SUSHI. IF YOU love it, you've gotta have it. Luckily, we boast some very good sushi bars here in Tucson, and whenever I hear another has opened, I want to go and be a good patron. I want to take my seat at the bar and wash my hands on my hot little towel, then set about eating uni (sea urchin roe, that creamy, slightly sweet, always salty gift from the sea). On occasion I get a little carried away, eyes glazed, ordering more and more, each serving more plump and succulent than the last, until finally the sushi chef glowers and cuts me off, growling: "No more for you. You die of nosebleed."
Ah, the ecstasy and agony. How can something so divine cause such an unsightly death? But if this is how I must die, I shall do so gladly, proud to have scrawled across my headstone: Death by Uni. Tell them not to trifle with the dates.
Tucked away on Oracle Road in a strip mall, right next to Ace Hardware, is an aspiring little sushi place with a big yellow sign. Scurry as fast as you can across the vast wasteland of yet another northwest-side parking lot into the welcoming depths of I Love Sushi. Once there, a chorus of welcome hails you as you enter the door. The deep blue room is austere but well appointed. The sushi bar is positioned in traditional fashion, to face and greet the customer. This is where you'll find chef Jack Hahn at the helm, holding court in his gregarious and charming manner.
Chef Hahn's background in Japanese cuisine is extensive. He spent seven years working in Hawaii and many more in the sushi bars of Seattle. Not surprisingly, there is an attempt at I Love Sushi to have east meet west. This fusion style cuisine can result in some very interesting cutting-edge food, but Chef Hahn's true talent lies in the traditional offerings on the menu.
The Hawaiian poki is exceptional. In this lightly marinated salad, chunks of yellowtail sashimi are tossed with cucumber and delicate tendrils of pickled farmed seaweed. The textures and flavors of this dish are tender and complement one another quite well. The lightly curled, springy seaweed holds up to the sweet tuna. A judicious drizzling of roasted sesame oil pulls all the flavors together. Served on a bed of raw daikon, this is a tantalizing way to start the meal. You could be shipwrecked and live happily on just poki provided you had a few cucumbers, raw tuna and a sequestered bottle of sesame oil. Well, that and a beautiful shipwrecked partner. Because, after all, sushi is the food of love.
Many interesting and unusual traditional items show up on the menu, and these are worth pursuing. The oshinko (pickled daikon) and the kanpyou (sweet squash) showcased some nice handiwork with traditional treatment of Japanese vegetables. As sushi originates from a thousand-year-old tradition where pickling and preservation were the original intentions (pressing raw fish onto beds of rice with stones and leaving them to ferment), Chef Hahn's treatment of pickled vegetables is a natural inclusion. These dishes are all worthwhile ventures and we only wished there were more of them.
One also finds a pandering to the uncertain Americans who might venture into a sushi bar unsure of what they might find. After all, the restaurant is named I Love Sushi, which is an in-your-face declaration: I love it and so will you. This mandate drives the menu. Items like "I Love My First Sushi" ($9.95) for "beginners," or "Oh! My Favorite Sushi" ($13.95) are clear attempts to try and win over the timid novice. And why not? At least someone is trying to cater to the uninitiated. I always thought that was what the ubiquitous teriyaki and tempura section of the menu was for, appeasing the whiner in the crowd who just couldn't muscle it up to the art of eating raw fish. We regarded these items as pure generosity on the chef's behalf, and ignored them completely.
Other items weren't quite so easy to disregard: the croquette ($3.50), which was deep-fried crunchy breaded mashed potato, and Aspara Bacon Roll ($4.50), baked asparagus wrapped in bacon. Both feel oddly out of place on the menu and seem to cater to a strictly American palate, even though the dishes can be found in Japan. This doesn't feel so much like "fusion" as a safe hedging of bets, probably because these items didn't show particularly well. Be wary, as some other traditional offerings are interpreted with this same sense of appeasing an American palate. The green mussels ($5.50), normally a favorite, were mostly rice and a breadcrumb filling. The mussels were chopped into three large pieces and hidden at the bottom of enormous mussel shells, then mounded with an odd breadcrumb mixture that tasted more like Stouffers than sushi.
During one lunch, we tried the "Love This!" sushi combo ($6.50). This was advertised as a California roll and a spicy tuna roll. We did receive a California roll, but the spicy tuna roll was not what we were expecting. It had been battered and fried (tempura) and was stuffed with crab meat, avocado and cream cheese. Thinking this might be a mistake, we questioned the order. But the waitress was clear and firm: This was what we had ordered. Call me a purist, but deep-fried cream cheese just doesn't rock my boat. Nor does it belong in a spicy tuna roll. Worse, it felt like one more attempt to cajole a western palate into some kind of reconciliation with sushi. Which we already love. However, we didn't "love this."
Equally odd, but not entirely without merit, is the entire assortment of "American Styly (sic) Roll." We couldn't resist the Mucho Macho (baked salmon, avocado, cucumber, masago). Although I prefer my sushi raw, the baked salmon was slightly sweet and tangy and cooked until just moist. It made for a tender, slightly smoky filling, and, along with the avocado and cucumber, was a really pleasant surprise.
The Oracle Roll was another interesting combination offering up uni, yellowtail, masago and green onion. As a die-hard uni fan, I was disappointed at how little uni was included in this particular roll. I can understand the inclination to refuse to share your uni with anyone, but still, the roll was slim and the ratio of rice was way out of proportion. The sliver of uni we did have tasted great.
The Rainbow Roll was the standard eye-popping affair, featuring many different types of fish fanned in a colorful array: tuna, shrimp, mackerel, salmon. What was truly odd was the fact that it was served on a Saran-Wrapped Hawaiian license plate.
It's charming, one person said.
It's cute, said another.
It's probably illegal, said a third.
Still, it made for the perfect size to pass around. The license plate made its way around the table until the last piece of Rainbow Roll was plucked up, revealing an entire strip of expired registration stickers, dating back to what looked like 1990. We were extremely grateful for the layer of Saran Wrap and hastily returned the piece of roll to its spot, covering the evidence back up. Perhaps denial is an unsung virtue.
This best sums up I Love Sushi, the quirky gesture that speaks of some sense of authenticity that at moments is just a bit ill-conceived. Tempura and cream cheese are an odd combination. Someone might love them, but they smack more of a catering to an American palate, and it is not a happy mix. Yet those authentic offerings, like the poki (which I would happily return to eat again and again) and some of the traditional Japanese rolls, showcase Chef Hahn's best talents.
I've heard people rave over this place. You want to love it, you really do, but then you're one of the only people in there, and you feel a little sad. I left wishing that lots and lots of people would go and try Chef Hahn's inspired traditional Japanese dishes. That way he could order boxes and boxes of uni and serve it up the way God intended: in lovely, large, succulent spoonfuls. And, who knows, maybe even on real plates.
I Love Sushi. 6486 N. Oracle Road. 544-2224. Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday noon to 3 p.m. Dinner hours are Tuesday through Thursday 5 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 10:30 p.m., and Sunday 4 to 8:30 p.m. Beer & Wine. AmEx. Visa. MC. No checks. Menu items: $2.50-$17.50.