Roll me, baby

Nishiki Sushi

1501 16th St.
Sacramento, CA 95814
Ste. 11

(916) 446-3629

When it starts to get really hot, most of us have no appetite for hearty meals. What we crave is something light, something fresh, something that doesn’t have to be cooked. And those preferences stand even when someone else is doing the cooking. Sushi might be the ultimate hot-weather food because it’s light, fresh and uncooked, and it’s complicated enough that the average person has an excuse not to make it at home.

So, on a recent steamy night, my family ventured out to Nishiki Sushi at 16th and P streets. The interior of the restaurant shows more imagination than many, with textured murals of trees on the walls and columns made to look like bamboo. A long rock fountain greets diners at the door, emitting small wisps of steam to enchant the younger set. The sushi chefs greeted us heartily as we walked in the door, and we were quickly whisked to one of the cool gray booths.

And then we sat. And sat. And sat. Although the restaurant was not full, it took a while before we were given water, and even longer before our waitress could tear herself away from chatting with her friends to take our order. Perhaps responding to my unspoken irritation, she slammed our drink orders onto our table with unwarranted vigor. The fact that her thumb was inside the rim of the bowl of miso soup she set in front of me also was a mark against her.

The kitchen was functioning at top speed, however, and our sushi was delivered promptly. Like many of the newer sushi places in town, Nishiki is best known for its complicated rolls, layered with many textures and drizzled with at least two or three sauces. I’m still not sure how or why this trend originated, but I’ve grown resigned to searching patiently through menus to find rolls with just a few ingredients. Chef Rozanne Gold has it right. The magic number is three: More ingredients than that tend to muddy the palate.

Nishiki does list a number of these mega-rolls on its menu, but, to the restaurant’s credit, it also has a substantial list of simple nigiri sushi, with attention paid to special cuts of fish. For example, the menu lists four varieties of salmon, some only available seasonally: sockeye, smoked, fresh and wild. The restaurant also offers an unusual selection of fish specialties for a sushi joint, including seared tuna in a sesame vinaigrette and seared wasabi salmon.

But we were there for sushi. We first tried a “rock ’n roll,” a combination of shrimp tempura, avocado, tuna, yellowtail and salmon topped with a spicy tomato sauce and sprinkled with scallions ($9.95), which was listed as one of the restaurant’s more popular rolls. Much simpler in execution was the Cajun roll ($5), with spicy tuna and cucumber. The tuna roll was a much better choice, precisely because the flavors weren’t competing with each other. The more complicated roll just had too much going on, to the detriment of what obviously was some very fresh, clean-tasting fish. My husband the heat fanatic gave big points to the Cajun roll, which had a jolt of wasabi in addition to the heat of the tuna.

We also tried the “wonder roll” ($8.95), which included the ubiquitous shrimp tempura, cream cheese, cucumber, avocado, salmon and thin slices of lemon, topped with two sauces. Here, the combination of textures and flavors worked, with the crunchy tempura complementing the smooth cream cheese, and with the tang of the lemon adding a perfect flavor note.

We rounded out our selections with a spicy tuna hand roll ($4.95), shopped tuna mixed with spicy sauce and cucumber. Nishiki offers several variations of spicy tuna, including a “volcano roll” with ahi and a “spicy hamachi” with yellowtail and chili powder. My choice proved to be a little light in the heat department, but it was tasty nonetheless. It was also huge, but still manageable.

Anyone unenlightened enough to dislike raw fish won’t go hungry at Nishiki. In addition to the seafood specialties previously mentioned, Nishiki offers a nice selection of standards, including teriyaki, tempura and sukiyaki. Vegetarians will be happy to see a decent selection of vegetarian rolls and other dishes.

Nishiki offers the perfect compromise for those who enjoy both pure sushi and the newfangled versions. The restaurant’s fish is impeccably fresh, and the rolls are well-executed. Only the uneven service marred what otherwise would have been a great sushi adventure.