When the heat finally bellies out in earnest you'll note a few changes in our fair city. It is actually possible to drive across town at a decent clip. Restaurants that normally have overflow at the door suddenly become cavernous and empty. This is because most of the wimps leave town. They suddenly find relatives in far-flung cool and much greener places. Those of us who stay (and we each find and cling to our own staunch reasons, though some may feel more like inflictions than choices) develop our own little set of coping skills. Some choose to rise before sunrise and bask in the few golden hours of temperatures that hover in the mere 90s. Others become mostly nocturnal, sleeping through the days with the shades drawn. Others develop complex denial mechanisms. They walk around with personal misters, little fans on their baseball caps, and chant through gritted teeth, "It's a dry heat."
Personally, my own little survival mechanism involves sushi.
When it comes to eating, I don't feel like working up a sweat. Sushi has always consoled with its particular attention to beauty, and because the portions are modest, they are tempting in their delicacy. No overwhelming platters of mashed potatoes, slavers of meat or unruly vegetables. No, sushi sets up a modest meditation on just the moment, the single bite. Japanese cooking in general (and sushi in particular) concentrates on not only visual appeal, but also a mindful combination of textures and flavors. The appeal to all the senses, not to mention the ensuing rapture (that addictive protein high), marks sushi a great way to cope with the raging inferno.
Tucson has a fairly decent handful of sushi restaurants, but a real standout is Yuki Sushi. Operating out of his wildly successful eastside location for several years, Yuki-San has now opened up an additional venue on Campbell Avenue. For the most part, the menus are the same at both locations. The biggest difference seems to be in atmosphere and ambiance. While the Yuki's on Tanque Verde Road is both cooling and spacious with its vaulted ceilings and soothing blue tones, the Campbell location is more of a party spot. Hundreds and hundreds of sake bottles line the windowsill, and the venue is more intimate and noisy. Regardless, the quality of fresh fish and the execution of the dishes are on par at both locations.
If you are looking for a moment of reprieve and a soothing light meal, you might want to spend a moment with an appetizer. Edamame (boiled, chilled soy beans) are an excellent way to start any meal ($3.50). The cool, buttery pods open up your palate, and flooding your system with all those isoflavanoids found in soybeans just makes you feel right with the world.
There are several types of Sunomono salad available, and we sampled the octopus and cucumber ($4.50). Although a bit heavy on the cucumber, the crisp snap of octopus, crunch of cucumber and light drizzling of rice vinegar marks this as a cooling dish worth trying. Likewise, the healthy toss of farmed seaweeds in the marinated seaweed salad ($5.50) is an excellent way to lose yourself in a watery little fantasy. Fondly dubbed "mermaid food" by our young friends, this is always a popular dish, and in this case a bit more zest in the dressing, a little more rice vinegar, would have made this practically perfect.
Should you require a more filling meal, there is an extensive selection of soba, ramen or udon noodle dishes. We sampled the Tempura Soba ($7.50), a satisfying noodle soup. Served with a rich and savory broth redolent with the high sweet note of root vegetables, a smoky seaweed flavor and a dark hint of mushroom, this broth floated a generous portion of soba, topped with a bristling nest of tempura vegetables. The tempura here is just the way it should be, light and lacy. The vegetables (a combination of squash, sweet potato, onion and long bean) provide a great foil to the noodles. A side of inari (a sweetened tofu pocket stuffed with rice) makes this a lightly flavored yet filling meal.
Our favorite selection was the Chirashi, a donburi featuring a combination of sashimi. For only $14.50, it's a miniature boat of rice covered with voluptuous cuts of fresh fish: rich red ahi tuna, slender curves of fresh salmon, octopus, chubby shrimp, shimmering mackerel, tender folds of yellowtail and a generous scoop of flying-fish roe. This little boat, glittering with vibrant colors and sensuous flavors, won our wholehearted approval. We especially enjoyed the little helm stuffed full of pickled ginger and wasabi as the final visual touch. This Chirashi should be able to soothe and restore sanity to even the most heat-addled.
Should you be traveling with just straight-out sushi fans, Yuki's sushi bar is a great place to sit and visit, try new combinations or revisit old-time favorites. The nigiri is appropriately sized (bucking the current trend of sushi so big it exceeds any polite mouthful). We found the uni, sea urchin roe ($6.50), to be creamy fresh and utterly seductive. Likewise, the spicy scallops ($3.50) and the shiitake mushroom ($3.50) were particularly well done. One litmus test, the green mussel ($4.50), was a little disappointing. On two occasions the rice was overwhelming and the mussel tough. But the spicy tuna roll ($4.95) was consistently tender, and offered up the correct balance in flavors and textures--creamy avocado, a burst of spicy tuna, a bit of daikon sprout, tender rice.
One note of caution concerns service. In both locations, we found the service to be harried and not particularly attentive. In one instance, after placing an order that clearly involved at least three courses, the waitress proceeded to pile plate after plate on the table with no regard to pacing the meal or our protests that we hadn't completed the appetizers, or the soups, or the salads. On another occasion, at the Campbell location, the server was so completely frantic and harried we eventually lost interest in completing our meal and wandered off into the night with a sense of feeling a little cheated. The food was excellent, and we would have happily ordered more, but the din was distracting, and the waitress clearly over-extended.
Happily, now that it is summer, the restaurants should be more inspired to pay attention to guests and welcome them more completely. Truly, there is no better way to negotiate heat than to take a little dip into the watery pleasures found in a cuisine devoted to simplicity, beauty and levity. Chances are good that you'll leave Yuki's feeling balanced and restored to your senses, buoyed up by the lingering sense of a watery encounter, the lust for water temporarily sated. Your eyes won't even dart to the horizon in search of the first looming sign of monsoon for a solid hour or so. Promise.