In the Garden

How to grow your affection for sushi.

When I worked at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power it was a melting pot of culturally diverse employees. Like civil servants everywhere, we were bored out of our minds and so for any occasion held potluck luncheons. Here, in the mid-'70s, I enjoyed my first tastes of panzit (Filipino noodles), overcooked greens with ham hocks, homemade tamales and sushi. It was a nurturing environment to explore beyond the meat, potatoes and matzo ball soup of my past.

Frequently cucumber roll and tamago (egg omelet sushi) graced our buffets. No one had ever seen or tasted anything like it. The thought of eating very dark green food like seaweed turned some people off, which meant there was more for me.

Without a doubt, unadventurous diners don't like to appear foolish by not knowing what to order, so here's a little primer to ease your way down the seductive Sushi Garden path. First, and most importantly, not all sushi is raw fish, so that's no longer an excuse. People may fear sushi because of that misconception. At Sushi Garden, the sushi menu denotes raw fish items without an asterisk, several choices for cooked fish have an asterisk and vegetarian selections have two asterisks. Good choices for beginners include shrimp, crab, eel, salmon or tamago as well as rolls like the California roll.

Sushi rolls are filled with fish, vegetables and sauce, then wrapped jelly-roll style with white rice. More traditional nigiri style is usually cooked fish draped over a bite-sized roll of seasoned rice often covered with a flavorful sauce. A simple presentation, sashimi is sliced raw fish adorned with shredded Japanese radish.

If you'd rather not sit at the sushi bar, you can sit at one of the many tables and request sushi (usually four to six pieces per order) from an a la carte menu that provides an explanation of the ingredients. Succulent finely sliced pink ginger and green wasabi sauce accompanies each order. Put a dab of fiery wasabi in the small dish, then add a splash of soy sauce. Mix well with your chopsticks and use as a dipping sauce.

While every sushi restaurant reflects its own personality. Sushi Garden is a casual, neighborhood kind of place devoid of any music so you can actually have a conversation. Except for a string of paper lanterns, a few silk screens and a long sushi bar with two or three sushi chefs, the ambience is generic, almost reminiscent of a self-serve steakhouse.

Many a friendship has been sown from a mutual yen for maguro (tuna). As my friend Isabel and I mulled over the menu, we opted not to get the $19.95 all-you-can-eat sushi deal because one of the rules states "no sharing" and women are genetically predisposed to share. Another rule is no leftover rice or wasted food. I know it's quirky but sometimes I like to poke a hole in the sushi and eat the inside ingredients only, much like another quirk of eating only the creamy middle from an Oreo. However, if you're really hungry, dislike sharing and won't waste food, the meal deal makes sense.

For starters we ordered the salmon skin salad ($5), a generous medley of finely chopped lettuce, purple cabbage, carrots, cucumbers and tomato topped with crispy, grilled salmon skin. It tasted quite nut-like and the drizzled vinaigrette allowed all the flavors to mingle.

Isabel is a purist; she prefers nigiri sushi or nothing too fancy-schmancy. I, on the other hand, like to experience the 31 flavors of the different variety of rolls. So we compromised with hamachi (yellowtail) sashimi ($8.95), sweet shrimp nigiri sushi ($4.95), crunchy spicy tuna roll ($5.50), New Orleans roll ($6.50), Tootsie Roll ($6) and fresh water eel (unagi) sushi ($4). Our feast arrived and the pop-art-like colors--white, neon orange, pink, green and black--reminded me of a Target commercial on a plate.

Hamachi was as good as it gets. Fresh pink fleshy slices were presented against a peacock of paper-thin cucumbers and minutely shredded white radish and carrots. My favorite was the New Orleans roll, deep fried crawfish with a spicy sauce and salmon roe; it was different and each morsel briefly took my palate back to Bourbon Street. Surprisingly, the Tootsie Roll was sweet and crunchy (almost cornflakes crunchy) from tempura flakes wrapped around crab blended with a white sauce. Ample mountains of pickled, sliced ginger garnished the plates, as did the shrimp heads leftover from the sweet shrimp sushi. Boldly I bit into a batter-fried shrimp head to savor its buttery insides. Our choices were sweeter and crunchier than I remember sushi to be; I liked it better than Isabel, though she raved about the salmon skin salad.

After all that sweetness we ordered tempura fried ice cream; the tempura was cake-like instead of crunchy. We thought green tea ice cream or lemon sorbet would add another dimension to this dessert. Instead, stick with the sweetest and most ripe complimentary fresh orange quarters.

If you're still not convinced about the sushi experience, try the ample rice bowls, combination dinners, teriyaki and tempura. At the next table, hunky construction workers ordered a sushi boat of titanic proportions and I overheard appreciative murmurs about the Las Vegas roll. A tempting all-you-can-eat lunch buffet ($7.95) with a bountiful variety of sushi, teriyaki, tempura, vegetables and salads awaits.

Like any garden, presentation is paramount while the friendly staff tends to details and cultivating sushi appreciation.

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