Like the doughnut or the double-meat stuffed crust, big sushi is all-American. You know big sushi: Ginormous maki rolls packed with fiery tuna hash, sugary broiled unagi (freshwater eel), avocado, and tobiko (flying fish roe) dyed Gatorade green, under a crosshatch of wasabi mayo. Is megamaki a gross aberration, or the fascinating artifact of an emerging hybrid food style?
No question where the Japanese government comes down. It wants its sushi back, and not just from American strip-mall sushi bars. Last month, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries announced it would begin a worldwide inquiry into restaurants that call themselves Japanese. Phrased in the dry prose of bureaucrats, the official statement said it would send inspectors out to judge whether Japanese restaurants abroad are, well, Japanese enough.
Like the inquisitions of the Middle Ages, Japan's great sushi purge kicked off in Paris. According to the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Daily News, the local office of the Japan External Trade Organization is just finishing up the task. Of the six hundred so-called Japanese restaurants in Paris, only a fraction will get official certification. "We expect there'll only be about fifty restaurants on the list," an unnamed official said.
With its massive maki (rolled sushi) and wedges of cheesecake, stylish, sprawling Miyozen probably wouldn't make that list, but owners Susan Chae and Ki Kim might be too busy to care. This is the third sushi restaurant for the husband-wife team, who own Koryo Sushi in nearby Temescal and Drunken Fish at the southern end of Piedmont Avenue. The maki at all three places may flirt with clunky, but the couple knows how to fill up a dining room with young sushi eaters. It's a question of location, for sure Miyozen (which means "contemporary Zen experience") anchors one of Emeryville's busiest intersections. But with its contemporary high design, the three-month-old restaurant already feels like a destination for the vaguely stylish.
On a recent night the 140-seat dining room, huge by sushi standards, had a smattering of guys in H&M jeans, logo track jackets, and trucker caps with off-kilter brims. One guy was wearing shades the size of protective lab glasses. But even he was no match for Miyozen's main dining room, which seems slightly clubby even as it has the scale and sleek, hard surfaces of a food court. It's got sparkly, black-granite tabletops, stainless steel soffits on the ceiling, and big expanses of graphic cherry-blossom wallpaper in taupe and faded persimmon. The main dining room also has one irresistible bit of theater: a perpetually creeping kaiten belt.
Yeah, Miyozen is a kaiten, or conveyor-belt, sushi restaurant, where dishes bearing maki and edamame snake around the massive central bar like widgets in a factory. Okay, so it's only partially kaiten. The tables against the side wall, as well as those in a couple of spillover rooms, rely strictly on table service. Unlike Isobune, the Rockridge place where the plates circle the bar in little boats, Miyozen's peripatetic nigiri navigate water-free.
Susan Chae says the design is pretty much a carbon copy of the original Miyozens, a three-restaurant chain in Seoul. Business faltered, so the owner a subsidiary of the Hyundai corporation sold the concept to Chae and Kim, who re-created it here on the ground floor of a brand-new Emeryville condo building, cherry-blossom wallpaper and all. There's even a kids' playroom, outfitted with IKEA swag.
The concept is cute, even if you choose not to construct a meal from the kaiten. But look closely at the dishes gliding along on the belt, with its shiny red-and-yellow-checkerboard scales, and you may prefer to have your sushi rolled fresh, even if you have to wait for it. Certain dishes seem to languish on the smoothly crawling belt, especially if you find yourself at Miyozen during off-peak hours. Ultimately, the kaiten line is too long. Even on a Saturday night when the dining room was slammed, there was simply too much space between the dishes. That makes it easy to spot the duds, the ones nobody wants. A plate of spurned spicy mussels by the look of them, the same ones that rotated past over and over again for half an hour began to look like circulating roadkill. But the serve-yourself rolls allow the owners to get away with employing fewer staff than in a place where sushi-makers mingle with customers like bartenders.
Dishes that spent any time in the deep fryer were disappointing, and not always because of what was on the outside. A plate of appetizer tempura brought a couple of soft, flavorless shrimp. The batter had sunk in a thick lip around the base of the vegetable pieces, as if they'd been pre-dipped and left to sit around long enough for the batter to settle. Veggie gyoza in ruffled, bright-green wrappers had a filling of grated daikon that felt mushy. Deep-fried chicken tasted as if it had been cooked in a fryer overloaded with orders. The batter seemed to have melted away in oil too cool for deep-frying. The skinless, boneless nuggets looked pale and oily. A mega veggie roll, a maki crammed with carrots, daikon, and other vegetables, had greasy strips of deep-fried tofu skin.
When we snatched a bowl of edamame from the conveyor belt, the pods were cold and leathery. Poki tuna salad brought a huge pile of tuna minced in the food processor, with enough Thai-style sriracha chile-and-garlic sauce massaged into it to ignite the taste. It came with a thick nest of seaweed salad heavily flavored with sesame oil.
Stick with Miyozen's huge maki. The best ones have big tastes and plush textures, and as long as you're not expecting subtlety, you can end up feeling satisfied. A Dynamite roll was packed with imitation crab salad and avocado and draped with fresh-tasting salmon. Drunken Fish roll was similar, only with shrimp tempura inside and a shimmering net of fire-red tobiko on top.
A Poki tuna roll moved past and we grabbed it. The thick slices of spicy tuna-filled maki tasted fine. A clump of seaweed salad almost obscured the maki pieces, unlike the order we saw a sushi-maker handing to a server, where the pieces stood on their sides under a delicate garnish of seaweed. The kaiten version looked thrown-together.
A chef's choice of nigiri pieces had seafood that was fresh enough. But even at its simplest, this is a sushi bar where the quality of the food is less important than the gleaming visuals, a place more devoted to mood than maki. Miyozen's conveyor belt may be imported, but what rides on top of it is 100 percent American.
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