Blame California. The state -- and state of mind -- that dreamt up thin-crust designer pizza also created the California roll, that decidedly non-Japanese rice-and-nori-wrapped union of fake crab, avocado and English cucumber.
So it makes sense that La-la-land would be the home base for California Roll & Crazy Sushi. In addition to its two eateries in Hollywood, the company opened a third on far-from-glamorous Bloor West last spring. (A fourth is imminent at Leslie and York Mills, and a fifth will follow at Yonge and St. Clair.)
Interesting stuff No wonder foodie fuss-budgets have their knickers in knots. This is not real sushi, they sneer, this is this is. Well, other than sacrilege, exactly what is it?
Actually, it's pretty interesting stuff -- as long as you go into this trendy little spot with an open mind, an empty stomach and the mind-set that there's no Hiro here. Sure, there are the expected hand-pressed nigirizushi like yellow-tail hamachi ($4.50 for two) and broiled unagi eel ($4.75). But why go for the old standbys when sushi tacos ($6.50 for three) are on the menu?
Joining me this lunchtime is my skeptical pal Doubting Thomas, a chap who acquired his reputation for incredulity after investing his life savings in Bre-X. He tsks as he takes his not-very-comfortable seat in the gold-hued room back-lit by black lights. As Ella swings on the CD player, at the next table a carbon copy of Brittany from TV's Big Brother gushes about a guy she met at frosh week: "Omigod, he is sooo rilly hot!"
As is the dollop of wasabi that pushes eggplant tempura ($4.95) into orbit. Each piece of eggplant has been sliced, fanned and lightly battered so it's not only extremely tasty, but attractive to boot. A bowl of salted edamame soy bean pods ($3.95) makes a great snack over a few glasses of hot or cold sake ($3.95 small/$6.50 large). But because it takes so much energy to shell them, we've only had a few before the next dish appears.
Yummy Crispy -- three grilled rice-paper "tortillas" topped with raw spicy tuna ($5.95) -- deserves its name. More of the same tuna shows up in Jumbo Volcano ($8.50), a pair of "hamburger patties" made of minced fish instead of the ground chuck it tastes exactly like. Should have come with a sesame-seed bun and a pickle.
Which is what some will be in when they try Las Vegas futomaki rolls ($6.95), five 2-inch-diameter spirals wrapping seaweed and deep-fried rice along with avocado, whitefish, crab and cream cheese. Cream cheese?!?
Hey, it works for me. Somewhat more traditional, sushi pizza ($8.95 with a bowl of perfunctory miso soup) sees a thick, deep-fried rice crust topped with thin slices of raw salmon, mayonnaise and slivered green onion rings.
To counter all this rice, we finish with salmon-skin Salada ($6.95), a hefty mound of veggies -- crisp iceberg lettuce, tomato wedges and red pepper strips dressed with miso and bonita flakes -- layered with fleshy broiled salmon shell. Although Tom likes his salmon-skin crunchier, he agrees that everything else has been delightfully out of the ordinary.
And that sums up the best of California Roll & Crazy Sushi: off-the-wall and out-to lunch.
(493 Bloor West, 963-8861)
An anomaly on the Annex sushi strip -- unhurried atmosphere and friendly, efficient service, coupled with comfy booths and better-than-average vittles. This generation could outlive its competition. Open Sunday to Thursday noon to 1 am, Friday and Saturday noon to 2 am. Fully licensed. Smoke-free. Delivery. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: An anomaly on the Annex sushi strip -- unhurried atmosphere and friendly, efficient service, coupled with comfy booths and better-than-average vittles. This generation could outlive its competition. Open Sunday to Thursday noon to 1 am, Friday and Saturday noon to 2 am. Fully licensed. Smoke-free. Delivery. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Anyone standing in the endless lineup waiting for a table at Sushi On Bloor -- great food, shame about the slow and forgetful service -- will want to know that there's a Nipponese alternative a few doors down.
Open since the fall, New Generation hasn't made quite the splash of S.O.B. but is well worth checking out. For starters, it stays open late, there are big comfy booths for privacy, and the staff are friendly and efficient. And while most of the raw fish and rice combos are comparable to the competition, some are quite unique.
Catch the Dragon Red ($7.95). Artfully arranged on a wooden block to resemble a wasabi-breathing serpent, this dish features raw salmon fillet over futomaki stuffed with avocado, tobiko flying fish roe and shards of crunchy tempura batter. The head and tail are rendered by a pair of tail-on deep-fried tiger shrimp standing upright.
A blackboard special -- salmon roses -- falls short. Lovely to look at, this trio of slightly smoked salmon "flowers" get crowned with mayo and boring bits of whitefish. But a six-pack of deep-fried gyoza dumplings stuffed with minced pork ($2.95) really perk up when dunked in sweet vinegary soy.
A favourite at S.O.B., Nasu Dengaku ($4.50) disappoints. Baked whole here -- unskinned and stem-on -- the miso-coated split eggplant is much too mushy and difficult to eat with chopsticks. But tofu salad ($3.95) -- beancurd cubes, romaine, purple cabbage, red pepper and daikon in a gingery miso dressing -- really satisfies. And almond-age ($4.95) beats them all, its battered chicken nuggets layered with slivered almonds. I swear the dip on the side was HP sauce. Love it!
Now, if only New Generation could turn off the radio blaring Britney Spears and 'N Sync, maybe more of us would feel a little more welcome.
In what came as a shock to many, successful cafe and DJ joint 52 Inc. (394 College) closed its doors permanently last Thursday. But don't count the gal-positive crew out yet. Co-owner Amy Katz says she and partner Kate Cassidy are to open an office in the 401 Richmond West rabbit warren. From there they'll continue to promote some of the city's most crucial turntablist throwdowns.
And the lineups at Albert's Real Jamaican Food (679 St. Clair West, 658-9445) will soon be shorter. The popular jerk chicken shack will open a second take-away on Queen West east of Bathurst "any day now." JA translation: sometime before Christmas.
CALIFORNIA ROLL & CRAZY SUSHI
(320 Bloor West, 960-3888)
Traditionalists may balk, but this L.A.-style sushi salon wraps unconventional ingredients -- cream cheese?!? -- in more familiar rice 'n' nori. Expect lineups at peak times for this compact, casually modern spot. Open Monday to Saturday 11 am to 11 pm, Sunday and holidays noon to 10 pm. Fully licensed. Smoke-free. Delivery. Access: short step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: Traditionalists may balk, but this L.A.-style sushi salon wraps unconventional ingredients -- cream cheese?!? -- in more familiar rice 'n' nori. Expect lineups at peak times for this compact, casually modern spot. Open Monday to Saturday 11 am to 11 pm, Sunday and holidays noon to 10 pm. Fully licensed. Smoke-free. Delivery. Access: short step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN