When scientists at the New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering recently discovered that sober zebrafish will follow drunk zebrafish around the tank, impressed by their fast, aggressive swimming and overall cool demeanor, anyone who is or has ever been or has ever known a high schooler thought to themselves, "Duh."
Upon our visit to Soberfish, the Thai-Japanese-pan-Asian one-stop-shop that took the place of beloved True Thai in Seward, that rebel zebrafish zipped around in our thoughts, circling one impression in particular: Would that Soberfish had a drunken fish to lead it in a bolder direction.
It isn't that owners Elle Kunsawat and Pao Thao are new to the game. The proprietors of East Side Thai in St. Paul and Sushi Tango in Uptown and Woodbury have a formula for fusion proven by years of success in their other ventures. Americanized Thai classics like pad Thai and sweet-and-sour chicken seem right at home next to flavor-blasted sushi rolls and watermelon mojitos. But the flip side of that coin is this: Everything, from the decor to the sushi rolls to the cocktails, feels a bit formulaic.
The dining area is spacious, with sushi bar and cocktail bar seating, as well as tables and booths, and it's comfortable, even if the room feels a bit like a '90s contemporary-casual hotel. The menu is expansive: 26 appetizers, five soups, seven salads, seven curries, nine stir-fry options, five noodle dishes, four fried rice varieties, and a sizeable sushi menu. Truly, there is something for everyone. We started with the Royal Thai fish cakes, a favorite from the erstwhile True Thai, an order of the green papaya salad, and the gyoza, punctuated with two, count 'em, two exclamation points on the happy hour menu. That kind of exuberant endorsement is tough to ignore, and since we were there between the impossible-to-avoid weekend happy hours of noon and 6 p.m., we got the gyoza for the low, low price of $3.50.
The fish cakes are savory, dunkable nuggets served with a duo of clean, spicy dipping sauces — one a peppery vinegar, the other a nutty, sweet fish sauce — and though the cakes were a bit greasy and chewy and not entirely the True Thai version once described by a City Pages writer as "fresh and big and exotic as a bouquet of orchids," we cleaned the plate quite nicely. The gyoza, though trumpeted with such exclamatory promise, fell just to the other side of average, crisped up in the pan and served with a tangy, vinegar-soy gyoza sauce but stuffed with a bland pork filling. By far the most successful of these starters, the green papaya salad is a sprightly, crunchy medley of shredded papaya, peanuts, fish sauce, and lime juice that packs a slow-burning heat. The tomatoes were underripe and pink, and accordingly sidelined as garnish, but the stacked cups of iceberg lettuce served dutifully as a bearer of noodle-like shreds of papaya.
With this yawning expanse of a menu unfurled before you, a nagging, unshakeable fear might arise that Soberfish is a jack of all plates, master of none. But there are bright spots here, on the wok stir-fry menu in particular, where the Fresh Young Ginger — served with your choice of tofu, chicken, pork, or beef — offers a light, savory oyster-garlic-soy sauce with pops of sliced fresh ginger and toothsome wood ear mushrooms. Not oily, not too spicy, this could be a standout dish for the restaurant, particularly if they master the art of velveting meat — a Chinese method of tenderizing meat with a coating of egg whites, cornstarch, rice wine, and seasonings. The problem of chewy, dry meat reappeared in pork form in the Pad See Yew, an accessible dish with perfectly firm noodles and bright green Chinese broccoli, but far too little pepper. The Massaman curry brought a similar seasoning shortfall, as the spice-heavy, coconut-rich, brown-sugary bowl was shockingly timid on heat. With none of the searingly hot Thai pepper we expect in a curry, the thick, sweet sauce filled with chicken, onions, and slightly mushy potatoes was, even with rice, too rich to finish.
Specialty sushi rolls abound, with names like Siam's Kiss and Soberlicious, while more conventional sushi like the futo maki and spicy tuna, as well as nigiri and sashimi, round out the menu. In addition to a long list of appetizers ($3-$7.50) and a few select entrees ($7-$8.50), the happy hour menu includes some basic rolls ranging from $4.50 to $10, none of which is particularly impressive, perhaps not shocking considering that "budget" and "sushi" are rarely compatible concepts. The spicy tuna was a slightly soft cut of fish, rolled in a spicy sauce and packed in with crunchy asparagus, creamy avocado, and a generous amount of unnecessary leaf lettuce on the end pieces. The Dynamite roll with "assorted fish," sesame, dainty kaiware, cucumber, spicy bean sauce, and Thai peppers reached the right level of heat but was otherwise one-dimensional. The plat de resistance, the Soberlicious roll, embodies everything we think of when we think of Americanized sushi: a nondescript inside of asparagus, apple, and avocado, with all the outward flair of scallops, masago, and crab mix coated in tiny Panko crumbs and drizzled in eel sauce. It's satisfying in a guilty way, with a creamy, rich quality reminiscent of grandma's fancy crab dip.
Soberfish was originally dubbed Drunken Fish, then Drunken Sake once the owners realized that name was already taken. When Drunken Sake was later deemed too suggestive, Kunsawat and Thao went with Soberfish — a somewhat confounding decision for a bar pushing its boozy happy hour specials, including $11 bottles of wine, $2 off sake, and a $7 Soberfish shot (you keep the shot glass!). The ample happy hour runs from noon to 6 p.m. and from 9 p.m. to close on the weekends and 2 to 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. to close on weekdays, which seems both a beautiful celebration of our Twin Cities happy hour culture and a recipe for going out of business. Seward residents would be wise to take Soberfish up on its generosity, and Soberfish would be wise to be a bit bolder — even if they can't have the Drunken Fish name.