Sitting in the dark-orange, Dr. No-like bar at Scottsdale's Stingray Sushi, drinking a tall glass of Kirin draft and watching the promising Phoenix Suns get spanked by San Antonio recently, it occurred to me that I probably feel the same way toward Stingray Sushi as I do toward our basketball team right now. That is, I'm pulling for it to win, though it's clear our guys have some obstacles to overcome.
After all, unless you're some wrinkled old fart, it's difficult not to have some enthusiasm for Stingray's youthful, ultra-hip groove, just as Phoenicians have good reason to be excited by a lineup that includes Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire and Mr. Versatility, Shawn Marion. Stingray is brought to us by Greg Donnally, the same fella who crafted the swanker-than-thou Scottsdale tiki lounge Drift, and the effort Donnally has put into Stingray is impressive: zebra-wood tables; mod chairs, booths and banquettes; a long sushi bar with four stations behind which will soon be a waterfall; Japanese-style restrooms with sliding doors; and, most notably, a saltwater fish tank set into the floor of the entranceway that holds several live stingrays.
Dr. Evil would prefer sharks with frickin' laser beams on their heads, but stingrays are pretty cool. Austin Powers and Foxxy Cleopatra would've dug the bar's awesome sound system, often playing a mix of '70s funk and soul.
Numerous small touches are noteworthy. Tables are set with small square pots of freshly cut wheatgrass, and instead of the usual, plastic-topped soy-sauce containers, there are little, ceramic, Japanese dispensers. Attractive Japanese ceramic dishes are used, and before one is served, your waitress brings you an oshibori, the hot, wet cloth one usually receives at true Japanese sushi bars. Stingray's staff also tries greeting each guest through the door with a hearty irrashaimase, even if Western tongues tend to drag out that final "e," when it's supposed to be clipped.
As far as the eats go, it's a culinary journey with peaks and valleys. As Donnally and his partners have got restaurant experience coming out of their pores, I'd ascribe most faults to the fact that Stingray has only been open for three or four weeks now. But as I have faith that the Suns will rebound after that disappointing match-up with the Spurs (they already did, at this writing, against New Orleans; that counts, doesn't it?), I similarly hope Donnally & Co. will steadily improve as the weeks pass.
Judging from the bar business they get from Scottsdale's beautiful young things, I'd say they have a hit in the making. However, for my own selfish, gluttonous reasons, I want them to succeed food-wise as well as style-wise. So let's hit the elements that need revamping first. In an attempt, I think, to mimic Blue Wasabi's success at high-concept sushi rolls, like the Surf 'n' Turf and the Spicoli (made with BBQ Fritos), Stingray's menu attempts a marriage of Latin and Japanese cuisines in places, with maki such as the Ceviche, Mango Tango and Samba rolls. Alas, these were still under development during my visits, and had been crossed off the sushi list.
However, based on the number of other rolls I tried, I think I can safely say that maki is not Stingray's strong point. On the whole, the rolls suffered from a sort of sameness, like the sushi you buy ready-to-eat at Trader Joe's. For example, the crunchy roll lacked crunchiness, and the lava roll -- shrimp tempura, flying fish roe and avocado, topped with mounds of spicy tuna -- I found hard-pressed to finish. The tuna was so well hidden in the spicy mix, it might as well have been crab meat. And the roll itself seemed particularly bland. The maki encircled a little steel condiment container of flaming oil, a pathetic attempt at visual fireworks where some for the taste buds would be preferable.
Further confusing matters were the sushi chefs' willingness to improvise on ingredients without alerting a wait staff that oftentimes seemed befuddled by Japanese cuisine in general. (For instance, I ordered a Pink Blossom roll that was delivered to me wrapped in green soybean paper.) But the maki were not the only problem. Warm sake was served to me on two occasions when it should be so hot you can barely pick up the bottle.
Stingray's green tea was the right temperature, made with actual tea leaves, which earned the kitchen points. But these points were quickly lost when the waitress brought my tea in a traditional yunomi tea cup, with a tablespoon sticking out of it, and sugar on the side. Apparently, she thought she was working at Denny's! But be warned: What's amusing to me would be an unimaginable faux pas in Japan, and to green tea purists everywhere. Dessert-wise, the fried green tea ice cream was a disaster of tsunami-like proportions, and made me gag.
On the other hand, all of the nigiri sushi was very well executed, from the tuna and yellowtail to the salmon roe and the octopus, which leads me to conclude that someone behind the sushi bar knows what he's doing. In addition, many of the cooked items on the menu were quite yummy, such as the hamachi kama (broiled yellowtail collar), which was so rich and fatty that I scraped every millimeter of bone until it was cleaner than Sunday morning TV. Another winner was the black cod marinated and seared in sweet miso. It looked like a little, Piscean version of a pork chop with a brownish miso crust, and the flesh was both buttery and flaky, if you can imagine.
The yakiniku was a little like sukiyaki, save that the beef was finely shredded. It was quite good with the sticky Japanese rice served with it. I applaud Stingray for doing more with its miso soups. In Japan, miso might have a variety of ingredients other than the standard tofu and seaweed, and Stingray's Trippin' Miso with red soy bean paste, as well as shiitake and enoki mushrooms, is an excellent example of same. I liked less the Thrilla in Manila Miso. The clams tasted off to me, and there was too much miso used, making the broth overly salty.
Despite Stingray's flaws, I'll give it a tentative recommendation, with a warning: Get into a Drift-like winning streak, or else I'm putting on my cheerleader outfit and doing my Kirsten Dunst Bring It On impersonation outside the restaurant until it improves. And believe me, people, no one wants to see that during supper.
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