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Shag Sushi Shines as a '70s-Themed Snacking and Drinking Den

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When new sushi joint Shag went up in the North Loop, everybody cried, "What do the 1970s have to do with sushi? Disco balls, Jackie Brown, Tony Montana, Austin Powers, wood-paneled walls — what does it all have to do with sushi?!"

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Well, what doesn't it? With sushi now as truly American as apple pie (probably more so — when was the last time you had apple pie?), why should it be relegated to some faux Japanese ideal that mind-melds the vagaries of "oriental"? Sushi has nothing to do with '70s culture, but blackbirds have nothing to do with bistros, and copper pennies have nothing to do with barbecue, and Ferris wheels have nothing to do with brunch, but we accept these things as a-okay. So please, let us allow sushi to come up from the koi pond for some fresh air.

We quite like the intimate, boxy but stylish room that is Shag. And in a certain way, the place is as Japanese as it gets — think of it as an izakaya, an informal snacking and drinking den, and you'll get just exactly what this place is best for, nothing more, nothing less, and probably depart smug and satisfied as a British spy.

Though the place could just as easily serve lowest common denominator, sickly sweet California rolls and tuna of dubious provenance, it doesn't. This is no all-you-can eat trough of cream cheese and "special sauce." Though the specialty rolls are big (really big), they actually taste like something. Don't let the equally big price tags ($14-$18) daunt you. One roll is a meal for one, and two is a more than enough for two, especially if shaking groove things is the next part of the night's schedule.

And it should be. Steer clear of thinking of Shag as a dinner place; the best bites are light ones, paired with a cocktail that falls decidedly in the category of girly (and we do mean girly; grown women don't generally drink this way). Bear this in mind and you're on your way to an evening that would be right at home in an episode of Sex and the City. Stop here on the way to somewhere else, and then on the way back from somewhere else, and make sure to strap on your strappiest platforms before you do.

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Keep priorities in check and begin with a drink. A Singapore Sling is a burlesque dressing-room shade of pink, bubble gum sweet, and believe it or not, delicious. House-infused chamomile gin tamps down the saccharine of Luxardo (maraschino cherry liqueur), while lime, pineapple, and orange bitters bring Caribbean intrigue and citrus tang. Too much estrogen? But you haven't even had the Farrah Fawcett! (Prosecco festooned with Smarties candies and a shimmering liqueur called Viniq that's like dropping glittery nail polish into a glass. Don't ask how it's not poison.)

And with this somehow-not-poison, a snack: A roll of yellowtail, cucumber, gobo (burdock root), chile, toasted rice, citrus soy, and togarashi (mild chile condiment) manages to maintain the subtle integrity of the fish without succumbing to the mayonnaise-seafood torpedoes that have made Americanized sushi infamous. Instead, it's sweetly spicy, crisp, fragrant, and compelling. A tuna, tamago, shiso, pickled daikon, and marinated mushroom roll was almost as accomplished, but suffered from a bit too much sweet oyster sauce garnish. Still, the kitchen gets kudos for matching innovation with likability.

Executive sushi chef Koe Kue is formerly of Sushi Fix, widely respected as one of the top houses of local sushi where the chefs adhere to a style of sushi preparation called Edo Style, or Edomae. Think of it as more rollicking than sitting in a prim sushi bar with your etiquette book propped up. Edomae was invented in Tokyo as a street food for common people on the go, so the flavors are stronger thanks to vinegars, ferments, and dried fish that were used as preservation techniques. It's the heavy metal guitarist of sushi — spicier, stronger, more colorful, and more fun. So this is a place to have a good time with sushi, but within reason; quality doesn't get left in the dust for the sake of caprice.

This is beautifully illustrated in the "Shag Specials" section, where dramatic platters of meditatively sliced sashimi come blanketed in ponzu and garnished with nothing more than a transparent sliver of chile. The light brew of ponzu (rice wine, vinegar, and bonito) works magic tricks on the flesh, teasing out its inherent flavors. Priced at $15-$17, these are lovely, sharable cocktail accompaniments — a sort of primer on the subtle differences, for instance, between yellowtail and usuzukuri, both whitefish sashimi but as disparate as chocolate and vanilla. The blackened salmon toro (also a Shag special) is an utter triumph. Think of it as pork belly of the sea, all opulent melting fat, gratifying peppery edge, and the kind of thing you've never had anywhere before. This alone is worth a trip.

Unless you use it for a late-night booze sponge when your palate is already wrecked, the wok section of the menu just doesn't work, aside from the most excellent Mongolian Beef, seasoned with a spot-on harmony of sweet soy garlic. The rest, from the Singapore Noodles to the orange chicken to the pad Thai, all fall down in the balance department. They're cute but unsteady, like a little kid trying to teeter around in her mom's heels. They're too salty, or cloyingly sweet, or maddeningly missing something. The pad Thai actually had nice tamarind-lime equilibrium, but was served with tiny, insipid rice noodles instead of the traditional thick, toothsome, flat ones. There was precious nothing for the sauce to cling to and we sat stabbing at it doggedly with our chopsticks.

So, this is not a dinner place. Get over it. It's an izakaya, where the drinks are doled out like candy, the fish is crave-worthy, and servers are knowledgeable (no small matter when one considers the current dearth of good culinary staff in the Twin Cities). They are always happy to make a suggestion or simply behave as though they're happy that you've come (also no small thing).

This place is a shag, not an epic love affair. Don't get too serious; put it on late-night speed dial and reap the many benefits.

Shag Sushi 730 N Washington Ave. 952-232-4111