The raw and the cooked

Kintaro Sushi Restaurant

8355 Elk Grove Blvd.
Elk Grove, CA 95758

(916) 684-6933

What the hell happened to sushi? Once, it was a minimalist food—exquisitely gem-like bits of fish on subtly flavored cylinders of rice. Now, rolls as big as a tin can are stuffed with everything you can imagine, and a few things you shouldn’t; substandard rolls are standing by at any grocery store; and the menu at any given sushi place seems to include less albacore and more mayonnaise than the average tuna-salad sandwich.

I’ll tell you what happened: Sushi came to America and got super-sized. It’s not that you can’t find the plain and elegant nigiri sushi at most restaurants; it’s just that you’re distracted by the flashiness, cleverness and sheer size of all the specialty rolls.

That’s not to say that the American-style sushi restaurant doesn’t have its merits. Head to Kintaro Sushi Bar, a sleek but welcoming new restaurant in Elk Grove, for instance, and you’ll find a range of inventive options—some fantastic and some just OK—alongside standard dishes done with a stylish touch. With Elk Grove’s recent explosive growth and its evident penchant for the oversized, from developments to chain stores, it’s no surprise to find that even the sushi is extra-large here. Elk Grove may be the quintessential new American suburb, and Kintaro is a good example of the best the new American sushi-bar-cum-restaurant has to offer.

One of Kintaro’s many offerings, and a welcome one, was genuinely warm and friendly service. Our server was so pleasant that we scarcely even noticed her formidable skill in the fine art of the up-sell. We ended up with both an appetizer and desserts we hadn’t reckoned on, and we left all the happier because of it.

The starter she suggested—after we had already ordered more food than two reasonable people could possibly need—was barbecued albacore, covered in a lightly spicy sauce. Worryingly, she introduced it by asking if we liked things raw. It would seem like we wouldn’t be in a sushi bar if we didn’t, but American sushi is such that you can easily eat a meal without encountering a piece of raw fish. The tuna turned out to be beautifully striped with grill marks but perfectly rare, indeed still cold, in the center. It had a gorgeous texture and a wonderful fresh flavor that was enhanced, rather than eclipsed, by the sauce.

After that, we got a selection of rolls, as well as a bento box with that safe old standby, chicken teriyaki. The chicken was quite good, with detectable levels of ginger in the sauce. The box also held a fabulous and pungent dipping sauce for the savory fried gyoza; some light, piping-hot tempura; and one of those weird, yet enjoyable, mashed-potato croquettes.

Of the three sushi rolls we had, my favorite was the simplest, with just unagi (barbecued eel) and cucumber. You could taste each element, and you could also fit a piece in your mouth.

We also tried an unusual Katalina roll. Topped with fresh salmon, a paper-thin lemon slice, chili oil and aromatic sesame oil, it was stuffed with snow crab and cucumber. The roll had an interesting and different combination of flavors, with a bright hit of acidity from the lemon. It wasn’t quite the thing with soy sauce and wasabi, but on its own, it was enjoyable.

The least successful of the rolls, I thought, was the eponymous Kintaro. With nearly as many elements as the periodic table, its description took up two full lines on the menu. It includes: soft-shell crab, tempura prawn, snow crab, cream cheese, cucumber, kaiware (daikon-radish sprouts), avocado, eel, unagi sauce, spicy mayonnaise, spicy dream sauce (I don’t know), masago (a type of caviar) and green onions.

The result is a hard-to-eat mishmash, with fried batter and weirdly dissonant cream cheese all too prominent. In some slices, there was a nice peppery crunch from the kaiware, but in others, they were nearly undetectable. The seafood’s distinctive flavors were all but missing. I asked the server how she usually approached one of the huge slices, which were approximately the size of an unusually thick coaster. She puffed out her cheeks and mimed chewing. We gnawed away at the edges and hoped for the best as the slices crumbled to our sushi plates.

We didn’t really have room for dessert, but when the server offered us mochi, it was hard to pass up. Mochi, for the uninitiated, are small balls of ice cream inside a chewy wrapping of rice-flour dough. Each arrived in its own bowl, cut into perfect bite-sized quarters and accompanied by a toothpick. One apiece—chocolate and coffee—was the perfect little treat on which to finish.

Understated choices like these are really what Kintaro should be showcasing. It’s unfortunate that the largest and most unwieldy roll is the one the restaurant chooses to highlight with its name, because everything else was fresh, delicious and beautifully presented. If I go back—and I might, just to taste that grilled albacore again—I’ll lean more toward the simpler rolls and the nigiri menu and steer clear of the enticements of all-American, super-sized sushi.