Connecticut is experiencing a Japanese renaissance. That's easy to see in greater Hartford, where a Hibachi restaurant just moved into Prospect Plaza, Umi in Blue Back Square has brought conveyor belt sushi to the region, and the line at Ichiban was practically out the door on an otherwise dead and frigid Sunday night in the West End. In New Haven, chef Ming Lau of Miso says the resurgence is a good decade old, and customers are increasingly discovering the sinfully high-end Chef Tasting service, in which a chef panders to a customer's personal tastes.
However, it's too easy to forget that, in the U.S. at least, the signature genre of Japanese cuisine, sushi, is only as Japanese as pizza is Italian. Sushi has its own history on American soil, and, like everything else (Italian food, for instance), it was originally made in China. The Japanese, however, are peerless in the art of the spectacle — in theater, food, or any combination of the two — so much so that the French critic Roland Barthes asserted in Empire of Signs that the rawness of sushi has more to do with the vivid colors and textures of the uncooked food than with its gastronomic properties. However, trends in American sushi have seen the pursuit of oral happiness edge out presentation, with New York's "more is more" school, California's eclectic approach, and the post-millennial trend of angry sushi (self-punishingly spicy, like volcanic wings) all coming together on Connecticut's tables.
Greater Hartford's Ginza Restaurant Group is the closest diners will come to finding all three in a one-stop shop. Blending these trends together — especially Hartford and Canton's Feng restaurant locations — is what makes head chef John Chen the Billy Grant of extreme sushi. Take the Dynamite roll, recently sampled at Feng Asian Bistro on Asylum Street in downtown Hartford. At its heart is soft-shell crab, which is always tasty but never much to look at, exemplifying the American flavor-uber-alles rule. If it's not as huge as the mountains of fish rolled out to hungry businessmen in Park Avenue South lunch holes in the 1990s, the combination of crab, tuna and salmon all in one roll certainly puts the Dynamite in the big leagues. Diners should note that any roll named after an explosive or incendiary device will be of the angry variety, in this case the telltale flavors coming from spicy salmon, jalapeno and wasabi. And the anything-goes California element is there, too, with its three sauces, and... what's that stuff that looks like onion straws topping it off? Fried imitation crab... cowabunga!
It was surfers on California's central coast who brought to sushi what the left coast also brought to pizza, only far more so. "We would sit there talking about things that were disgusting and should never happen," recalled Andrew Cohen, formerly of Surf Sushi in Capitola, next door to Santa Cruz, "and then we thought more about an idea and realized that it would work. That's how we got the white chocolate and eel combination." Cohen was an early pioneer of tropical fruit in sushi and perhaps the first person ever to add salsa.
Although Surf Sushi was destroyed by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, its spores clearly drifted across the country and landed in New Haven, giving rise to Miya's Sushi. Miya's menu goes even further than did the hippie-surfer pioneers of extreme sushi, with seafood rolls that specialize in invasive species, vegetable rolls featuring chutney, pine nuts, goat cheese and artichokes, and a drink menu that includes a beer noted as "a staple of Japanese drag queens in kabuki theatre for centuries." It is little wonder that of all the sushi joints in New Haven, this one stands out as WNPR food maven Faith Middleton's favorite.
While Miya does have a "for the masses" menu consisting of simple rolls at simple prices, a truly proletarian sushi experience would be one where dad can also order a steak, it's easy to bring the children, or the place delivers. For instance, diners can find a Hibachi restaurant without ever leaving the barrio, with one location in New Britain and the other in West Hartford right where the Hometown Buffet used to be. The go-to delivery option for the Hartford area is I Love Sushi, because you can also order Chinese food, and in the New Haven area, there's Sono Bano of Hamden, a favorite of college students. And while conveyor belt sushi may strike some as a gimmick, there is no better way on earth to quiet down hungry, impatient children than to reach over from your seat, grab a Philadelphia roll, and fill their mouths up with no waiting.
The farthest extremes of the American sushi experience can be had at Miso New Haven. For simplicity, there's the Pumpkin Tempura Roll, both indigenous and fried. For Gilded Age luxury, there's the Chef Tasting service, where $75-125 gets you a personal chef of sorts, who will suss out your personal tastes quicker than TiVo. However, the most extreme sushi (or rather, sashimi) experience is still the same one our ancient ancestors had when they waded into a tide pool, cracked open a sea urchin and slurped up its insides. Uni, as this is called, is considered "the foie gras of the ocean," according to Alex DePratti at Ginza's Bloomfield location. "There is nothing that catches the essence of the sea, and is as creamy and buttery. For me, that's in my last meal."
Some of Connecticut's Best Places For Sushi
Feng Asian Bistro
93 Asylum St., Hartford (860) 549-3364; 110 Albany Turnpike, Canton (860) 693-3364, fengrestaurant.com
Ginza Japanese Cuisine
1295 Silas Deane Highway, Wethersfield (860) 563-8855; 14 Wintonbury Mall, Bloomfield (860) 242-8289, ginzacuisine.com
Ichiban Korean & Japanese Restaurant
530 Farmington Ave., Hartford, (860) 236-5599, ichibanhartford.com
Hibachi & Sushi Buffet
52 Kane St., West Hartford (860) 232-9998; 65 Columbus Boulevard, New Britain (860) 826-1688
I Love Sushi/Egg Roll Express
278 Park Road, West Hartford (860) 232-4422/7668, 88sushi.com
68 Howe St., New Haven (203) 777-9760, miyassushi.com
Miso Japanese Restaurant
15 Orange St., New Haven (203) 848-6472, misorestaurant.com
Sono Bana Japanese Restaurant
1206 Dixwell Ave., Hamden (203) 281-4542, sonobana.com
Umi Sushi & Tapas
53 Isham Road, West Hartford (860) 206-0290, umisushitapas.com