a place that's inviting and warm and you can linger. Have a drink in the bar before or after your meal, take your time. Sushi shouldn't be a dine-and-dash experience."
After a handful of visits, I can say that in general the sushi is as good as that at any of our local places in the first rank, like Origami, Fuji-Ya, Sushi Tango, or Sakura. Salmon sashimi was one day a heaven of silky butter, another day just okay; raw scallop was one day glistening with fresh sea taste, another day just okay. But that's how it is everywhere. If you're a pure-fish lunatic, I still say a good day at tiny St. Paul underdog Katsu Sushi is our gold standard. But for dates, parties, and business lunches, I can't say anywhere is better than Nami, especially if you get a couple of the grilled-fish dishes, which are fantastic.
The best is the "butterfish," a miso-marinated fillet of black cod that's cooked in sweet sake, then grilled. The resulting piece of fish is as tender as a loving glance; salt, earth, and caramel edged to an insistent point; and simply delectable. The dish is available only on a separate specials menu right now, for $7.95, but Ji Young Choi says she plans to add it to the permanent menu because feedback on it has been so fantastic: Get that butterfish.
Another standout is the tuna tataki, ($10.95) here a strip of tuna about the size of a banana seared on the outside and sliced into medallions, each stood on end and sauced with a combination of lemon juice and soy sauce. I've had this dish half a dozen ways--raw, cooked, pounded, covered with raw egg, with scallions, with flavored oils--and what was nice about this version was the simplicity and the attention to the flavor that cooking added. There's a distinct smoke edge from the grilling that enhances the tuna without overwhelming it.
The kitchen seems to have a real affection for unagi (grilled freshwater eel, imported from Japan), cooking to order and fussing over each piece, and the lunch special of una-don is amazing: a vast plank of sweet, rich, gamey-enough-to-be interesting, subtle-enough-to-be-light eel served hot on a bed of rice. Yum. (Never had eel? Imagine a halfway point between halibut and dark-meat chicken, but really, really good.) At $9.95 for lunch with both miso soup and salad, it's also a remarkable bargain.
It seems to me like all the sushi combinations are quite a bargain, too, and hooray for them for offering both soup and salad with each mixed platter. You'll pay $11.95 at lunch for six nigiri sushi pieces, a maki sushi roll, miso soup, and a mixed salad. One dinner combination costs only $19.95 for ten nigiri pieces, a maki sushi roll, miso, and salad. Nami also features a full run of standard tempuras ($6.50 as an appetizer; $8.95 with soup, salad, and rice at lunch; $12.95 to $17.95 at dinner), teriyakis, and such. Everything I tried in that vein was perfectly fine. Service was impressively friendly and attentive for a brand-new place, and while the wine and sake lists need work, overall Nami is a very pleasant addition to downtown Minneapolis.
Really the only complaint I could make about the place is utterly esoteric, namely that Nami doesn't quite feel like anywhere yet. While all our other sushi spots of note have a palpable identity--the playful Tango, intimate Origami, genteel Sakura, neighborhood hangout Fuji-Ya--Nami so far just feels new.
But there I go, talking about the bigger things. And right after I promised not to. Is that fair? Hardly. Nami does a lot of little things right, and there comes a point in life when you must appreciate all those little things, the little butterfish, the little eels, or you will never have any fun at all.