Submitted for your consideration: the worst sushi I've had since I made the mistake of walking into a Todai many years back. Sushi that makes Trader Joe's prepackaged California rolls seem like the food of the gods. Sushi so repulsive that it'd make Pope John Paul II sit up on his funeral bier and spin his mitered noggin like Linda Blair in The Exorcist!
That's the execrable level of sushi that I experienced on my first visit to Scottsdale's Sakana Sushi & Grill on North Hayden Road, next to McCormick Ranch. The Scottsdale Sakana is part of a small chain owned by restaurateur Nobu Sawai, with locations in Ahwatukee and Glendale, and a fourth coming soon to east Mesa. A reader recently recommended the Scottsdale spot with glowing praise, and like a Spanish mackerel after a shiny lure, I took the bait.
I'm always a sucker for the promise of superior sushi, mainly because there's so little of it in greater Phoenix. Sure, there are sushi bars aplenty, but only a small handful rise to the level of the sushi places you'll find on the West Coast. There is a demand for sushi in the desert, but what's being peddled to meet that demand often falls short. And those of us who're slaves to sushi are too willing to lower our standards, just because there's a joint nearby that's cranking out the tuna rolls.
How else to explain the apparent popularity of a spot like Sakana? It turned out to be not as atrocious on my second visit as my first night there had indicated, but, at best, the place is too inconsistent and mediocre to recommend. On each of my three visits, the postage-stamp-size eatery was busy with mostly goofy, well-heeled white folks for whom I'm guessing Sakana is a short drive from their abodes. Hard to imagine anyone driving long distances to partake of such middling fare.
Indeed, if I were not bound by my duties as a critic to eat at the object of my review more than once, I would not have returned to Sakana ever again. The evening began with our ditsy server correcting my Japanese companion's pronunciation of gyoza ("geeoh-zha"), or Japanese pot stickers. "Oh, you mean geeoh-ja," said the waitress, who was Asian, but clearly not Japanese like my friend. It's not a big deal, but looking back on it afterward, it was clearly a harbinger of things to come.
Sakana's portions were too big and carelessly made when it came to the maki and nigiri sushi. Americans are trained to believe that bigger is better. But super-sizing doesn't work with sushi. Rather, sushi should be all about quality, not quantity. Just because you bring me a Tootsie roll the size of a baby Gila monster doesn't mean it's any good. For yellowtail nigiri on that initial eve, I was offered a piece at least twice as large as the rice beneath it. This would have been lovely if I hadn't had to gnaw on it like a hunk of boiled tripe. Yellowtail should be soft, delish and dissolve with minimal mastication. But Sakana's yellowtail was so tough, I didn't even bother to finish it after the first attempted tear.
Sakana means "fish" in Japanese, but ironically the fish at Sakana tasted third-rate and fresh only from the icebox. The tuna maki and nigiri, the octopus nigiri, and the squid nigiri were all flavorless and unappetizing. And the rice beneath and around them, in the case of the maki, had been overcooked to the point of being mushy. Biting into a lump of it was, I imagine, similar to noshing on a hunk of Silly Putty. In fact, the rice of my salmon roe (or ikura) nigiri was so much like this that I spit it out not long after putting it in my mouth.
That first meal was on a Thursday, and the floor manager informed me that the restaurant's fish is delivered on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So much, then, for the possible excuse that we might have gone to Sakana on the wrong day. Moreover, the specialty rolls also lacked an expert touch. In one instance, the "crazy yellowtail" roll with crab, shrimp tempura and spicy yellowtail on top was falling apart, and the panko-breaded crunchy eel roll, with eel, cream cheese and avocado, had been fried so much, it was like sinking your teeth into a thin crust of blackened concrete. My companion rolled her eyes in horror at the comically massive dollop of wasabi placed on one plate of sloppy sushi. The Japanese are big on presentation, and normally would not allow such ungainly displays.
Subsequent dinners at Sakana were not quite as dissatisfying. The rice was not as gross on trips two and three, and the presentation was a bit neater, though never quite as neat as it should be. Maki rolls would burst at the seams, with tuna or some other fish popping grotesquely from the top. And sometimes the nigiri would be overwhelmed by the huge slices of fish placed on them. In the case of the salmon nigiri, where the salmon itself was not bad, I could forgive the horrid display. But when, say, the ahi tuna was ma-ma, the Japanese phrase for "so-so," I felt less forgiving.
On trips two and three, the crazy yellowtail roll both looked and tasted satisfactory, and many of the non-sushi items, like the edamame, the spring rolls and the karaage (or deep-fried chicken strips), went well with my bottles of Kirin. I also found the agedashi tofu appetizing, lightly fried cubes of bean curd in a savory puddle of tempura sauce.
The "geeoh-ja" from the first trip nabs the prize for being the worst non-sushi item. Far too limp and greasy. My favorite non-sushi item was the calamari tempura, thick fingers of squid that looked like steak fries, prepared with a light batter. Eating them made me think that there is hope for Sakana, if only it would apply that Japanese principle of gambare! -- which, loosely translated, means "do your best!" I don't get the feeling that Sakana's Scottsdale location is doing its best. Until it does, I must withhold my recommendation, at least until it can rise above the level of ma-ma, and prove to me that my first experience there was nothing more than a freak event.
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