"How the hell do you review sushi?" a dozen people have asked me since last week. It's a valid question: When you're talking about a cuisine focused entirely on white rice and raw fish, it's not at as if there are sauces to botch up or medium-rares to get wrong. You can't really complain about portion size, or about badly paired foods, because for the most part you're ordering à la carte. It's not hard to recognize bad sushi, but what constitutes fantastic sushi?
To really suss it out, I think you have to sort of turn off your Western-world food radar, which is flavor- and aroma-oriented, and get tuned into your Eastern sensibilities, which place a higher premium on texture and appearance. Not that taste doesn't count, too, but if you find a piece of sushi that embodies the first two qualities, trust me -- the third, taste, will always follow.
Texture, really, is the thing. The difference between a good piece of sushi and a great piece of sushi shouldn't (can't, really) be graded on a spectrum of more flavor/less flavor or pleasant-tasting/ awful-tasting. It's more about silkiness, lusciousness, and fattiness.
Sekisui has great sushi. The fish is smooth, plump and decadent. And flavor follows form: I can still recall the tinge of sweetness that graced my pieces of tuna nigiri, mounted on their little beds of rice like oversized caterpillars, with just a glimpse of wasabi tucked underneath. The memory of the salmon nigiri's buttery feel hasn't left me yet. Sekisui's rice, stickier than average, doesn't just prop up the fish but complements it formidably. Heady with flavor and fresh to a fault, this is dig-in, gorge-yourself, push-back-from-the-table-when-you're-done, stick-to-your-ribs sushi.
"Formidable" is also the word to describe the sushi menu itself. You don't just order tuna nigiri, for example; you select from five kinds of tuna nigiri, plus three kinds of yellowtail and four kinds of white fish (which does not mean whitefish of the salmon family but myriad varieties of pale-flesh fish such as halibut, sea bass and flounder). With its maki, Sekisui gets yet more enterprising. House creations -- the somewhat hokily named Cardinals roll, Rams roll, Blues roll and South Grand roll -- work mainly with salmon, crab, avocado, cucumber and cream cheese. Though it's used commonly enough in sushi (and with lox), cream cheese will never sound right as a raw-fish accompaniment, but here especially it does a nice job of sedating the hotter, spicier notes and making the maki go down easy like Sunday morning. It's also wonderful to report that Sekisui nails its St. Louis roll, a local invention of tuna, avocado and green onion that's usually poorly executed in other Japanese joints around town. (A friend of mine often grouses that your typical St. Louis roll tastes "like you're actually licking the city of St. Louis.")
With such expertly prepared sushi at Sekisui, the running of its sushi bar disappoints. If you're sushi-devout, you know that getting the best possible meal begins by sitting at the sushi bar, not at a table, and by ordering directly from the sushi chef rather than by going through a waiter or waitress. You want to be on a first-name basis with your favorite sushi chef the way you want to have an in with your tailor or your mechanic; it's how you get the best, and the best service. (I know some people who will go so far as to slip a twenty to stellar sushi chefs on their way out.) Bar dining is how to turn the experience into something memorable and symphonic, plus it's how you do a sushi dinner omakase (the Japanese term for letting the chef choose your entire meal for you).
But a server takes your order at Sekisui's sushi bar whether you like it or not, and the two sushi chefs carving away there didn't look up at me or at any of the other bar patrons once, from what I could tell the night I sat there. The servers seem knowledgeable about the menu (they could tell me more about those five different kinds of tuna nigiri than I could ever tell them), but it's a shame to be denied a fun and different dining experience. Perhaps this shortcoming or neglect of tradition can be chalked up to the fact that Sekisui is a chain; though this operation is its only St. Louis outpost, and you'd never guess by looking at it, there are many Sekisuis in Memphis and a few in Dallas.
(Perhaps the chain mentality is also responsible for the restaurant's décor, which is inoffensive and nothing more: beige walls, fake miniwaterfalls and an incongruous collection of neon American-beer signs in the front windows. Then again, that's the way all Japanese eateries look, isn't it?)
There is plenty to order besides sushi, spanning the gamut of Japanese cuisine. Dumplings run amok on the appetizer list, along with edamame, spring rolls, steamed clams and a well-seasoned seaweed salad. The robata grill offers everything from chicken gizzards to quail eggs to beef tongue to jumbo clam. Cooked entrées include yakiniku (beef and veggies in a ginger garlic sauce), whatever-you-want teriyaki and udon noodles. And lest you continue to regard deep-fried food as a distinctly American obsession, tempura (Japanese for "deep-fried food") makes its presence known here. There's even a tempura-fried sushi roll. More often than not, though, the tempura comes across as unnecessary and comparatively bland when measured against so many fresher foodstuffs.
Dessert options reach a step beyond what's available at typical sushi restaurants, many of which never go past green-tea and red-bean ice creams. Here there's also tempura banana, tempura cheesecake and tempura ice cream (vanilla, not green-tea or red-bean). Yet again, the deep-frying doesn't enhance the final product. Although the clean presentation of the tempura cheesecake looks lovely -- four small squares of cake, a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a dollop of freshly made whipped cream, garnished with vibrant orange slices and dots of apricot sauce -- it tastes like nothing more than funnel cakes. Likewise, the tempura ice cream's fried-dough shell reminds one of soggy cake. Only the pungent banana seems geared to hold its own against the tempura treatment.
As a whole, I think, St. Louisans are afraid of sushi. We're nowhere near a coast, so the aversion, understandably, can run more than skin-deep. During one of my dinners at Sekisui last week, two of my girlfriends and I -- sushi lovers all -- ordered up an unchecked feast, and by dessert we were dishing and laughing so raucously that other tables started to stare. Sushi can be a religious experience, but it's not supposed to be like church. It's fun, and it should make you happy. Sekisui will make you happy.