Cafe Reviews

A Roll by Any Other Name

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.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet