'Safe,' Swanky Sushi

Ra Sushi bends over backwards to be a hip, trendy place to eat Asian

Please indulge this admittedly lame analogy.

Let's pretend you're shopping for a car, and you've got two choices: A Honda or a Mercedes. The Mercedes has more in terms of "bells and whistles." It features nicer accessories and extras; perhaps the paint job is a bit more regal. Driving it would certainly create more of a buzz. And, finally, the price tag is going to be a bit heftier than the one on the Honda.

But beyond the superficialities and the price tag, the Honda's just as good as the Mercedes. It will get you from point A to point B in the same way--and that's basically what a car is for, right?

Well, for our purposes, Ra Sushi Bar Restaurant is a Mercedes, and any of a number of Tucson Asian/sushi restaurants are Hondas. Yeah, Ra looks a bit nicer, and it has more of a hipster vibe, to go along with higher prices. But beyond that, the food--which is basically what a restaurant is for, right?--is pretty much the same.

The story behind Ra is kind of a "local folks make good" tale. Ra was started by some restaurateurs in Scottsdale, and expanded to include four Phoenix-area restaurants. In 2002, Benihana came along and bought the chain for a cool $11 million, and decided to expand the franchise across the country.

I visited Ra on a recent Sunday night with significant other, Garrett, and friends Hugh and Rachid. Ra doesn't accept reservations, but we had no problem getting a table.

Ra, like so many other new restaurants opening around Tucson these days, screams "Hey, look at me! I am soooo trendy and soooo hip and soooo cool!" Pop music plays overhead at a just-short-of-too-loud volume (REM's "It's the End of the World as We Know It" was one of the songs). The décor features a bunch of red, including scarlet orbs that hang from the ceiling, maroon-colored booths and walls, etc. Many of the servers (I'd guess their median age to be somewhere in the 20s) wear T-shirts with slogans from Ra's advertisements. One of the popular shirts featured a picture of a wrapped condom, emblazoned with the Ra logo, accompanied by the phrase: "Safe Sushi." No, it doesn't make any sense, but dammit, it's a condom, so it must be trendy and cool! Right?

Relieved that we'd be eating safely, we decided to figure out what to eat. A lunch menu offers bento boxes ($5.50-$7), noodle dishes ($6.75-$9) and sushi bar combos ($7.50-$9), but we were here for dinner and we'd picked a good night: Sunday is "Industry Appreciation Night," and as a result, a number of appetizers and drinks were offered at below-normal prices, including $1 warm sake. We decided to split three of the 20 offered appetizers: the scallop dynamite ($5.75, on special for $3.25), the chicken yakitori ($6.25, on special for $3.50) and the blue claw crab cakes ($8.75, not on special).

All of the appetizers were tasty. The favorite was the scallop dynamite dish, made up of small scallops and mushrooms baked in a spicy mayonnaise sauce. ("They look like little marshmallows," Garrett noted.) We all enjoyed our shares, with Hugh--a scallop lover--getting the lion's share. The chicken yakitori and the crab cakes each came in threes, so we had to be creative while splitting them. The chicken--tender and coated with teriyaki sauce--was a hit. The crab cakes--served with ginger mayonnaise and daikon sprout sunomono--were spicy and delicious, albeit a bit overcooked and overpriced.

For our main courses, we had a fairly standard selection to choose from: some salads ($7.75 to $11.75), a salmon ($14), a seared ahi tuna ($17.75), shrimp, various teriyakis and other meats ($11.50-$19.50), noodles ($9-$12) and some vegetarian choices ($7.75-$9), along with all the sushi bar mainstays. Garrett decided to order the spicy garlic shrimp ($13). Hugh chose the apple teriyaki salmon ($14), and Rachid ordered the nabeyaki udon ($12). I went with the sushi combo ($15.75), and we decided to all share a dragon roll ($10).

One complaint: Many sushi restaurants serve miso soup, edamame (soy beans) or both along with the meals. Well, this is not the case at Ra: You can get miso or edamame, but it'll cost you $3 extra for each. Score one for the Hondas.

Another complaint: I received my meal well before everybody else (along with the dragon roll). When I made a joke about this to our server (who was assisted by at least three others), she remarked--unapologetically--that they bring out the sushi quickly so it doesn't sit around. Fine, then. Prepare the sushi a little later so it can come out with the rest of the entrées, dammit.

OK, enough with the complaints and on with the praise: The sushi was delicious. We all savored the dragon roll--the avocado, fresh-water eel and other ingredients were fine and tasty--and my combo was fresh and fantastic. Among the California roll, tuna, salmon, whitefish, yellowtail, shrimp and tamago (egg), there wasn't a weak link to be found.

The other entrées came as my sushi was about half-eaten, and again, all of the meals were well-received, with one exception. Garrett adored his nine or 10 tiger shrimp, mushrooms and scallions, all served in a spring roll cup (imagine a taco salad tortilla bowl, except smaller, and made out of the skin of a spring roll). Hugh and I also took a taste, and we agreed that while Ra's garlic shrimp were good, we'd take the Kampai version first. Hugh's salmon--marinated and topped with an apple glaze--was fresh and scrumptious, with the salmon and apple flavors mixing nicely. He also enjoyed the accompanying wasabe mashed potatoes.

Finally, Rachid's udon proved to be the exception. Featuring noodles, shrimp and crab in a seafood broth, Rachid declared it "OK" and "bland." It turns out he'd never had an udon before, and as a rule, udon tends to have muted flavors. Thus, I suspect the soup was actually fine. One of us more familiar with udon would have tried it, but since we were all sans-spoons, that didn't happen.

Though we were all reaching fullness, we decided to test three of the four desserts offered: coconut crème brulee ($3.75), fried banana with Kahlua ($5.50) and peanut butter cheesecake ($5). (We skipped the fourth, cinnamon tempura ice cream, $5.50, because Rachid has an extreme dislike of cinnamon.) All three of the desserts were great. I ate most of the brulee, which was creamy and wonderful (my favorite part, the burnt sugary crust, was especially good). Garrett ate most of the cheesecake, which was a success because the peanut butter didn't overwhelm the flavor. Finally, we all enjoyed the banana, although the chocolate ice cream went mostly uneaten; we were too full.

We enjoyed our experience at Ra. It's definitely a place to consider if you're in a Mercedes mood. But if you're tight on cash and just want fine sushi or Asian food, stick with the Hondas; you won't miss out on much.

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