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Cheap Eats

Giving sushi a snappy new twist

The 'tuna gone wild' roll with shino style ika salad. The "tuna gone wild" roll with shino style ika salad. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Denise Taylor
Globe Correspondent / June 11, 2008

Snappy Sushi is not operating in your comfort zone. Their rice is a daring brown, seating is communal, and "fancy rolls" are boundary pushers that borrow from other cuisines (ever see pineapple salsa or pesto in sushi?). In short, this Davis Square newcomer is gleefully, and for the most part successfully, breaking all the rules.

"It is far away from conventional," says general manager Yuka Cumings of the 2-month-old restaurant. "The owner, Kazu Aotani, wanted to achieve a very contemporary approach."

He has. Step into the clean-lined modern space with its pale green-tea-colored walls and you can't miss his first bold move. Other than four sushi bar seats, Snappy has just one giant communal table that seats 12. It's a glossy pine beauty left behind by the previous longtime occupant, La Contessa Bakery, which used it for rolling out dough.

The hope is that strangers might bond over their maki. But for now, most seem to be shyly hiding behind the table's stunning flower arrangements instead.

More daring, though, is Snappy's choice to offer brown rice only, but theirs is not the usual overbearing whole grain. Its secret is brown koshihikari rice, which they mill in-house and use both at Snappy and at its sister restaurant, Shino Express Sushi on Newbury Street in Back Bay.

Koshihikari is Japan's most revered white rice. It is brown in its whole-grain form, before milling. Health-conscious Japanese consumers purchase unmilled koshihikari and then mill it to their liking at stores, at corner "rice cleaners," or at home with personal rice polishing machines. That way, they leave as much or as little as they like of the healthy bran and germ that give brown rice its color. The rice is a cultivar grown only since 1956.

Snappy purchases brown koshihikari and mills off most of the strong-tasting bran, leaving the nutritious germ. So their rice isn't really brown, but rather tan. The result is a pearly, nicely sticky grain with a flavor far more subtle than most brown rice. And for sushi, for the most part, it works.

Nigiri, sliced fish on fingers of seasoned rice, is cheap here at $1 per piece for most items, so we try just about everything. More intensely flavored fish such as mackerel ($1) and eel ($1) hold up well with the rice, as do creamy sea urchin ($2) and sake-seasoned salmon roe ($2). Subtler selections like striped bass ($1) or halibut ($1) enter the realm of debate. The strong taste of the rice detracts from the delicate fish, but for those seeking a healthier meal, that may be a fair trade. In the fancy rolls with numerous ingredients, the subtly nutty taste of the rice mostly adds to the mix of flavors.

Our complaints are not about the taste of the rice but rather the inconsistency of the items. Some rolls are tight and some fish cut correctly. Others are not. On one visit the rice is gently seasoned, the next it is too sweet. One time the fish is fresh and buttery soft, another it is icy in the center.

With luck, these are beginner's gaffes. Otherwise, lunch specials are a bargain, salad greens fresh, and appetizers interesting and gorgeously plated. Try the ika sansai ($3.95), smoked octopus that hits every taste bud with its sweet-sour-salty-spicy sauce.

Fans of outrageous rolls will also find much to try here. Tufts of microgreens, swirling drizzles, and unusual maki roll wrappers such as bean, soy, and vegetable sheets keep things interesting. From the "tuna gone wild" roll ($7.95) capped with torched white tuna and citrusy yuzu sauce to the mamemaki tuna-avocado roll ($9.95), wrapped in a nicely chewy bean sheet and squirted with edamame (soybean) sauce, the fancy rolls get positively rococo.

As for the unusual flourishes like pineapple salsa, pesto, and roasted garlic sauce, some are inspired - like the salsa with torched salmon that sits atop the "samba de shino" eel and flying fish roll ($13.95) - and others - portobello roll with pesto ($7.95) - taste fine but feel out of place. But so would a maki roll on an antipasto platter.

Still, it's hard not to admire an irreverent menu and concept that leads rather than follows. Once Snappy Sushi settles in, we expect it will prove it took the right path.

SNAPPY SUSHI

420 Highland, Davis Square, Somerville. 617-625-0400. Visa, MasterCard, and American Express accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Prices Appetizers and salads: $3-$10. "Donburi" rice bowl dinners: $10-$16. Maki rolls: $3-$14. Nigiri: $1-$2 per piece. Hours Mon-Thurs noon-10 p.m.; Fri-Sat noon-11 p.m.; Sun noon-9 p.m. Liquor None. MAY WE SUGGEST Ika Sansai smoked squid, tuna tataki salad, "tuna gone wild" roll, Newbury fashion roll, mamemaki roll, Snappy's Triple Lunch box, miso soup, any nigiri.

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