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A Roll by Any Other Name

It's not a far reach to find fresh fish at I Love Sushi.
Erik Guzowski

It's not too difficult to figure out what the specialties are at I Love Sushi & Steak. The name's as straightforward as they come -- not like Callaloo in Scottsdale (after a Caribbean taro green), El Tlacayo in Tempe and north Phoenix (in honor of a Mexican dish of masa, queso, chicken and sour cream), or Cafe ah Pwah (a globally inspired Gilbert restaurant that's much too complicated to explain).

It's a cute moniker, but not too cute. It doesn't grate on the nerves like, say, Eat My Buns bakery and deli in northwest Phoenix, Franks A Lot in downtown Phoenix, or Holey Frijoles at Metrocenter.

Certainly the name I Love Sushi & Steak implies more self-confidence than OK Fish & Chips, a place in south Phoenix that hopefully puts more effort into its food than its name implies.

Ultimately, the name is pretty accurate. Much of the Japanese food served at this new restaurant in north Scottsdale is worthy, if not for a long-term romance, then at least for a convenient neighborhood affair.

Why my hesitation to commit? I Love Sushi suffers some character flaws that make the place too unpredictable. Cuisine is often competent, but not always compelling. Servers' intentions are good, but I don't feel the love every time I visit. Steak is fine, but obviously an afterthought designed to broaden the restaurant's appeal. And while creativity usually is a plus in keeping things interesting, a few items don't belong on this menu, or any other.

Consider the Passionate roll, which sends unromantic shivers up my spine. It's a try-it-if-you-dare sushi roll, stuffing seaweed and rice with mozzarella, deep-frying it, then topping the gelatinous bundle with tomato sauce and spicy raw tuna. This union isn't passion, it's fatal attraction.

I don't have much use for barbecue sauce in a Japanese restaurant, either, even if the sticky stuff coats quality cuts of top sirloin or chicken. The cloying fumes of rum marinade wafting from grilled New York steak and pork interfere with my appreciation of the delicate, almost unearthly crystal nuances that make traditional Japanese cuisine so inspired.

Then there are the bothersome entree names. A theme is one thing; having diners embarrassed to order is another. What are we, a Hello Kitty crowd, forced to call out, "I'll have the Sweetie-Sweet chicken kebab," "Bring on the Honey-Love salmon kebab," or, "Fire up one of those Miss and Sir-Loin kebabs"? As I sit at the sushi bar, I cringe before muttering to the chef, "a Romantic roll, a Tantalizing roll, an Exquisite roll and a Temptation roll, please." I feel like I should be going home with him later.

A sign next to the restaurant's front door advertises "Help wanted," and is it ever. A busy Friday evening finds the line of customers snaking out the door, and the small floor crew (one hostess, two waiters, one bus person) whirling like dervishes.

My companion and I are placed at a table with one menu to share, and it's easily 10 minutes before our drink orders arrive. Another quarter of an hour passes before we can order our meal. There's no challenge with the sushi chefs -- a trio of white-capped rice rollers staff the fresh-fish bar, and our order is fashioned promptly, placed on the counter for our waiter to deliver. Yet after another 10 minutes of staring longingly at our fish, I'm just about ready to retrieve it myself. Finally the sushi chef physically pulls the waiter aside and forces the tray into his hands. It takes more time for the waiter to figure out which table the plate is for, as he checks and rechecks his order tickets.

Minutes later, my entree lands before me, though it's another five before my companion's meal shows up. All around us it's the same scene, frustrated diners literally leaving their seats to track down service, main courses arriving awkwardly staggered between tablemates, the unanswered telephone ringing incessantly at the hostess station. Things get loud, and not with that happy, bustling restaurant-type of buzz.

Lunch or happy hour is a greatly preferred option, when the friendly nature of the staff shines through, and I actually feel like a welcome guest. This is when the sushi chef relaxes, entertaining with a live lobster "dancing" atop the glass-encased fish cooler -- fun and games until, alas, the lobster disappears into the kitchen, returning minutes later boiled fiery red and splayed on a vegetable-lined platter. Poor, delicious thing.

When things are quieter, the chef also sends out free samples, including an excellent roll crisscrossing yellowtail, salmon and snapper.

What's in a name? Sushi here is successful overall. No, it's not the best in town, and pieces lean toward small, but when it's good, it's very good. Problems: The fish can be flabby at times, the vinegared rice is sometimes too sweet and periodically is served still warm under its seafood topping. I hate how the chef now-and-then plops pieces on the platform tray in front of me using his bare hands instead of presenting them on a clean plate. Still, it's pleasing enough to warrant a second date.  

The basics are covered -- silky, succulent tuna nigiri (ahi, big-eye, bluefin, toro and albacore varieties); buttery, scallion-topped yellowtail; spicy tuna rolls that take sinus-singe to a serious level; and California rolls that, while petite, come packed with real, creamy crab, not that fake surimi. More interesting are the dragon rolls, mild California models upgraded with salty epaulets of eel. Paired with a side of acceptable if slightly over-steamed edamame (salted soybeans) and a bowl of complimentary, tofu-rich miso soup, a filling sushi fix can be had for less than $25.

Spend a little bit more, though, and discover where the I Love Sushi chefs' skill shines. A Romantic roll isn't technically sushi, lacking the vinegared rice that is the dish's namesake, but it's extravagant, tucking a lush chunk of ahi alongside avocado and crisp field greens, then wrapping it all in a thin curl of shaved cucumber glossed with glittery ginger dressing. An Exquisite roll is an astonishing feast of deep-fried shrimp partnered with cucumber, avocado, crab, cream cheese and masago (smelt egg), prettily wrapped in soy paper. It's a mouthful to manage, but a worthwhile one, contrasting crunch and cream, silk and salt.

The namesake dish, though, is the worthiest. The I Love Sushi roll comes in a deceptively plain presentation, but is remarkable in its impact. The chef starts with a log of rice, and packs it plump with salmon and seaweed. Over this he drapes a sheer coverlet of tuna, plus dots of roe and scallions. Yet the first bite unleashes the true excitement: The salmon is eye-wateringly spicy, and the tuna has been slivered with transparent slips of lemon. Add in the shocking yin and yang of brain-splitting wasabi and salty soy sauce, and I'm gulping greedily.

I Love Sushi also wins my heart for offering two entrees that, while nothing fancy, are hard to find in the Valley. How much do I love them? Let me count the ways -- one, nabeyaki udon (hot noodle soup), is reason enough for frequent trips to Manhattan for a treasured version I discovered there. Another craving for tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet) demanded a trip to Tokyo last month (I so adore this dish that the newly mandated arrive-hours-early-at-the-airport rule mattered not on my flight home; I stumbled upon an almost unbelievably tantalizing tonkatsu shop when wandering the airport mall). The dishes served at this restaurant don't compare to the real thing, but they're minutes from my house, so I'll happily eat them up.

Nabeyaki udon isn't just any soup -- these noodles are obese tangles of white wheat. Fragrant, filling and full-bodied, the soy-based broth swims with chunks of chicken breast, small but sturdy shrimp, carrot, zucchini, egg and cotton-candy-pink rounds of fish cake. The finishing touch: two hefty pieces of topnotch shrimp tempura, expertly light and crispy (ask for a side of stunning soy-wasabi sauce for dipping).

Tonkatsu is more of a letdown, though, to be fair, I have yet to find this dish to rival one prepared in Japan. Something about the feather-light crunchiness of the panko breading and frying method that locks in the juices of a thick cut of pork seemingly can't be duplicated in America. Here it arrives cut too thin, the panko vaguely wet, the meat too dry. Tonkatsu isn't right without a side of crispy chopped green cabbage; the mixed grill of mushrooms, broccoli, grilled onion and tomato slices is a poor substitute.

Other entrees are engaging -- the familiar marinated, grilled black cod; the meaty Alaskan King crab grilled in the shell with garlic butter; the unexpected ankimo, an acquired taste of steamed monkfish liver dunked in a spicy scallion-radish-ponzu sauce; and the trendy quail-egg shooter, served raw with a glass of white wine.

Salmon, served miso-marinated or as a kebab intertwined with grilled tomato, onion and peppers, is shown proper reverence, grilled to moist perfection and paired with a mustard-laced, sweet-tasting dipping sauce.

Japanese food usually doesn't equal he-man slabs of steak, though that's what comes out of this kitchen. There's no lacking in quality, the herb-and-rib-eye steak grilled precisely medium as requested, sliced over iceberg and moistened with herb butter that tastes of teriyaki. A side of Chinese vegetables (broccoli, onion, zucchini, mushroom) doesn't add much excitement, but then, someone ordering rib eye instead of something like seared bonito tataki (young tuna in a chilled sauce of sesame oil, red onion, puréed onion and soy) isn't looking for an authentic Asian adventure.  

Except for its rush-hour service, I Love Sushi makes a great first impression. It's a pretty face, done in sponge-painted, burnt-orange walls, cherrywood chairs, forest green tablecloths, sake-logo paper lanterns and a wall display of wines. Sake connoisseurs will find a broad selection to enjoy at the bar, elbow-to-elbow with fashionable folk.

Appreciating the restaurant's charms doesn't require deep analysis -- for a passionate Asian embrace, stick to this area of expertise. Things like rum steak, barbecued chicken and mozzarella sushi are thrown in to appeal to people who don't really know what they're looking for. I Love Sushi & Steak is trying to appeal to the masses in a highly competitive restaurant market. And in that courtship, economics has to be an equal partner.


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