Gone fishing

Tamaya Sushi Bar & Grill

2131 J St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 498-8388

My husband and I were 12 blocks from home, walking from our car to Tamaya at 22nd and J streets, when I asked if he thought it was too soon to call home and see how everything was going. Truth be told, I knew it was: We had left our 4-week-old daughter with the best babysitter even money can’t buy, my mom, mere minutes before. But it was our first outing sans baby, I was feeling a little nervous, and I wanted him to stop me from whipping out my cell phone.

Happily, he did, and I managed to settle down to concentrate on the first sushi I’d been able to order in, oh, about 10 months. It was no accident that I chose Tamaya for our first post-baby restaurant dinner. The lure of raw fish was calling out to me. While I’m still not about to eat much tuna—all that mercury, don’t you know—I figured the minuscule amount in one or two rolls would be vastly less damaging than the curiously beading quicksilver I used to play with as a kid, when a glass thermometer happened to break. Tamaya is close to home, newly opened and replete with rolls: just what I was looking for.

I was an easy catch, but Tamaya may have its work cut out for it in hooking a regular clientele. As I’ve pointed out in this space before, the sushi market in Sacramento is crowded already and getting more so by the month. But Tamaya has plenty going for it. Its atmosphere is cool and casual, the servers are friendly, the specialty rolls are inventive, and its location in the heart of Midtown should bring in a good lunch crowd as well as evening diners. We went early on a Thursday, when things were fairly quiet, but there was a good group at the sushi bar.

The ample menu offers a wide range of options, including plenty of choices beyond sushi. There’s a lunch bento box with the usual range of teriyaki and the like. The dinner menu offers lots of intriguing appetizers, donburi and noodles, sashimi, and lots of simple rolls and nigiri as well as specialty rolls. I liked the way the list of specialty rolls was set up in three sections: one of cooked rolls, one of “rolls for everyone” and one of spicy rolls. Normally, I like raw fish, but there are enough people out there who can’t have or are weirded out by traditional raw sushi that it seems handy and customer-friendly to point out the cooked options—and segregating the spicy stuff helps chili-heads make a quick choice.

I was more perplexed by the lack of grilled items on the menu. The restaurant incorporates the word “grill” in its name, but the grilled items are few and far between. Although the menu says it features sushi and robata (a style of Japanese grilling), there were no robata items on the menu. The appetizer of atsuage (grilled tofu) was the only item specially called out as being grilled. We ordered it, and I have to say that it was delicious: smoky, with a delicious exterior crust and a custardy texture within, plus a tangy-salty sauce.

Our other appetizer, negi asparagus beef roll, was rather less successful. The meat, wrapped around green onion and asparagus, was chewy and not terribly savory, and the teriyaki sauce that topped it was also curiously bland. It’s quite a trick to make beef less flavorful than tofu, and it was unfortunate that the kitchen pulled it off in this case.

We skipped over the various teriyaki and other entrees (based on the teriyaki sauce on the beef rolls, I wasn’t sorry we had) to go straight to the sushi. A couple of choices from the “rolls for everyone” menu drew us at once. The “Special Mommy” roll not only seemed in keeping with the theme of the evening, but also offered a nice combination of sweet tempura prawn, luscious avocado and crab, with gleaming fresh slices of tuna, salmon and hamachi draped over the top. The “Crazy Monkey” also offered a good name, albeit one that would prove unhappily prophetic. When we got home, we learned that the baby had acted pretty much like a crazy monkey since we left, fussing and crying like a tiny, ill-behaved primate. We were, however, blissfully unaware of this as we ate the big pinwheel-like slices, which proffered eel—a personal favorite of mine—along with chunks of salmon and hamachi, plus beads of tobiko. Both combinations were well-conceived, lavish without going too far over the top.

Simpler choices from the sushi menu also were good. A spicy scallop roll had a pleasant kick that didn’t overwhelm the sweet, subtle flesh of the scallops. The halibut nigiri was pleasantly fresh, with a clean flavor and texture. The only dessert on hand was mochi ice cream, so we had strawberry and mango, which was a nice simple ending to a tasty dinner. Tamaya may not offer quite as many frills as some of its recently opened competitors, but it’s a solid and reliable place to get your raw-fish fix.