A fresh new sustainable-sushi spot in college town
Aonami Sustainable Sushi128 W 2nd St.
Chico, CA 95928
It has the same name as one of the urban rapid-rail lines—the Aonami Line—in the populous seaside city of Nagoya, Japan. Indeed, Chico’s Aonami restaurant—tucked in among the numerous, enticing multi-culti food venues lining the walk through north Chico’s University Square strip mall—resembles the kind of place one might imagine being tucked away in some below-ground Japanese subway stop. It’s a small, tidy and unassuming-looking place not unlike the tiny sushi restaurant made famous in the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
A walk through the front door, however, adds a soundscape—namely Sirius XM Radio pumping out ’80s tunes over the eatery’s sound system at a robust volume—that might be unexpected, until one realizes that Aonami is smack-dab in the middle of college town.
On a recent visit, a college-age group chatted and dined at a table near the sushi bar, at which sat a trio of people happily hunkered over plates of sushi handed to them by the sushi chef. My 11-year-old daughter, Lydia, and I took a two-seater by the window, also near the sushi bar. Every table at Aonami is basically near the sushi bar, which sported a delicious-looking assortment of pieces of fresh fish on view in its glass-fronted case. Aonami, as its menu tells you, has as its stated mission “to provide a unique dining experience while respecting our natural resources by sourcing as local as possible and from sustainably farmed and/or caught seafood.”
The theme of localness is echoed in the names of menu items. In the “vegan rolls” section, one finds such local-roadway-named items as the “1st,” made with cucumber, sweet tofu and shiso leaf ($5); the “5th,” containing tempura yam, avocado, and topped with a sweet chili glaze and sesame seeds ($5); and the “99”—featuring pineapple and tempura onion inside and avocado, “mm” sauce (mango-miso), beets and sesame seeds on the outside ($6). A separate “sumo rolls” menu features such offerings as the Chico Creek, made with tempura asparagus, pumpkin and beets ($14), and the Salmon Hole, made with steelhead trout and tempura shrimp ($15).
I chose the “8th”—a vegan roll consisting of pumpkin, daikon-radish sprouts and asparagus, topped with crispy shallots ($5), and a Vallombrosa, from the “raw rolls” section, which featured kampachi (amberjack fish), mango and avocado, “sm” sauce (spicy-miso), sesame seeds and uncooked scallions ($10). I also chose an appetizer of kyuri noodles ($5), described on the menu as “cucumber noodles tossed in sweet & sour miso sauce, shiitake dust, topped with mixed pickles.”
My bacon-loving daughter ordered a Cedar roll ($6)—bacon, cream cheese and avocado—from the “cooked rolls” section, a bowl of miso soup ($2) and a teriyaki chicken bowl ($5).
While all of our food was very good, my kyuri “noodle” dish turned out to be the highlight of my visit. Having forgone my usual choice of sunomono—the traditional Japanese pickled-cucumber salad (which Aonami offers for $4)—to try the kyuri dish, I was thrilled to find that it was exquisitely delicious; the tangy miso sauce perfectly complemented the crisp, cool cuke noodles and grated raw beets topping them.
Lydia’s miso was reliably satisfying—it had a nice flavor and lots of large ribbons of yummy seaweed. My rolls were delicious, especially the “8th.” Lydia’s Cedar roll was a surprise hit (no surprise to her, though)—its smoky bacon flavor and creamy texture made for scrumptious eating. Her teriyaki bowl—tender slices of teriyaki chicken over white rice (no brown rice at Aonami) with shredded cabbage and carrots—was also very good, but proved too much for her to finish; we took the bulk of it to go.
Overall, a nice visit with friendly service and good food.
Drawbacks? As Lydia pointed out, “No noodles. No dessert.” Also, no hot tea. Darn.