Saturday, September 8, 2012

Once And Again/Onsen Again

I'll admit it: I'm not a "real" sushi-lover. When it comes to raw fish, I'm a big faker. I liked the cooked stuff, the crab, the kani, shrimp, lobster, and of course, anything tempura-ed. Texturally, raw fish bothers me. Culturally, it was really hard for me to even consider salads a meal, since the Chinese tend not to do cold. So when I say that I love a sushi place, bear in mind that I'm talking about artistry in flavor balance and presentation with a limited, non-specialty ingredients, which to me, means an even tougher audience.

I went to Onsen Sushi in Oakdale this past week with Boy. He'd had a rough workweek, and very often, Japanese food is the cure-all. We'd gone there before when they'd first opened, and were not impressed. The simple rolls we'd ordered were average, and the rice was spread out unevenly. Presentation was nonexistent, and the place was a ghost town. However, to be fair, it was 9 PM and they were only days into their establishment.

But as the Yelp reviews continued to rack up, designating this hole-in-the-wall of a boring strip mall one of the highest user-generated rankings on the powerful site, we figured, eh, it was worth another try. And so we tried ... and were glad we did.

The tiny dining room was half-full, which is not too shabby for a pocket-sized hidden spot in a shopping center in a "secret" suburb on the South Shore (by that, I mean there's no little village, so very little through-traffic). I was skeptical when a large, creepy roach-type bug scuttled past me, which I asked a staff member to remove.

Having lived in New Orleans for many years, where Jacques himself of the renowned Jacques-imo's smashed a palmetto bug (read: giant flying roach) on the wall next to me using the Croc off his foot, then continued the conversation with our table like it was no big deal, I wasn't as freaked out like others might have been. A little, but not a lot.

Anyway, the place itself looked pretty pristine, and the sushi bar was spotless, so we stayed. Whatever.

Boy ordered the shumai appetizer because we remember the gyoza being pretty nondescript, typical of the frozen bag gyozas you can get at any self-respecting Asian supermarket. The shumai started out pretty okay, but I'm not a fan of Japanese shrimp dumplings. I don't like the squish and the aftertaste.

Double squish.
An amuse bouche was sent to every table (which is always a bonus), consisting of white tuna wrapped around some salmon with a cream sauce drizzle. Although I don't do raw, the white tuna was actually nice and firm in texture, and I didn't mind it. I may have even liked it, with its mild sweetness and toothsome feel. The salmon? Not so much. Again, squishhh.

The showstoppers, though, were the specialty rolls we ordered. I was originally incredibly torn between a Bento box or salmon teriyaki entree (I'd been craving salmon for a week) or the inventive specialty rolls, which was what Boy was in the mood for. Big portions with steaming plates of thick teriyaki sauced meats wafted their aromas past me, and I was sorely tempted. But after watching plates of beautifully presented sushi pass us by, I knew that if I didn't get to partake in those fancy-ass rolls, I'd be sad and regretful ... or eat Boy's meal and my own.

So, we decided to roll together.

Clockwise from left: Tiger, Futo Maki, Carissa, 2012
Futo Maki
The cheapest roll we ordered, this is on their regular menu for a mere $5.50. Only five pieces come in an order, but they're pretty overstuffed, with crab stick, the sweet egg, cucumbers, various types of tart and sweet Japanese pickles, and carrots, with seaweed on the outside to hold it all in. Clean, simple flavors were made interesting by the addition of the pickles, and in all, it tasted refreshing, like a palate-cleansing roll.

Tiger Roll
Also always available on their main menu, this roll was a study in contrasts, with a rich, creamy sweet mango sauce and avocado meeting the purer elements of shrimp and spicy lobster. This was a fun roll to eat, with its play on sweetness and lightness, and although it looks like four giant pieces, there are eight pieces to the order.

2012 Roll
From their Sushi Specials handwritten menu, this roll was a big, giant WOW. If this is what 2012 tastes like, I'm happy to stay in this year. Spicy crab mixed with tempura crunchies topped avocado and shrimp hugged in rice and bound by seaweed. The foundation roll was quickly tempura battered and fried before the crispy crab salad was garnished, and the whole thing was presented resting on truffled eel sauce. TRUFFLED EEL SAUCE! Two awesome things coming together in a stroke of genius! Why didn't anyone think of this before? So much umami happened in my mouth with this roll. The flavor was absolutely delicious, and amidst all the fried-ness, nothing was greasy or cloying with the taste of oil. What a treat--my stomach positively grumbles just thinking about it.

Carissa Roll
A decadent surf and turf combo, this roll was outstanding. Incredibly complex and adventurous, but anchored by the velvety earthiness of seared medium rare thin-sliced steak, this roll covered the spectrum in taste, texture, and excitement. The crunch of tempura-fried lobster in the middle! The even harder crunch of crushed wasabi peas on top of the steak! The creaminess of avocado! The tang of creamy wasabi sauce! The greenery of steamed asparagus! Plus, appearances are deceiving with this roll -- the order was broken up into eight perfectly bite-sized pieces. Between the 2012 and the Carissa alone, Boy and I felt vindicated for his rough week, and no longer cared HOW many bugs we encountered.

Although the specialty rolls were kind of expensive ($15), they were all filling and included fanciful elements to create exciting taste experiences that were worth it. Granted, we got disgusting later that night with 3 cups of Auntie Anne's pretzel nuggets from the mall split between the two of us (yes, we're gross), but it was the specialty rolls that brought those big grins to our faces. Located only five minutes from home, we'll definitely be back again. Next time, the teriyaki!

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