Deep-fried sushi thang

Californians are truly blessed.

Where else but in California can you routinely find your friendly neighborhood cops not at the doughnut shop, but sipping lattes and ordering sushi? And in California, not only can sushi be found everywhere, it can be anything your little heart desires. If you want to be a purist, go ahead and get your traditional rolls. But you don’t have to be held back by the usual, even if your usual is the increasingly ubiquitous spicy tuna roll. (Note to hot fiends: The Satan handroll at Paradise Sushi in Capitola is the most fiery sushi ever devised, hands down, thanks to finely chopped habañero peppers. No other spicy tuna even comes close.) These days, nearly every sushi joint in town has at least a few imaginative, creative rolls on the menu. Some restaurants, such as Zen Toro and Blue Nami, have made a name for themselves with their artistry and unconventionality.

But there is one trend I am still struggling to understand: the fried-stuff sushi roll covered with a variety of sauces. Mikuni Sushi was perhaps the first in the area to start offering this style, and I point the finger at that restaurant for the style’s burgeoning popularity. Mikuni’s signature is its complex rolls containing three or more ingredients, most of which have been dipped in tempura batter and fried. Then, more ingredients are layered on top of the roll, and a sauce is drizzled over the whole. This looks pretty, but the individual flavors get lost in the mix. Is that a bad thing? It depends on your perspective. If you like the taste and don’t have a prior expectation of what sushi is supposed to be, this stuff is great.

But, though I am no purist, the point of sushi is to showcase the subtleties of extremely fresh, raw fish. Not deep-fried whatever. Experimentation with flavors that complement the fish is good, and a little tempura batter enjoyed in moderation can add an interesting texture variation. Moderation is the key here, however. It is telling that at the very popular Wasabi in Citrus Heights, the exhaustive menu almost exclusively lists rolls containing deep-fried items.

And exhaustive means just that. There are three pages of offerings printed in tiny type, enough so that you could probably eat here every day for six months and not have the same thing twice. (In the interest of full disclosure, I must reveal that repeated entreaties to borrow a menu for this review met with dogged refusals, which reduced me to intense irritation but in no way affected this review.) It took 10 minutes of squinting before I was able to locate some rolls that did not contain anything fried. I ended up with two: the rainbow roll and one interesting roll wrapped in a thin sheet of soybean curd, the Health Net. We also tried a Buddy roll, listed as being five-star hot, a roll with soft-shell crab and one with spicy crab and tempura shrimp.

Wasabi is a cheery place just down the street from Sunrise Mall. It is definitely siphoning its clientele from Mikuni devotees; the minute we walked in, we ran into an old friend, Dena, who quickly offered the unsolicited opinion that Wasabi was better than Mikuni. Wasabi’s relative newness certainly means you can get in the door without a reservation. The décor mixes traditional Japanese elements such as shoji rice-paper screens and red, neon signage to create sort of an off-kilter hybrid of sushi bar and retro 1950s-style diner. Other than the menu snafu, service proved to be fast and friendly. The selections we ordered arrived in record time, a relief after the glacial pace affected by some sushi artistes.

Even after casting aside my ambivalence toward this style of sushi, Wasabi’s rolls fell short on a few fronts. The texture of the rice was overcooked and mushed together, a cardinal sin in sushi rolls. And the heat levels in even the hottest rolls were, to put it mildly, disappointing. Even the Buddy rolls, made with both jalapeños and Sriracha hot sauce, barely registered on the heat scale. And there was no detectable heat on the three-star rolls. Sushi at its best should be like little flavor explosions in the mouth, from the sinus-clearing pungency of the wasabi to the ocean-crunch of fish roe or the buttery richness of yellowtail. The rolls we tried weren’t bad or strange; they were just undistinguished—blurring together on the tongue and in the memory.