What’s in a name?
Sacramento, CA 95822
The unbelievably generically named Sushi Café occupies an Alhambra strip-mall space formerly home to one of those slightly decrepit-looking fish-and-chips shops that abound here. I never visited, though I live in the neighborhood, but was pleased, on a strictly personal level, to see a sushi joint going in; close-by sushi for quick takeout dinners would be a boon in our lives.
I was wondering, though, what they were going to do with the space, an unpromising oblong facing the parking lot. It’s turned out to be quite nice and rather elaborately decorated. There are attractive striped Flor tiles (that hip modular carpeting), full-scale replica flowering trees that manage to be appealing rather than tacky, a sleek sushi bar and very cool tabletops of polished white rock embedded in some sort of smooth, transparent stuff.
The menu is long and fairly standard, and it seems to be in large part borrowed from the first branch of Sushi Café on Freeport Boulevard. There are all the non-sushi options you’d expect and very few you wouldn’t: appetizers like agedashi tofu, BBQ albacore and fried oysters; and main dishes like donburi bowls, a few desultory udon dishes, sukiyaki, and lots of teriyaki options. Sushi rolls are a list of increasingly elaborate creations, like the Five Alarm (tempura jalapeño, baby scallop, avocado, spicy tuna, and “sauce”); and Gavin’s Roll (shrimp tempura, spicy scallop, soy wrap, avocado, seared tuna, steak sauce), as well as simpler traditional rolls, plus the usual lineup of nigiri and sashimi.
Service is generally pleasant, and, in the case of the very sweet host, downright warm. (We did have trouble once with picking up a takeout order—the wait was close to an hour and there was much confusion about it—but that was not long after the restaurant opened.) Upon sitting down, we quickly got a little dish of sunomono (cucumber salad) a nice change from edamame (or, in a Western restaurant, bread, which makes a terrible appetizer and fills you up for the meal. But I digress …).
We started off by ordering the agedashi tofu, which arrived quickly and very freshly flash-fried so that it was crisp and greaseless, with the light batter enclosing wobbly square slabs of tofu. The pieces were heavily sprinkled with salt and pepper, which I enjoyed; it added an extra hit of flavor to a fairly quiet dish, though it perhaps was not so much in the spirit of traditional Japanese food. Still, it was a nice complement to the understated tempura dipping sauce.
They maintain a busy fryer at Sushi Café; many of the rolls have tempura items in them or are tempura’d themselves. Its products seem a little uneven, though. We ordered a kid’s plate for our daughter—a standard bento that came with a choice of meat, plus tempura veggies, a scoop of rice, some weirdly bland fried gyoza and a wedge of orange—and while the portion was generous, the tempura was much greasier and heavier than the fried tofu. We ordered teriyaki chicken for that, but got sesame chicken—though why it’s called sesame chicken is a little unclear, it basically being katsu, a panko-coated fried chicken cutlet, topped with sweet brown sauce and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. It was unobjectionable but not very sesame-ish.
My husband ordered the pork donburi, a drab-looking but deeply dusky-tasting and savory mix of pork, mushrooms, eggs, soy sauce and other goodies over rice. It was big and filling, with lots of toppings and a homey air about it, and it was perhaps my favorite thing we tried.
I sampled the sushi, including a special of blue fin toro nigiri, which was gussied up with a little piece of extra fish topped with a bit of prettily contrasting black tobiko. Alas, the fish itself was not up to par. Even visually it looked a little spongy, and eating it revealed not the melts-like-butter experience one might hope for from toro, but instead some tough connective tissue followed up with an unfortunate fishy aftertaste.
To check out the rolls, in honor of the location, I ordered the Alhambra Roll, which features lobster (not often seen in sushi rolls), in this case in a “spicy lobster” mixture. The roll is formed along the length of a tempura’d scallion, and it’s topped with a draping of salmon and a sweet mayo-y sauce, torched to what is supposed to be a sear. I was disappointed in the roll. The spicy lobster filling lacked both heat and sweet lobster flavor; the creamy sauce on top was gloopy, and there wasn’t really enough searing to justify busting out the blowtorch. Other rolls that I sampled in a takeout order had suffered from similar problems of over-elaborate conception and inadequate execution, except for the very simplest of them. Like so many Sacramento-area sushi restaurants, there’s an excess of mayonnaise here and a paucity of great fish. (One of these days, I’m going to make a shortcut command for that sentence on my keyboard. I seem to say something similar in so many sushi reviews.)
In the end, then, Sushi Café is not all that distinguishable from the run-of-the-mill sushi joint you can find on nearly any corner in Sacramento. I preferred the cooked dishes to the sushi, in fact, though I’d go back for simple items or a quick lunch. The name does little to set this restaurant apart from the crowd, as does the food.