Sushi lovers in the market for good value have a world of possibilities
A meal of sashimi and sushi can be a real indulgence, with specialty seafood flown in from Japan and prepared with loving rigor by a trained master. At the best restaurants, you can spend hundreds of dollars, walking away with both appetite and aesthetics satisfied.
In a perfect world, each time you crave cool slices of pristine fish, perfect vinegared rice, and creativity that doesn't stomp on tradition's toes, you can head to Oishii or o ya. Better yet, you can head to Logan and fly umpteen hours to have breakfast at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market, recently reopened to tourists after a ban brought on by bad behavior.
But in our imperfect world of stretched paychecks and scant vacation time, you can still find satisfaction in sushi. There are plenty of restaurants around town offering good (sometimes great) fish, prepared with care, at good prices. Sometimes the experience is more prosaic than at high-end places - sometimes it's not.
We canvassed many of the area's reasonably priced sushi shops looking for value. Along the way we ate some godawful specimens. We risked Jeremy Piven-worthy mercury levels. And we had some lovely meals at the following restaurants. They are just a few of the worthy and affordable options in the Boston area. We're sure you have your own favorites - sushi engenders fierce partisanship - and we hope you'll let us know what they are.
There are two particularly beautiful things about Blue Fin. First, the sushi combos: 12 pieces for $20, 20 pieces for $32, 30 pieces for $46, and 100 pieces for $100 - at about $2 a piece a la carte, a savings of $4-$100. The more you eat, the cheaper it gets. These generally only pay if you're eating nigiri (raw fish atop a pat of rice); with maki (sushi rolls that count for six pieces each), it's often cheaper to order a la carte. Second, nigiri is ordered by the piece rather than the pair as is often the case. This means more variety for your money.
Japanese families and Cambridge students rub elbows here. The restaurant is usually busy - the first sign you're onto something when seeking good affordable sushi. Blue Fin expanded a few years back, a serene space painted in soothing neutrals with mellow lighting and basic tables; there's also a branch in Middleton.
Another longtime favorite, JP Seafood Cafe has been serving sushi on Centre Street for more than a decade. The spot is cute and cozy, the rolls are creative, and there are plenty of options for vegetarians.
Salmon and untraditional combinations are not at the top of my favorites list when it comes to sushi, but I have long appreciated the sunshine maki here. It's a roll of salmon, lemon, cilantro, and cucumber. The name is appropriate - the flavors are pleasingly bright and light. Citrus is a wonderful ingredient in sushi, something chefs at affordable places sometimes forget. (And though this is beside the point, I've also always liked their wasabi shumai, juicy pork dumplings that make your eyes water.)
The restaurant itself is a nice place to sit and have a casual meal, an ochre sliver of a room with a mural of swimming fish, and the sushi bar does brisk takeout business.
There's also plenty of variety when it comes to rolls, if that's how you roll. The Sakurabana (the name means "cherry blossom flower") consists of tuna, avocado, and seaweed salad rolled with rice in dried seaweed. The seaweed salad works wonderfully in this context, bringing crunch and flavor and reinvigorating the ubiquitous avocado-in-sushi paradigm. The pieces of the roll are shaped like petals, then arranged into a flower shape, with a dollop of fish roe forming the blossom's center. Spicy scallop roll is another avocado supporter - the green fruit is rolled with rice and seaweed, topped with tobiko and cooked pieces of scallop in a spicy mayo sauce.
Under the category of "fashion rolls" you'll find the likes of "shrimp fantasia," a construct based on shrimp tempura, rolled in roe and swimming in a little more spicy mayo than necessary. It's good anyway, and staffers are sweet and friendly. You'd have to be to deal with those crowds.
And it really does feel like you're in a family's home; a server scuffs around in slippers, setting out chopsticks, and another woman makes the rounds, gossiping with regulars. A blackboard proclaims Shogun's love for the Red Sox, and the menu features such creations as Ito Special Charles River Kayak Roll (rice and scallop covered with seaweed and formed into a vaguely boatlike shape, a tiny purple baby octopus riding on top) and Second Wife Roll (salmon, yellowtail, tuna, cucumber, and avocado). There's no shortage of personality and good humor here.
The sushi's good too. A Sweet Dream Roll is a wonderful combination of spicy yellowtail, scallop, and avocado. The kayak roll is unwieldy to eat but delicious. Tuna nigiri is fresh and clean-tasting. When guests leave, Ito-san hollers, "How was everything? All right?" Of course it was.
Purists need not steer clear, however. The fish is always good and often sparklingly fresh, and you'll find all your traditional favorites, plus some decadence in the form of toro and foie gras. If you order a lot of rolls, it can add up; at $16-$18, the white belt, brown belt, and black belt maki-and-nigiri combinations are full meals for not much more than the price of one of the fanciest rolls.
The restaurant is tiny, with a few seats at the bar, a couple of tables, and no-frills decor. What matters are the chefs behind the bar, who have real skill. Owner Sam Huang, a graduate of Fugakyu, knows his way around flavors and unexpected combinations. He opened another tiny branch, Super Fusion Cuisine II, in Watertown this summer.
Here you'll find rich ankimo, or monkfish liver; rolls incorporating shiso, radish sprouts, and even apple; and daily specials flown in from Japan. A giant futo maki is bursting with vegetables. A roll of white tuna with wasabi tobiko plays the creamy fish off the sinus-clearing green eggs, which pop satisfyingly in the mouth. The quality of the fish and the handiwork is high, especially given the price tag.
On the weekend, Sushi Island has live jazz. There's some connection between this genre of music and this genre of food. At many of the places we visited, jazz was playing - not cheeseball jazz but the good, smooth stuff. Perhaps it has something to do with the artistic temperament of the sushi chef.
Muraki also makes oshizushi, an Osaka specialty where rice and fish are pressed together in a square box, then sliced. One made with eel is delicious, the sweet sauce set off by shiso leaves (the herb perilla). Here, too, you'll find daily specials in addition to the usual roster of nigiri and maki: one recent evening, fluke so fresh it practically flips off your chopsticks and into your mouth.
Eating here feels like eating in Japan, in a tiny mom-and-pop shop where the care is evident.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com.