The first time I ate sushi was in Stillwater, as a student at OSU. It was a buffet and I was nervous.
Something I forget, all too often, is how difficult it can be to try something new. Especially when you have heard very mixed reviews on type of food, as I had with sushi. It’s not like fish was a regular part of my diet at that time anyway, but raw fish seemed particularly strange. And while sushi was definitely a more common subject on TV by the late ’90s, there were still plenty of jokes about it.
Brave man that I am, I tried a California roll and some shrimp nigiri (neither of which have raw fish, FYI) and found that I enjoyed the sushi form factor, at least.
How you come to sushi doesn’t really matter. I’m more of a nigiri fan at this point (that’s the ball of rice with a piece of fish draped over the top), but I enjoy all of it. I like deep-fried rolls. I like simple rolls packed with avocado and crazy rolls covered in three kinds of sauce and dusted with various crunchy things.
But when I’m in the mood for nigiri, where the focus really is the freshness of the fish and the skill of the chef, I go to either Yuzo Sushi Tapas or Tsubaki Sushi & Hibachi.
Chef/owner Henry Yang of Tsubaki is fanatical about fish quality and variety. I’ve been to Tsubaki many times (though not nearly enough for my tastes) and it’s always been a delight.
Apologies up front that this review is short on prices. I’ve included them where available, but the thing about Tsubaki is that the menu is just a starting point. You can definitely eat and eat well only from the menu items, but the real treasure is found on the daily specials list.
I don’t know fish. Set a bunch of them on a table and I probably couldn’t name a one. What does a sea bream look like? I dunno. But I definitely ate two varieties of sea bream one after another at Tsubaki and loved it.
Look at the list on the dry erase board and, who knows, maybe you’ll see a fish you recognize. But it’s very exciting to try something you’ve never had before, especially when it’s just a couple of bites for you to savor. The key, at least for me, is knowing your tastes. Me? I love everything, but I’m a big fan of firmer types of fish. Talk to the server. Ask questions. You’ll find something you enjoy.
On the printed menu, you’ll find the Rain Naruto ($12) which is not based on a wet anime character, as I had hoped, but on an iconic Japanese dish called narutomaki, which is kind of like a cured fish loaf with a swirl in the middle--which resembles the Naruto whirlpools.
This version is uncured, with pieces of tuna, salmon, yellowtail and white fish rolled with avocado in a thinly sliced cucumber. The cucumber is paper thin and lacks bitterness, a plus in my books, while somehow holding a lot of fish together just long enough to lift a slice into your mouth.
The avocado and the ponzu sauce really take point, and if that sounds like a complaint, you’ve got it all wrong.
(There’s also a version called Kani Naruto for $9 that has crabstick, egg, white fish, avocado and asparagus wrapped in cucumber.)
If you’re going to get a sushi roll, I usually try to get one extravagant roll and one or two that are more straightforward. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s a good way to control your budget and keep yourself from hitting flavor overload.
My first roll was the riceless The Old Man and The Sea Roll ($13), which eschews sushi rice for rice paper and wraps up spicy tuna, eel, shrimp and eel sauce with lettuce for a crunchy, sweet-and-spicy bite that I quite enjoyed.
I also got the spicy crunchy tuna roll ($5.5) and, ehn, there’s something about the texture of the tuna that I don’t dig. It’s a little too macerated. Next time I’m just going to get a regular tuna roll and dose it with some extra wasabi.
But when I’m at Tsubaki, it’s almost always about the nigiri. And I’m a weirdo, too, because I almost always order mackerel ($4), which is a firm white fish that’s a little salty and a little fishy. You might not be into like me, but give it a shot sometime. You might be surprised.
I also got the madai ($6) and orata ($5) nigiri. Those are the sea bream I told you about. They were mild and slightly sweet, with a lovely fresh mouthfeel as I bit through each filet and into the tender ball of rice.
My friend Julie doesn’t like raw fish, because she’s secretly Aquaman, so she just ordered the shrimp fried rice ($10) and maybe we misjudged Aquaman, because this was some really good fried rice. The shrimp were cooked perfectly, tender with a good snap, and the rice was buttery and nutty. I...may have stolen several bites from Julie’s plate. But she knew I was a scorpion when she picked me up.
Seriously, it was delicious. It’s too bad, too, because I will probably never get it again. I mean, Tsubaki Sushi serves some of the best sushi in the metro. When I step through those doors, it’s because I’m going to eat some raw fish flesh draped over rice. Everything else on the menu is secondary.