Cheap tuna is ingrained in American culinary traditions. Canned tuna, typically "chicken-of-the-sea" albacore, has been the choice of many people who are on monetary diets for generations. Yet in other parts of the world, tuna is the Ferrari of fish. One bluefin tuna, or maguro, at Tokyo's famed Tsukiji fish market -- the fishing industry equivalent of Wall Street -- can fetch more than the cost of a luxury Japanese car. The cost of bluefin runs more than $45 per pound, making bluefin part of the gold rush in the oceans.
That's why sushi is so expensive. The Japanese are willing to pay top price for fish with high fat content, texture and taste. Here in the US, sushi -- and other Japanese products such as Nintendo -- transformed the high rolling 1980s. Americans were introduced to the expense and prestige factor of eating sushi -- the diminutive food with the wallet-sized bite.
The first sushi place in Charlotte (back in the 1980s) was strictly Japanese. As sushi grew in popularity, many savvy Asian restaurateurs realized Japanese cuisine brought in a higher check average then, say, Chinese food. Charlotteans had grown accustomed to paying a premium for sushi and, quite frankly, most restaurant patrons can't distinguish a Japanese sushi chef behind the line for a Chinese, Korean or even Latino one. Not that one country has the exclusive rights to make sushi, but the Japanese will tell you sushi has been a part of their diet for 300 years, and their Japanese sushi chefs add the whisper of wasabi to the rice pillow, not mayo.
Today, sushi is available literally everywhere and even though that's not bluefin tuna or another costly fish on most of those trays, Charlotte consumers are willing to pay a premium for sushi -- even for fake crab, avocado and cucumber. I guess what I'm saying is the sushi emperor has no clothes.
I normally hit all sushi places when they first open. I like to see the original intent of the owners and watch it morph into what the neighborhood expects. Good sushi places rely on high volume -- I don't mean the techno blaring from the speakers, but the turnover of fish. After walking into the 60-seat Koi Restaurant. Sushi Bar (née Pizza Hut), I sat at the sushi bar and watched the Chinese sushi chef produce his orders.
The room still holds familiar Pizza Hut features, but the owner has added Asian touches. Koi is owned by John Chen, who has worked in Charlotte Asian restaurants for decades. His parents owned Manchu Wok in SouthPark for 13 years, as well as Royal Panda, which they sold. The senior Chens currently own Chen's Bistro. John Chen opened his first restaurant three years ago. Fujo (301 S. College St., in Wachovia), named for Chen's native city in China, offers a combination of Chinese and Japanese dishes.
When Chen first opened Koi nine weeks ago, the menu was almost exclusively sushi, but he has since added Chinese items as well. "We intended to have both Chinese and Japanese food from the beginning, but the neighborhood (Cotswold) was excited about the sushi. So we started that first. But we needed to have Chinese as well since many people don't want raw fish."
Koi's sushi chef is Zheng, a native Chinese trained by a Japanese sushi chef in northern Virginia. Chen reports Zheng once served sushi to President Bush.
Koi's menu was developed by Chen after a series of road trips to New York, Las Vegas and California. He decided on a Chinese fusion and has his cousin Jing Chen producing these dishes. John Chen plans to expand his limited wine list in the next few months, but the beer list will remain small.
On another visit, we started with the unimpressive steamed pot stickers with thick, gummy wrappers. More dynamic was the tempura round-up with extra-large, crispy shrimp and still-hot sliced carrots, mushrooms and squash.
Of the sushi, our favorites included the moji balls, a summer sushi selection of rice balls topped with minced, seasoned tuna, and the nigiri, although no "whisper of wasabi" here. The rolls offer little in the way of fresh flavor. The fried soft shell crab spider roll was good, if tentative. However, the Koi signature roll was densely filled with deep-fried tuna and a sweet sauce. I get suspicious of fried, cooked and highly seasoned maki. The reason I like sushi is to taste the ocean -- not the fryer.
But the biggest surprise was the check: huge. I know sushi is expensive and items mount up when you're ordering rolls costing $7, $8 or $9. But I wasn't having maguro or toro. I had yellowtail tuna and eel. To be fair, most of the Chinese entrees range from $8 to $13. It's just the sushi that seems steep for the quality.
In six weeks, Chen is opening his third restaurant, Jade, beside the "air traffic control tower" at Ballantyne Village. Chen reports Jade will feature Asian fusion and a sushi bar and have a "menu totally different from Fujo and Koi." But will it have the same price tag?
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