Asian for Everyone

Tatsu Sushi's flavorful entrées and fine fish will appeal to a wide variety of tastes

I eat sushi only about once every two years. Raw fish, if it isn't absolutely fresh, can be god-awful, and even sushi that's superb at dinnertime is fit only for the family dog by breakfast. My wife, Yvonne, doesn't like sushi under any circumstances.

Nevertheless, I agreed to try Tatsu Sushi, because I knew I could bring an experienced friend who would tell me what to think.

Renée, a former resident of this editorial space, devours a sushi meal every week, but while she grants that she's experienced, she claims no expertise. Still, she knows what she likes and why she likes it, and can easily differentiate hamachi from awabi on sight, which I'd think would be a minimum requirement for any sushi lover.

Tatsu, on Oracle Road just north of Ina Road, occupies the space formerly inhabited by Bowz, a good organic sushi restaurant that just couldn't build a following. The décor remains the same: brown everywhere, with black accents and thick bamboo poles leaned at intervals along a couple of walls, as if this were a shakuhachi factory. The music (not traditional Japanese) is soft enough that you can enjoy a quiet conversation, and the few flat-panel screens silently tuned to sports channels don't impose a sports-bar atmosphere. The sushi bar, with relatively few seats, lies at the far end of the room, and a curved divider from there to the front separates the table seating from the alcohol bar. It's all very elegant, but not hipper-than-thou.

Tatsu is owned by Golden Dragon restaurants, so there's a Chinese component to the menu, plus a few items from elsewhere in Asia. The entrées, served with miso soup, salad and rice, naturally involve teriyaki, tempura and sukiyaki preparations, but also include things like grilled short ribs with kimchi ($14) and, for those who must have good ol' American fare but pretend there's a Japanese connection, a Kobe beef burger ($10). There are rice and noodle dishes involving beef, pork, chicken and eel ($8-$12), and several vegetarian options ($9-$16), most but not all of them involving tofu.

The sushi-bar menu on the standard separate order slip runs the usual gamut of sushi (mostly $3.50-$5.50 for two) and rolls ($3-$8.50), with explanations of what's what printed on the back. There's an interesting but not overwhelming menu of hot and cold sake, some wines (including plum) and a variety of specialty drinks that, perhaps in the interest of auto safety, do not seem to have a high alcohol content (at least judging from the two we tried; mine was essentially a fancy gin and tonic, light on the Beefeater).

We started with gyoza--excellent fried Japanese dumplings ($6)--and an appetizer called dynamite ($9), otherwise known as seafood baked in a spicy sauce. The bits of scallop, crab and other things swam happily in a spicy but not incendiary mayonnaise sauce; the dumplings came with a thin, brown and gingery but not overwhelming dipping sauce. Both were excellent ways to begin the meal, along with the usual complimentary bowl of expertly steamed edamame, easy to shuck from the pods.

Yvonne's sushi-avoidance technique was to order the vegetable lettuce cups ($12). About half of a small head of iceberg lettuce, leaves separated, had been steamed to a perfect compromise between tenderness and crispness. The do-it-yourself filling consisted of diced and stir-fried shiitake mushrooms, tofu, water chestnuts, carrots, green onions and imitation bacon bits, with fried noodles and two sauces (one sweet, one savory) on the side. Even without the sauce, Yvonne thought the filling was a bit too sweet for her taste, but otherwise, she found the dish flavorful and filling.

From the sushi menu, Renée and I shared the Princess Cruise combination ($24.75): a California roll and spicy tuna roll, each cut into eight pieces, plus the chef's choice of eight sushi items. In deference to my desert-rat aversion to the strongest fish flavors, Renée kindly told the waiter, "No mackerel." What we got was an assortment of raw and cooked items that should not distress even the greatest sushi wimp: shrimp, snapper and variations on a tuna theme.

The sticky rice wasn't sticky enough to adhere to the fish slice atop it when we tried to lift the sushi with chopsticks; lucky that people of all races and cultures have fingers. Each sushi item was fresh and fine, but the flavors didn't pop without the help of wasabi (Japanese horseradish) dissolved in soy sauce; elsewhere, I've encountered sushi that makes a little more impression on its own. Still, this was very good, and easily met with Renée's approval.

The California roll did not challenge Renée's preference for the one at Sachiko (at Wilmot Road and Speedway Boulevard). Besides the traditional cucumber, avocado and imitation crab meat mixture at Tatsu, Sachiko offers little flecks of carrot and other things, giving it a more unusual character. Nevertheless, Tatsu does just fine with the standard-recipe California roll, and the spicy tuna roll was equally good.

On the night of our visit, dessert options came down to a very few flavors of ice cream. My green tea ice cream had enough tea flavor to establish a real presence but not enough to turn bitter. It was exactly the same bright shade as the green tea Renée ordered.

Let's hope Tatsu fares better than its predecessor in that space. There's plenty of sushi competition on Oracle Road, but Tatsu deserves a strong share of it.

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