When Sushi Zushi first hit town, in a small but smart space in the Colonnade on I-10, some of us (this writer included) were both pleased and a little perturbed. The menu was intriguing and extensive, yes, but spicy mayonnaise? Chipotle? Cream cheese? The owners might have been from Mexico, but where, oh where, was the purity we had always expected of Japanese cuisine? Fortunately, we got over it. Spicy mayo has now taken its place beside wasabi tobiko. Green Mussels Dynamite (spicy mayo, eel sauce and chives) are now on the approved list. Bring on the Tuna Tower with its killer combination of spicy tuna, habanero tobiko, creamy wasabi and wasabi tobiko — with enough chilled sake from the restaurant’s extensive list of both bottles and draft, we can tackle anything. Apparently, much of San Antonio must agree. Sushi Zushi first expanded to downtown, then to more-elaborate digs at Stone Oak and 1604, and most recently to Lincoln Heights at Basse and Broadway. It was to ’09 that devoted Dining Companion (D.C.), a veteran of some years spent near Tokyo, and I repaired for this investigation.

It’s a cool-looking, sophisticated space — probably better at night than it seemed by day — with many of the budding chain’s familiar details in play. Handsome black and white photos of the tea service, for example. Its suave sound track (almost anything but Asian) further distances Sushi Zushi from the traditional environment — raucous and almost frenetic, according to doubtful D.C, whose nose did a lot of wrinkling during our outing. Nevertheless, we tucked right in to a Special Sunomono featuring the usual cucumber with added seafood in flavored rice vinegar with sesame seeds. There was too much sweet vinegar for both of us, and the seafood seemed to count for little — except perhaps in aftertaste — yet it was a refreshing starter nevertheless. Tiger Eye, a fanciful creation said to be modeled on the eye of the beast, came next. Consisting of baked squid rolled around smoked, skin-on salmon with asparagus and slivered carrot, it was appreciated less by the dyed-in-the-silk traditionalist and more by the newly minted convert. Admittedly, the smoky eel sauce and the smoked salmon did take over the composition, leaving the squid to languish in the role of wrapper. So this was the first dish we adulterated with shakes of ponzu, the citrus-soy mixture you will find on the table. It came in handy later, too.

In fact, it came in handy almost immediately with a plate of House Special Yakisoba Noodles stir-fried with beef, chicken, and, almost more importantly, mushrooms. Given the serving ceremony that attends much Japanese cuisine, this dish was rather plainly but generously presented on a white plate. The taste was surprisingly — though not unpleasantly — sweet. The flavors of both buckwheat noodles and such sauce as there was played best off the mushrooms. And sake, too. We had attempted to order a dry and an extra-dry from the lengthy list, but got derailed when one selection wasn’t available. Regardless, the chilled Sumiyoshi and Shichihan Yari, served in large shot-glass-sized vessels, were different enough to make for an interesting comparison, the first being full-bodied and floral (with perhaps some sandalwood), and the second having a more discreet presence of faint white flowers. The grades available range from sweet to very dry (and the price ascends with the degree of polish the rice has undergone before fermentation), so suit your own palate. If pouring from a bottle or a flask, by the way, ritual has it that you should pour your companion’s drink, and he or she should return the favor. If drinking alone … well, perhaps this is an indication that one is not supposed to.
Ponzu was our friend once again with the shrimp yakitori, grilled on bamboo skewers with scallion and “a thick rich house special sauce.” Yes, somewhat sweet again — but not to excess. These were excellent shrimp, nicely cooked, and they went well with the fuller-bodied sake. With the Sushi Sampler plate, however, the more retiring brew won out.

Now it’s true that the menu promises both nigiri- and maki-zuzhi (the former is the form in which slices of seafood are draped over sushi rice, the latter is rolled in dried seaweed), and what we got was none but nigiri — plus the selected Spicy Tuna Roll. It’s hard to complain too much, however; you do get more bang for your buck with most nigiri. And you are better able to judge the quality of the seafood. Verdict: superb hamachi, very good salmon, standard shrimp, tuna and predictably chewy (though cleanly fresh) octopus — all dipped in the obligatory soy-wasabi mixture (careful with the wicked wasabi) to good effect. The tuna roll, like a maki but without the seaweed (a nekkidmaki?) was reasonably punchy (we suspect chipotle mayo). Suggestion: For a unique casual dining experience, consider sitting at the sleek sushi bar, where you can inspect the merchandise up close and personal (it all looked good on the basis of a brief pass) before consumption — and get a feel for the sushi chef’s technique as well. Having consumed a fair amount of fish, with and without sweet sauce, we now needed a change of pace — and an excuse to order one more style of sake. You won’t believe this (we almost didn’t), but Japan is now producing a sparkling sake, and it had to be tried. So why not have it with the effectively raw beef sashimi served with special “joy sauce”?

The thinly sliced beef was luminously pretty, impeccably fresh in the manner of good sushi, and went perfectly well with the joy sauce and wasabi. And, surprisingly, with the sweet prickliness of the sake, it made for an amusing end to a meal that had spanned the spectrum from classic to creative. Despite dogged D.C.’s nose wrinkling (she did like her hot sake at sumo wrestling matches in Japan, after all), the experience was a positive one, and with a menu as large and varied as Sushi Zushi’s, there is bound to be something for even the fussiest palate. Just stick to cold and dry sake, and all will be well.

Author: Ron Bechtol

Photographer: Janet Rogers