Sawatdee on a Roll

Teddy Maki
Sushi Sawatdee
122 N. Fourth St., Minneapolis; (612) 375-9811
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.

The only thing that was any good on the table was the rainbow roll--an off-the-menu, though always available, combination of avocado, salmon, tuna, and yellowtail, rolled inside out so the bright colors of the fish and avocado contrast. But that rainbow roll had better be good; it costs $15. Most dismaying, an entrée of grilled ahi ($22) featured an untrimmed tuna steak full of gristle, in a sauce so painfully salty it might as well have been pickle brine. Were we some second-stringer's practice table? It sure seemed like it.

When the bill arrived at $30 a head just for food, my dining companions swore they'd never set foot in the place again--this despite the warehouse-sexy space, flattering red lights, and oh-so-demographic-appropriate soundtrack of ever-cycling new-wave hits from the Eighties (Wang Chung, Missing Persons, Spandau Ballet, OMD--I think I heard "99 Luftballons" four times in the course of dinner). If you put a couple of cell-phone holsters and a double latte in the center of the table you could have just chucked our entire table, rainbow roll and all, into a time-capsule: Gen X, the flush, content-providing years.

I felt very grim about returning to the restaurant after that first visit, but now, of course, I'm glad I did. A tie-breaking third trip, this time for lunch, was again good, and confirmed my sense that the place is finding its way by simply throwing things out and seeing what works: Like the rainbow roll, and an afternoon happy hour of cheap drinks and appetizers. At lunch, a card presented with the menu advises that lunch bento boxes are available. The box I tried was delicious, and a good bargain at $9.75 for a tray with either a chile-marinated Korean pork cutlet with three pieces of tuna roll, or chicken teriyaki and three pieces of California roll, or a fried chicken filet with three pieces of tuna roll. Everything is presented in a lacquer box along with rice, a bit of green salad, three pieces of nigiri sushi (salmon, tuna, and cooked shrimp), a bowl of miso soup, and a side of sautéed vegetables. A dance with the Sushi Special ($17) at that lunch found a plate both generously apportioned, with eight pieces of nigiri sushi and a tuna roll, and textbook fresh. Yes, the dessert--the must-avoid Yummy Roll ($4.75)--was a refrigerator-stale pair of jelly-roll slices with fine green-tea ice cream, but you don't go to Japanese restaurants for dessert.

All right, well, maybe those fabulous sushi-bar hours are clouding my judgment. I'll admit there are still plenty of things for the young restaurant, which opened in March, to work out. Here's hoping they'll perfect their pallid miso soup soon; and the wine list is mostly inexpensive, common, and not particularly well tailored to the food. The four chilled sakes offered are good enough, but if there were more I'd be happier, especially since the place functions so well as a bar.

Want proof? Show up sometime for the late-night sushi happy hour, 10:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m., except on Sundays when it starts at 9:00 p.m. This is when most of the nigiri sushi is $3 for two pieces, the small rolls--like the dynamite rolls, or tuna rolls--are $3, and the big rolls are $6. According to the manager I spoke with on the phone, the place starts filling up at 9:30, everyone holding their ordering until, oh, 9:59 or so. And since the place tends to fill up with cowardly lions who hide at the tables, the opportunity is wide open for you to seize greatness at the bar.


BLIND ITEM: I heard from a reliable source that a certain award-magnet of a St. Croix valley restaurant is in lease negotiations for a downtown Minneapolis space. I promised I wouldn't spill the beans, but I hear the duo of famous chefs (who originally made their reputation in Minneapolis), are parsing real estate, and that once the ink dries they'll be looking for a chef to oversee the valley restaurant, while they bring their knives downtown...

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