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By Jim Duncan

The Sushi Surge

Sushi is the new barbecue in Des Moines, going quickly from virtually unknown to trend-of-the-year status. With a sushi nightclub and a serious Japanese restaurant planning autumn openings, I checked out the current state of the art form. Sushi Box (SB) in the Kaleidoscope Food Court, is a no nonsense, locally owned fast food stand. SB’s system is simple and efficient — choose one nigiri (fish and rice bound with seaweed), or sashimi (just fish) or maki (sushi rolls), plus one soup or salad and you have a Styrofoam bento box with vegetarian tempura added. My generous seaweed salad was as good as any I tried all week. Reasonably fresh hamachi (yellowtail tuna) and maguro (bluefin tuna) were served on rolled rice that held together better than any I had elsewhere. These $6 combos were the best bargains I found. Miso (soy soup) and gyoza (potstickers) were tolerable.

Also locally owned, Junko is the newest place to date. Upgraded fast food ambiance included a separate dining room, arty plastic plates and interesting selections of coffee and tea (lavender-bergamot Earl Grey). I tried eight kinds of nigiri and nothing disappointed, nor impressed me. When unagi (eel), which is cooked, and inari (rice in tofu skin) are the best tastes on a sushi menu, then something’s amiss. Prices were still bargains, though SB delivered more and fresher food, for the dollar.

Appare has adopted most of the fu dog trappings of its previous tenant, an all you can eat Chinese buffet. The bar has been upgraded with California wines, lots of sakes, martinis and exotic drinks. When I visited, it was always busier than the restaurant. After I ordered toro sushi, I was told it was only available as sashimi. That’s usually good news, meaning the itamae (sushi chef) considers the cut of tuna belly too good to serve with rice or nori. Then my “sashimi toro” was served in a salad — a better salad than my dinner salad I might add with micro greens instead of iceberg lettuce. I think orders get confused in translation, as no server on my visits was adept at English.

Some good things were placed in front of me. Salmon roe were shiny, plump and exploded with flavor. Squid and octopus both tasted fresh. Hamachi nigiri was much better than what I found at the fast food places, but nothing was better than what both Waterfront and Taki have been serving for a couple years. My Appare order cost more than I have paid for the same at those suburban rivals, too.

Zen Sushi and Noodle House is one of the best looking cafés in Iowa — Richard Kelley’s paintings are an inspiration, revealing an anime-compatibility in the Iowa artist who is a “living treasure,” in the august Japanese sense of the phrase. This café was converted from a hotel lunch counter on a budget, tastefully keeping elements that actually fit. It looks like a metropolitan sushi joint. World music came from an equally arty cutting edge. Table service was fabulous. As another restaurateur put it — “I would hire everyone here on the spot, if I only could.”

Though the hamachi, maguro, roe and octopus were all the best I found on this mission, the sushi wasn’t as dazzling as everything else. I had higher expectations here. Very few fish items were offered on the occasions I visited, not even toro. No non-sashimi fish parts were being cooked as specials. All fish had been pre-sliced. A “spicy tuna roll” differed from a straight tuna roll only by being covered with spicy mayonnaise, an original but bad idea. I enjoyed two different bowls of noodles (not homemade) in stocks that lacked the glistening bone-scratch essence of typical local pho, or Gateway Market Café’s ramen. A full bar included some sakes and lots of exotic cocktails.

I am hoping that this is an introductory menu and will become more challenging as customers develop a taste for sushi, and as more serious Japanese cafés open. CV

Past Food Dude Reviews
Amici Espresso (1-4-07) Bandana's (1-11-07)
Perry hotel (1-18-07) Beyond frozen (1-25-07)
Centro (2-1-07) KC BBQ (2-8-07)
Planet Sub (2-15-07) Trostel’s Greenbriar (2-22-07)
Acapulco (3-1-07) Aryana (3-8-07)
AJ's (3-15-07) Ban Thai (3-22-07)
Two Crop Palace(3-29-07) Mo Q x 2 (4-5-07)
What's In A Name?(4-12-07) Lemongrass (4-19-07)
Chef Joe's Place (5-3-07) Suburban Restaurant (5-10-07)
Gateway Market Café (5-17-07) Irina’s Restaurant Bar (5-24-07)
Trailer Tripe (5-31-07) Azalea (6-07-07)
Pho All Seasons (6-14-07) Farmers Market (6-21-07)
El Sabor Latino (6-28-07) Crouse Café (7-5-07)
Bistro Montage (7-12-07) Jaliscolita rebounds (7-19-07)
New Saigon (7-26-07) Smokey D's BBQ (8-2-07)
Gourmet Burgers (8-9-07) Iowa State Fair (8-16-07)
Rolling Wok (8-23-07) Sports Bars (8-30-07)
Dragon House West (9-6-07) Carr’s Soul Food Cafe (9-13-07)

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