A sleek sushi joint boasting striking combinations and an early adopter fanbase
DINE Life does serve up the occasional delicious paradox, such as getting one's first glimpse of the new iPad while sitting at a sushi bar in the outer Richmond. The iPad is elegant, yes, a jewel of a device whose colorful icons zip across the screen at the swipe of a finger, like images glimpsed through the windows of an accelerating train. But it is also the latest in a series of increasingly powerful devices that mediate our relations with the rest of the world. You do touch the iPad, true, to make it work, but mostly you stare at it, as if it's a television.
The sushi bar, by contrast, is an unmediated encounter between customer and chef. No machines get in the way, not even servers, unless you order a beer or sake. There is no swiping unless and until you pay by credit card. The sushi bar in this sense resembles a New York deli: people at a counter full of food, looking and pointing at the food, the chef nodding and preparing the food and handing it back, maybe even watching in approval as it gets eaten. Directness.
This revelation — if that's what it is — came to me recently at five-year-old Oyaji, a Zagat-rated Japanese restaurant at the edge of Lincoln Park. (The name means, more or less, "daddy," in the Sean Connery sense.) The iPad was enthralling and magical, but I was more enthralled by the sight of our young sushi chef at his labors, expertly forming his rolls and hand rolls, wielding his sharp ceramic knives and handing us the results. Gleaming gizmo wizardry at one elbow, and spicy tuna at the other. Give me ... well, it would be greedy to say both, especially since I don't want an iPad.
Oyaji is good-looking in an unassuming way. Its most striking design features are the L-shaped bar, fashioned from blond wood and glass, at the rear of the storefront dining room and, overhead, a grid of beams laid out to form large squares, like upside-down seed beds. The lighting is low and moody, the crowds tending toward young and lively. I did notice one evening that most of the people sitting at the tables toward the front appeared to be occidental, while those at the bar were all Asian — at least until the iPad hipsters showed up.
The food is pretty conventional, mostly excellent, with a few blips. We thought very highly of goma-ae ($4), a boiled (but served cold) spinach, which had a faint sweetness and a bit of crunch from a gratin-like topping of crushed white sesame seeds. We thought nearly as highly of the wakame ($4), or seaweed salad. Less impressive were the sliced tomatoes with mayo ($3.50) — but then it was probably stupid on our part to order tomatoes in early spring — and the avocado roll ($3.50), which was dry.
Also a bit dry was the so-called Christy roll ($6), chunks of grilled albacore in a rice casing. I love albacore and prefer it to the more exalted sorts of tuna, perhaps because it's more likely to be taken locally. But it does seem to be less fatty, and that reduces the margin of error when cooking it. The dryness issue recurred in the Hawaii roll ($5.50), though it was muted, if not mooted, by the presence of spicy mayonnaise. The spicy hamachi roll ($6.50), virtually the same dish, except with yellowtail instead of tuna and no clever name, was better.
Yellowtail also evidently helped lift the Crunchy Wedding ($7), one of those near-blockbuster assemblages that here included (in addition to the fish) avocado slices and tempura batter, again for a quasi-gratin effect. Similarly loaded was the Stirling ($7), with crab, avocado, fish roe, and crunchy protrusions of tempura shrimp. And for sheer elegance, it would be tough to top the spicy scallop hand roll ($7), a papery, dark-green cone filled with rice and scallops turned in spicy mayo, for a nice contrast between sweet brininess and creamy bite.