Tiger Sushi roars into Uptown with its rockin' rolls
At the new Tiger Sushi in Uptown, each table is set with a squat glass shaker like those you see in pizza joints. Except these aren't filled with red pepper flakes or grated cheese—they're stocked with sesame seeds. It's a striking marriage of East and West, like Yao Ming dunking a basketball. And it's a decidedly humble little object to represent a momentous culinary shift: sushi, it seems, is as American as pizza.
We don't yet have Sushi Huts offering 30-minute delivery, but things have come a long way since the '80s movie The Breakfast Club, when Molly Ringwald's prissy character was mocked for her sushi lunch. ("You won't accept a guy's tongue in your mouth, and you're going to eat that?") In the decade that followed, the number of American sushi bars quadrupled, and the boom has continued ever since. Though sushi is a relative culinary newcomer, having arrived in America about 50 years ago, it has already spread to the ends of the gustatory earth—namely, college cafeterias and convenience stores.
These days, sushi is served in restaurants that resemble temples, and in others that feel like nightclubs. At one end of the spectrum there's New York City's Masa, with its $400-plus omakase (chef's choice) dinners. On the other, there's Silicon Valley's Miyake, which fills its dining room with smoke, strobe lights, and techno music while customers stand on their chairs and pound sake-spiked beers. Like the original Tiger Sushi in the Mall of America, the vibe at Tiger 2 falls somewhere between those extremes.
The new restaurant looks as slick and modern as the new Murals of LynLake apartment building it inhabits, just north of Lake Street on Lyndale Avenue. Angular panels suspended from the ceiling brighten the space with wasabi green and Veuve Clicquot orange, which color-coordinate with the stuffed toy tiger and bottle of Brut on the bar. This summer I expect that Tiger's patio, which overlooks the Greenway bike-and-pedestrian path, will be among the nicest in town.
Servers wear what now seems to be the requisite uniform of any urban, nouveau-ethnic eatery—black T-shirts printed with a snarky pun or slogan. Tiger's branding is more cute than crass, compared to, say, Chino Latino's, with shirts that say "Macho Maki Man" and "Tigress" instead of Chino's more suggestive "Wanna Bangkok?" The unsolicited advice that comes with Tiger's chopsticks tends to have a little more edge: "Your instincts are correct," one fortune read. "The outfit you just bought does scream 'trailer park tramp.'" And if you thought such missives belonged in cookies at Chinese restaurants, consider this your first clue that Tiger Sushi has tossed Japanese cuisine into the cultural melting wok.
Tiger's head chef, J.R. Malibirin, whom co-owner Lisa Edevold recruited from Fuji Ya, honed his playful fusion style at the MOA eatery. His menu at Tiger 2 is similar to the original, and it's why Edevold says she felt confident opening her second restaurant so close to Sushi Tango and Fuji Ya. "Uptown doesn't need another sushi bar," she says. "But we're not just another sushi bar—we're doing so much more." Edevold, who founded Java Jack's coffee shop in south Minneapolis, says Malibirin's penchant for bold flavors and complex sauces tends to please Western palates. "Americans want to love sushi," she says, "but Americans are used to getting all kinds of flavors pulled together."
While Tiger offers traditional sashimi and nigiri, items like the Bruce Lee-themed Flying Tiger Kick Roll (smoked salmon, cream cheese, tempura shrimp, and a spicy sauce that stings like a karate chop) are more expressive of Malibirin's approach. So, too, is the Winter Roll, which is stuffed with three types of raw fish, avocado, garlic mayonnaise, and masago (tiny orange roe), then sprinkled with crispy tempura flakes to look like it's covered with powdery snow. The Winter Roll is served in an inky puddle of Malibirin's signature "miracle sauce," a thick, creamy mixture of unagi (eel), pureed mango, Japanese mayonnaise, and Thai chili oil. Its rich, umami flavor tingles with fiery spice and salty sweetness in a way that makes it almost seem capable of healing the lame or raising the dead. In Malibirin's world, something as simple as salmon nigiri becomes "Tiger Balls": Round scoops of rice covered with strips of bright pink fish are arranged in a circle like petals on a blossom and garnished with a mint leaf stem.
This sort of experimentation appears all over the menu. Why order plain edamame when you could try the "darkened" version, sticky with a spicy, teriyaki-like glaze? They can be tricky to eat—the pods are too gooey to be finger food and difficult to open with chopsticks—but worth the challenge. (They've caused some to swear off "naked" edamame forever.) For specials, the kitchen has come up with some interesting takes on other well-loved snacks. Cream cheese wontons inspired tiny lobster purses bulging with cream cheese, pineapple, and just a hint of seafood. Shrimp cocktail received a much-needed redesign when Tiger's staff served fried tiger shrimp in a martini glass with sautéed onions, red peppers, chives, and orange slices.
For entrees, Tiger offers several choices of tempura dinners, udon soups, and donburi, or rice bowls. (The first two I can recommend, but the donburi was a dud—a few shrimp tempura and a giant bowl of rice.) The most interesting dishes are those described by Edevold's rather hyperbolic copywriting. The "EXPLOSION of FLAVORS!" promised in a dish called J.R. and the Volcano was actually a rather muted, though tasty, medley. The dish is a heaping pile of raw fish mixed with sliced strawberries and mango, its soft creaminess perked up with kaiware sprouts, fish roe, and fuzzy tempura flakes. Among the ladies-who-lunch, the Volcano could become the new chicken salad—if so, we may soon see Tiger Sushi 3 in the western suburbs.
Mixing fruit and fish might not seem very Japanese, but neither does serving ceviche or a New York sirloin with port sauce and Amish blue cheese—both of which are on Tiger's menu. I tried the very un-Japanese-seeming fish tacos—two grilled flour tortillas filled with tataki-style seared ahi tuna, tomatoes, greens, and fresh mozzarella, of all things. When splashed with a bit of chili-lime-wasabi Tiger Sauce and dunked in chili sour cream, they reminded me a bit of a mid-'90s wrap.
One of the best dishes I tried was the beef tataki: paper thin slices of marinated steak, grilled to add a smoky char to the tangy notes of soy, garlic, ginger, lemon juice, and rice vinegar. My other favorite was J.R.'s Blackened Miso Cod, which arrived ultra moist, plump with the punch of a lime-miso marinade, and living up to the menu's assurance it would be "AMAZING!"
The desserts I tried were as creative as they were distressing. The Deep Fried Splendito Cake was a battered and fried pound-cake puck with a chocolate-caramel-mango core that landed in the stomach like a slap shot. Its cloying sweetness was more Splenda than splendid, and it left an odd taste in my mouth. If I could redo my order of the chocolate-drizzled sorbet sandwiches dubbed Little Blue Guppies, I would have asked the kitchen to hold everything but the wafer-thin, pecan-brown sugar cookies.
At times, Tiger Sushi 2 can feel like a sports bar with chopsticks. The stereo plays such classic tunes as Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'" and Elton John's "Tiny Dancer," while the television shows college football games. The sushi chefs give patrons fist-bumps across the bar or sip beers as they work. It may not be very traditional, but neither is the neighborhood.
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