Raising the bar

Zen Sushi

900 15th St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 446-9628

Ask a sushi connoisseur about how best to appreciate raw fish, and the answer will probably be that you should sit at the sushi bar and let a talented chef guide you through whatever is fresh. That’s precisely what I would have liked to do at Zen Sushi, the new restaurant occupying the old Zen Toro space, but it turns out that high chairs and sushi bars are not a good match. Since we had a toddler with us, we were consigned to a table. But, thanks to good service, we didn’t have to lose out on the custom sushi experience entirely.

Zen Sushi has a warm yet modern feel, with bright orange interior and bamboo screens. We were pleasantly welcomed not just by the host, but even more so by our server, who came to the table right away and offered a kid-sized bowl of rice, edamame and tofu for our daughter. That was the sort of thoughtful gesture that any parent would appreciate. It’s no fun waiting for food to be delivered while a kid grows antsy. In fact, she loved the edamame so much that we had to order more so we could have some ourselves.

We perused the long menu for rolls and appetizers, but in the realm of nigiri our voluble and knowledgeable server also stood in for the sushi chef, telling us what was fresh and good—and occasionally calling out to the sushi chef, Lou, for advice. I originally was interested in the hirame (halibut) but it had just sold out, so instead the server steered me to the aji (Spanish mackerel, topped with ginger), which was very fresh. I hesitated between that and the saba (mackerel), but the server suggested that the former was more unusual. I also ordered the kampachi (yellow jack). Both were supple and finely textured, with a lovely delicate flavor as they draped over the pearly rice.

There was a bewildering variety of rolls, seemingly dozens of them, as well as a long list of appetizers. As our daughter tore through the edamame at record speed, we figured we had better order something else for her, and we tried out the pork katsu (breaded and fried strips of lean pork) as well as an order of grilled squid fresh from Japan. For those accustomed to seeing their calamari no longer than a finger (or sliced up and fried in unthreatening rings), this squid was much bigger: like a linebacker’s fist, with chewy tentacles, crisp at the edges from the grill. Chewy, however, did not mean tough. It was grilled just right, and came in a gingery soy sauce that set off its sweet and smoky flavor. We loved it, and my daughter liked it, too.

We were less crazy about the katsu, as the pork was a little dry and bland under the crunchy, light crust. The tonkatsu dipping sauce was very thick and salty-sweet, a little too strong for me. My daughter was thrilled again with the server when she brought a pair of trainer chopsticks over: They were bound up with rubber bands for easier manipulation. She couldn’t manage to get anything in a pincer grip, but she happily speared the rest of her dinner.

We pretty much could have ordered any of the rolls and been happy. They are big and stuffed with lots of things, in the Sacramento tradition, though of course simpler rolls are available. We tried Lou’s roll, an inside-out offering with asparagus in the middle and salmon outside, the whole dipped in batter and tempura-fried. It would be a good roll for those who might fear the raw, but it was tasty even for those who don’t, if on the rich side. Cutting through the richness was the Spicy Q roll, which had tempura shrimp, unagi and (slightly hard to detect) avocado all rolled up with an intense, spicy russet-hued chili paste. Over the top was a bit of a more creamy, mayonnaise-based spicy sauce, but it wasn’t overwhelming. I liked this roll, but the distinct flavors of unagi and shrimp got a little lost in the flavorful shuffle.

To drink, we shared an Asahi red, which was just right with the sushi. There’s a wine list, but it’s short and not terribly interesting; instead, I suggest looking to the many types of Japanese beer or to the sake list, which has several options. We weren’t in the mood the other night, but given our experience of the service, I bet we could have gotten a nice tutorial in sake types from the server. Zen Sushi’s friendly aura and personalized service make it a real winner—and the bright, pleasant atmosphere is another plus. We may have just found a new favorite sushi joint. Next time, we may even get to sit at the sushi bar and ditch the menu.