Pity the poor sushi. The once classic combination of pristine fish, vegetables and vinegared rice has been mainstreamed. As the number of traditional sushi bars across the United States has quadrupled over the past 10 years, so has American creativity. Decorator sushi has emerged, with bizarre combinations like yellowtail and jalapeño, and wrappings of rainbow seaweed -- paper-thin, flour- or soy-based "nori" that comes in yellow, pink, green, white and orange. I've even seen a nightmare-inducing "east meets west" sushi roll, forcing Spam and mayonnaise to mingle with rice and seaweed.
Traditional Japanese sushi is all about flavor and artistry; this new American sushi often is more about funk and fascination.
Sushi Brokers / Hang on Sushi
Sushi Brokers, 17025 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 480-515-5000. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, daily, 5 to 11 p.m.
Lettuce cups: $6
Tuna tataki: $9
Tempura noodles (chicken)$10
Chile citrus (chicken): $10
Hamachi sushi: $5
Hang on Sushi, 15111 North Hayden Road, Scottsdale, 480-905-3984. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.
Baked mussels: $5.25 Beef tataki: $7.25
Favorite combo, lunch: $8.75 Favorite combo, dinner: $15.75 Hang On dinner: $19.50 Tuna sushi: $4
So with a dot.com generation name like Sushi Brokers, I'm expecting this new Scottsdale restaurant to be chock full of funk. What's with the "brokers," after all -- discounts on close-out sushi? Wall Street wasabi? Its menu even has an appetizer section titled "fun and funky."
And with a cuisine that's as much Chinese as Japanese, I'm worried we're in for a confusing, too-cute adventure. But I'm wrong. Sushi Brokers is a fine restaurant, successfully catering to cultured tastes while also giving today's diners some bold, innovative dishes to savor.
The Frank Lloyd Wright/Scottsdale Road area has long been ripe for a sushi joint, and Sushi Brokers fills the gap nicely. It's part trendy bar, perfect for the younger crowd looking for an alternative to sports- or Mexican-themed places. Still, its decor and menu are sophisticated enough to appeal to a more cosmopolitan crowd.
The place is pretty, done in lots of glossy natural wood and glass, with a slinky bar that does double duty as a drinks and sushi-making station. Singles would do well eating at the bar, with TVs to distract while waiting for eye contact from well-coifed fellow diners, and plenty of conversation starters with contemporary flavored sake drinks. The techno music gets loud though, bouncing off polished concrete floors and rattling through the exposed ductwork on the ceiling; I'm happier on the comfortable patio, enclosed and air-conditioned for the summer.
Just when sake is getting more sophisticated (more places serve the high-end stuff, properly chilled, now), someone had to step up with offbeat flavors. A purple haze with razzmatazz concoction goes down like Kool-Aid with a fluoride aftertaste, and while the Godzilla with apple pucker is better, it's too much like an appletini served warm to be exciting. A few sips are fine; a whole sake carafe is tedious.
No one's messed with the sushi, though, with the weirdest offering being crazy ahn's roll. It's ridiculous, however, and at $12, a rip-off. Picture a sunburst presentation of inch-thick rice cakes topped with a jumble of crab, ahi, avocado chunks and shrimp. There's way too much rice here, too many competing flavors of fish to appreciate, and the rice is oddly creamy. No thanks.
Sticking to favorites is completely satisfying -- silky hamachi (yellowtail), velvety nama-shake (salmon), ocean fresh suzuki (sea bass) and even a first-rate California roll, which although admittedly the original American sushi adaptation, still pleases with moist crab, avocado and cucumber.
Waiting upwards of 20 minutes for a simple sushi order isn't cool, though -- one evening, our server tells us it's because there's only one chef on; another evening it's because the chef is brand new.
Not that we're going hungry -- Sushi Brokers doesn't concern itself much with pacing. Entrees come before appetizers, and dishes are placed on the table as soon as they're ready, not when we're ready to tackle a new plate. Plus, portions aren't the dainty models often found at Japanese restaurants.
No complaint there -- we finish most dishes down to the last morsel. Tuna tataki, for example, is brilliant. It's an unorthodox presentation, with the fish mounded over a big bowl of field greens and splayed with cucumber, shredded carrot, radish sprouts and snow peas with a whispery sweet daikon (radish) dressing. But the vegetables are the epitome of fresh, and the tuna is perfect, blending both gently grilled albacore and flash-seared ahi that's been encrusted with white and black sesame seeds. The kitchen's gone berserk with the pepper grinder one evening, but even that offense doesn't slow our chopsticks.
Lettuce cups aren't Japanese, either, but they're terrific, thanks to garden-crisp iceberg and diced chicken breast tossed with mushrooms, scallion and julienne carrot in a black bean sauce spiked with lots of gutsy red pepper. An intriguingly zippy apricot-chile sauce, meanwhile, adds some interest to nicely crispy Asian vegetable spring rolls.
Tempura need some help, though. The vegetables -- broccoli, yam, onion, red pepper -- are cut in such enormous chunks that they're impossible to eat elegantly, even when we abandon chopsticks and use our hands. The batter is bothersome, as well -- limp, tepid and annoyingly gummy. Edamame (steamed soybeans) are just so-so, too, flabby and thin-flavored, while potstickers taste suspiciously pre-fab, with chewy skins and uniform, round wads of bland pork inside. The spicy mustard served with, though, is a knockout.
Entrees are universally excellent. I've added tempura noodles to my list of first-class local dishes, relishing what's essentially a delightful, filling chicken noodle soup. A big bowl brings steaming hot miso broth stocked with udon (lovely thick, firm rice noodles), bright green and still crunchy broccoli, squash and red and green peppers. The topper comes in mounds of battered chicken breast nuggets that stay charmingly crisp even when dunked in the mild, salty broth (Why not use this batter on the veggies? Or if it's the same, at least maintain the quality?).
One evening's special of red snapper is remarkable, too, given the quality of the mild fish, and its skillful sauté in a rich, deeply spicy wasabi-infused beurre blanc sauce tossed over Asian vegetables.
Chile citrus chicken may be more Chinese than Asian, but it's a great dish nonetheless, dipping small bits of breast in feathery batter, then tumbling in diced mushrooms moistened with a heady, red pepper-powerful orange sauce over rice (centerpieces of chicken, shrimp or veggies are available in all entrees).
Asian pan noodles are an excellent option for summertime snacking, as well, delivering a mound of stir-fried yakisoba (ramen-style noodles) tossed with medium-size sweet shrimp, bok choy and carrot glistening with red pepper-dusted sake-soy.
Sushi Brokers may sound like a discount operation, but meals here are high class all the way.
Hang on Sushi
Superficial as it is, I've got to admit that Hang on Sushi's name has kept me away from this new place, too. It hardly sounds serious, and as I've driven by its bright blue exterior capped with red awnings, I've been reminded too much of a Sushi R Us enterprise to want to stop in.
After several meals, I've decided to just keep on driving. While Hang on Sushi doesn't do anything spectacularly wrong, it doesn't do anything remarkably right, either. This is just another ho-hum stop on the step-above-fast-food sushi circle.
It looks dull. Gray-sponged and murky blue walls are sleepy against charcoal-blue carpet and a black wraparound sushi bar. Tables are double draped in white and black, but are paired with too-casual patio-style chairs. There's an odd little room off to the side, with a full bar, some coffee-style tables and what looks like a TV borrowed from the owner's home. The only visual distraction comes from a few Kirin Beer bar mirrors, a couple of Southwestern prints and a few silk trees.
Its menu reads dull. There are no surprises in yakitori (grilled chicken), tempura, grilled New York steak, broiled salmon or teriyaki chicken and beef. The most interesting things are some selected appetizers and an extensive sushi menu (authentic tastes like sticky-bean roll, pickled-radish roll, spicy-octopus roll, and, I love this spelling, a "vegetalian" roll combining asparagus, pickle, avocado and cucumber). Sushi specials can be compelling sometimes, including one visit's attractive blue-fin tuna sashimi.
Too often, Hang on Sushi eats dull. Combination dinners scrape the bottom of the predictability barrel. Chicken teriyaki with California roll? Tempura and California roll? And the house favorite -- a wild and wacky mix of California roll, tempura and chicken teriyaki? Zzzzz.
Combos come with the usual standbys of miso soup (fine enough) and green salad (good, actually, with a terrific ginger dressing). Tempura, in all cases, is superb, competently fried to airy lightness and pleasingly grease-free, with hefty whole shrimp and full-flavored vegetables like yam, eggplant, onion and zucchini. It comes with The Hang On dinner, a bento box offering of baked fish and sashimi plus sides of white rice, orange rounds and Japanese pickles -- and it's the best thing about the meal. While the tiny fillet of salty-edged baked fish is expertly cooked, it's distressingly sweet after the first few bites. Sashimi is outright awful, the tormented and flabby ahi crushing any virtue in mediocre salmon and yellowtail.
The Favorite combo is better -- the California roll tiny but tasty, and chicken breast cut in a generous portion then finished with a nicely restrained drizzle of sauce (at lunch, the combo features teriyaki sauce; at dinner, it's amiyaki, which is basically teriyaki but thinner, sweeter and tinged with ginger).
A few items stand out. A dinner appetizer of beef tataki is wonderful, the thinly sliced, high-grade steak seared just so with a sensational, salty dipping sauce, all served prettily in a slender boat and topped with scallions. Mussels make it, too, the juicy New Zealand creatures baked to golden brown -- two dressed in garlic butter, two draped in a gooey mayo sauce. Instead of the usual bed of rock salt, they're served on white gravel that looks like it belongs in a fish tank, but what the hey. Tataki is another rewarding choice, featuring albacore instead of ahi, and joyously moist under its sprinkle of scallions and sesame seeds.
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The real crippler: Hang On's biggest hang-ups come with its most important showing: sushi. On one visit, salmon is gorgeous, both plain and smoked (see above when it comes with my combo, though). Kanpyo maki (dried gourd) is as it should be, if you like that kind of thing -- rubbery, sweet, fruity -- but negihama (yellowtail with scallions) is past its prime. The fish is off, as is our requested coating of smelt eggs. There's no way a sushi restaurant that can't guarantee primo fish can succeed.
(On a side note, there's a quote I've heard about restaurant food: The food was terrible, and the portions were too small as well. So goes the teeny-tiny sushi at this place.)
Traditional Japanese dining is all about flavor and artistry; at Hang On Sushi, the tradition hasn't made the international transition.