Rewarding Risk

A cut above: Katsu Sushi
Kathy Easthagen
465 Wabasha St. N., St.Paul; 651.310.0111
Closed Mondays


A little knowledge isn't just a dangerous thing; it's also a terrifically annoying thing: Why, if I had a dollar for every sushi neophyte who has bitch bitch bitched to me that the Twin Cities offer only bad sushi, why, I could buy at least one of them a plane ticket to California to try some actual bad sushi. That'd show at least one of them.

Because you know what? You're confusing terms. Bad sushi, it's bad: Smelly, chintzy, featuring a mealy texture and served ice cold, to minimize the stink. Oooh, how I wish I could show at least one of them!

Because what we have here, here in the wealthy and conservative Midwest isn't bad; it's just expensive and conservative. We have safe sushi. Safe is not bad. No, I agree, safe is not the height of human achievement--Icarus, venture capital, the trifecta bet, I'm familiar with the whole risk-reward calculus--but safe is not the worst thing you'll ever find in a restaurant. And expensive? I mean, is there any way not to sound like a patronizing moron while explaining that one? Suffice it to say we're far, far away from where the sushi trees grow. I shudder to think how much gooseberries, wild rice, and the wild-caught Victorian foursquare houses of Fond du Lac are going for in Tokyo's Ginza district nowadays.

Which is why I hasten you all to think twice before you pooh-pooh Katsu Sushi, the new place across from the Minnesota Children's Museum in downtown St. Paul. On a first visit, it's easy to dismiss the place: Even though it's brand-new, there's something about it that seems dingy and old and 1987. The décor somehow goes straight past conservative into invisible, and the menu is arranged in a way that makes it seem deceptively expensive. But the fish is really top quality; it's a little bolder than what you'll find on most other local sushi menus; the food from the hot kitchen is good too; and judging by the food alone, the place is as good as our best sushi spots, like Origami and Fuji Ya, and it even raises the bar, at least a little.

Why? Well, gizzard shad, for one. Yup, I said gizzard shad. It's a small, shiny, silver fish that wears chic spots. It's like mackerel, marinated and pressed before serving, and, like mackerel or pickled herring, tastes dense and powerful and fishy, in that smoky, memorable way. I can't think of why we don't eat more gizzard shad around here; they taste so Scandinavian--a meaty pickled fish that would be perfectly at home on a boiled fingerling potato. But we don't, and I never would have, except that it came in the cheapest sushi combo, one that sells for $14.95.

Usually I hate the cheapest sushi combo. It's invariably nigiri of a boiled shrimp, that sweet omelet tamago, tuna, salmon, a piece of eel, a slice of octopus, and, off to one side, a California roll. Right? (You know it is.) But I always get it, because it's the lowest common denominator, and therefore an important comparison piece. At Katsu Sushi, though, it came with a gizzard shad, a piece of yellowtail, a rectangle of tuna that glistened like a ruby--I'm not kidding, a ruby--a gorgeous, buttery piece of salmon, a delicate square of flounder, a boiled shrimp that was sweet and tasted good, not just empty, a sweetened fried-tofu rice pocket, and a cucumber roll. A counter that sends out flounder and gizzard shad to just anyone? That's raising the bar.

Sitting at the sushi bar another night, I tried a few pieces of hotate--buttery pearls of raw, glistening scallop--which were perfect and creamy; and toro, fatty tuna, so rich it looked like the flesh of a plum, and so soft you could have cut it with a hard stare. As I sat at the sushi bar one night, complimentary little dishes of a spicy crab and masago salad sparked the appetite perfectly.

A couple of things from the kitchen were also knockouts: Tako-su, marinated slices of octopus on a little hill of seaweed salad and thinly sliced cucumbers, were tender and irresistible; a little bowl of sweet and savory kinpira gobo, matchstick French fries of burdock served in a soy sauce and chile-pepper dressing, was impossible to stop eating.

Shy diners will be relieved to hear I didn't find any difference in quality between the fish served at the tables and that served at the sushi bar, though I will admit that at the tables, I found the service a little chaotic. The servers and hostess dive at the tables to see if things are okay so frequently, it's sometimes hard to finish a sentence. But they also seem to do it so frequently that they're used to being waved away like gnats, leaving you free to stuff your mouth with ika tempura: Three incredibly tender sheets of squid fried in a lacy, ungreasy tempura style and served with tempura sweet potatoes, onion bundles, and a pretty fan of eggplant, were a bargain at $4.75, and would have made a full lunch paired with some rice.

One of the complaints I've heard from people who work near Katsu is that the place is pricey. I think it only seems like it is in comparison to places that have those budget $9 sushi lunches that are so meager you always feel compelled to add pieces; meanwhile, Katsu Sushi's katsu don is an almost overwhelming amount of food for $7.50, and the best version I've ever had. Katsu don is basically Japanese comfort food of the comfiest variety: It's a pork cutlet, fried, sliced, and served with an egg sauce over rice. In its worst versions, it's dry and incoherent. But here the eggy, scrambly, sweet, and chunky sauce unites the pork with a layer of tangy bamboo shoots and saucy rice, and the whole thing is just rich and reminded me of everything good about schnitzel and veal parmigiana. Remember veal parmigiana? I barely do, but I remember when I was about ten liking it a lot. The katsu don here provides the exact same experience. You know, I bet if they added a tempeh katsu the vegetarian world would beat a path to their door.

Actually, if I know anything about restaurants, I'd bet a couple of little tweaks could get this undeservedly quiet restaurant really humming: Candles on the tables, better organization of the too-long dinner menu (I didn't notice the oshinko pickle side dish or the nameko mushroom miso soup until I sat down to write this piece), one of those too-sparse $9 sushi lunches that come with soup and salad, and clearer highlighting of the vegetarian dishes. Then again, what do I know about restaurants, anyway? I've never run one. Hell, I never even had a childhood lemonade stand. But like I said, a little knowledge isn't just a dangerous thing--it's utterly captivating to its possessor.

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