Chunks of raw fish can enter the body either as something completely blissful, or as something morally corrupt. In my experience as a sushi eater (which spans a commendable +10 years), you either get beautiful, fresh, exceptional cuts of fish, or you get raging diarrhea. There is no middle ground.
That is why when you (the starry-eyed, fish hungry customer) walk the thin line between pain and happiness that comes with choosing a sushi restaurant, a couple things might be worth remembering. The first is to be open-minded; the second is to go forth with a thirst for adventure. Being open-minded will make you enjoy the food more, and, in the event you end up choosing the wrong restaurant, the adventure will make the diarrhea a little more bearable.
With that being said, I took my good-natured vegetarian friend to Sushi Bistro this weekend, and my stomach has never felt better. Luckily Sushi Bistro is on 6th and Balboa, which is just a stone’s throw away from my apartment. Every time I’ve gone they never disappoint. Being just one of over thirty sushi restaurants in the Inner Richmond alone, Sushi Bistro goes above and beyond to prepare unique, delicious rolls that are literally fresh-to-death.
Weekdays are usually pretty mild, but night times and weekends can get busy. My friend and I went on a Saturday around 6:30 and had no problem getting seats at the sushi bar. The two of us kicked things off with the house Miso soup ($2.50), a vegetable tempura appetizer ($7.95), and a bowl of cucumber sunomono ($4.95). The bistro, with it’s deadly atmospheric pairing of tasty and trendy, is a little on the pricey side compared to other small restaurants in the area, but SB gives you what you pay for with quality and creativity.
Our soups are brought out quickly, followed not long after by the cucumber sunomono, which is one of my all time favorite menu items. SB’s cucumbers are cold, fresh, thinly sliced, sprinkled with sesame seeds, and pickled in a sweet vinegar, similar to the pickled veggies on a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich.
“It’s tasty,” says Sarah the vegetarian with a bemused look on her face, “but it kind of just reminds me of sweet pickles…like, the only real difference is they threw on some sesame seeds…big whoop.” She means well. And I’ll be damned if she doesn’t just have a way with words. I explained to her later on how pickles are made.
Next came the veggie tempura appetizer:
For me, good tempura is all about consistency. The tempura flakes on their own aren’t very salty, and thus don’t over power the vegetables with grease and salt. The light battering on the veggies made them soft and chewable, while the tempura flakes added an element of soft crunchiness. The fried sweet potato and zucchini were the audience favorites, while a sad piece of tempura-fried cantaloupe came in last. Sarah muttered for a long time about how fried cantaloupe just didn’t seem right.
While we browsed the menu for our next courses, the wait staff rushed to and fro down the back hallway that led to the kitchen. The restaurant grew busier and livelier as the dinner rush reached its plateau, but each of our waiters was curt, professional, and friendly. Our water glasses were always filled before they were empty and the waiters were quite patient with us as we called them back time and time again to order more food.
Now, having been friends for over 10 years, I knew full well what I was getting myself into taking a picky vegetarian to a sushi dinner. But, in an effort to see the glass half full, I thought of it as an opportunity to try the veggie sushi she always raves about. Still, with 23 signature sushi rolls (some topped with lobster AND smoked salmon) tantalizing me on the inside menu, I couldn’t help but wish, at least a little bit, that she liked fish. Even just for an hour. Instead, the wishing was interrupted when I low-key choked on a sesame seed mid bite as Sarah points to “baby lobster” on the sashimi list and sighs, “um, that’s the saddest name ever.”
Since it looked like there was no righting the wrong the baby lobster had done, I allowed two of our 3 main course picks to be vegetarian…against my better judgment.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, Sarah had ordered the Fortune Roll with added cucumber ($7.95), along with a plain avocado cucumber roll ($4.95). I didn’t get a chance to read what was in the Fortune roll, as I was busy scouring the signature list for some much-needed protein. However, upon receiving the rolls it became clear that only two variables differentiated the two. Other than the extra light coting of tempura batter and a drizzle of eel sauce on the Fortune roll, the two were exactly the same: just brown rice, avocado, and cucumber. [Sigh.] If her taste in sushi reflected the way she decorated, her apartment would only fart throw pillows from Pottery Barn.
My selection, however, was exceptionally awesome. I’d always been curious about the house’s special Ahi Tuna Poke ($14.95) because A. specials are usually special for a reason, and B. because having tried the most perfect cubes of spicy ahi tuna on a trip to Hawaii some years back, I have been trying ever since to find something comparable to satisfy my cravings in the city. There seemed no better time to put Sushi Bistro’s ahi poke to the test.
It tasted just a beautiful as it looks. Though I was a little thrown when the tuna was served on a bed of mixed greens, instead of the white or brown rice I’d grown accustomed to seeing it paired with, the whole thing was stupid good. The thin, crispy wonton strings added a classic Asian flavor to the prime cuts of tuna, while the creaminess of the avocado slices perfectly balanced the hints of slight soy marinade that seeped out of each ahi piece. Even though there wasn’t much left of it by the end I still insisted on a to-go box, knowing I would be up in a couple of hours sleep-eating it in front of an open fridge. It still makes for some bomb.com leftovers if you don’t wait more than a day to eat it. After that, no matter how legit the sushi was, you start dancing with the devil.
To finish things off we filled in the cracks with mochi ice cream, tiny balls of chewy Japanese rice dough filled with flavored ice cream. The mochi are sold individually for $1.65 and come in flavors like green tea, mango, chocolate, strawberry, coffee, and red bean to name a few.
Sarah settled on chocolate at the last minute and I chose green tea. It’s difficult to describe the taste and texture of mochi just because there’s really nothing else like it in America that I can think to compare it to. I’ve always wanted to live in Japan anyway, but once I found out they were basically the mochi mecca of the Pacific Ocean it was a real game changer.
Even though my mind and stomach felt like we’d gotten a substantial amount of food, I was pleasantly surprised when the bill was only $52.80 altogether. Our waiter was happy to split the check down the middle for us, and my and Sarah’s totals came to a respectable $26.40 a person. We each left a $5 tip because our various waiters were nice and I hate to look cheap by not leaving enough. After the last waiter packaged my salad for me, Sarah and I rolled off our bar stools and waddled home, full to bursting with dank sushi and adventure. And we both lived happily ever after.
Miso soup // 2.50
Cucumber sunomono // 4.95
Vegetable tempura appetizer // 7.95
Avocado cucumber roll // 4.95
Fortune roll + cucumber // 7.95
Ahi tuna poke special // 14.95
Mochi // 1.65
431 Balboa St. (6th& Balboa)
Open 7 days a week
* Great for small groups, can get loud on nights and weekends, not the most kid friendly but definitely not kid unfriendly, full bar complete with sake, beer, wine, and other fancy drinks, you could find cheaper sushi, but I don’t know why you would.
**Editor’s note, I did, in fact, sleep-eat my leftovers that night.