Cafe Sushi is two restaurants in one. The first is your typical Japanese joint in America, offering caterpillar rolls and teriyaki. The second is the area’s best secret sushi restaurant you’ve never been to. Of course, it’s not much of a secret at all — it won a spot in Boston magazine’s Best of Boston issue this year, and seats at the bar can be hard to come by. Earlier this year, chef Seizi Imura brought his food to a new audience, teaming with cocktail bar the Hawthorne for a pop-up dinner. Yet when people talk about where to get their raw-fish fix — your O Yas, your Unis, your Oishiis — Cafe Sushi is rarely on the list.
It should be.
The cooked food is fairly average. Yudofu — kelp broth with tofu, vegetables, udon, and ponzu dipping sauce — lacks flavor, more glorified water than refreshing temple fare. An unagi bento is nicely conceived, fat strips of eel served on rice with pickles, soup, salad, dumplings, and a choice of California roll or sashimi. But it all tastes as you’d expect it to taste anywhere, with standard sashimi selections. You’d never guess that Cafe Sushi specializes in carefully sourced, seasonal seafood, often from local purveyors such as Wild Rhody and Snappy Lobster.
The restaurant itself stands out about as much as the bland yudofu broth, a basic, blue-carpeted, white-walled room in a concrete strip of businesses on the edge of Harvard Square. Some fresh paint in a pretty color would go a long way.
But never mind. Pull up a seat at the sushi bar and give Imura your order: “omakase” (pronounced oh-ma-ka-seh). This means “I leave it up to you,” and the meal that follows is exquisite, palate-expanding, as Technicolor as the surroundings aren’t. In kaiseki, or Japanese haute cuisine, dishes arrive in a defined order. Here, there is a similar sense of progression and rhythm as the meal unfolds, Imura delivering one course, then — after a wait just a few beats short of too long — another.
One might begin with a clever taste, a spoon of sweet, pale corn kernels set against plump, salty orange roe, the flavors tied together with a bit of the lime-like fruit sudachi, brought back from Japan by Imura’s mother, we are told. Both ingredients burst similarly in the mouth, to very different effect.
Then a trio of sashimi preparations resting on a speckled white plate: branzino in a pool of sesame sauce with crisp shreds of onion; lush salmon belly, scored and seared just on the surface; Florida snapper cured with kelp for extra texture and flavor, served on a lemon slice with the herb shiso.
Or a rectangle of tuna with wasabi oil, smoked salt, shiso, and fermented tofu; seared mackerel with salted bonito innards, pickled ginger, cilantro, and lime; and ginzake, Canadian coho salmon. The omakase lineup is always changing, reflecting Imura’s whim and what fish is available.
One night I sample a dish unlike anything I’ve been served in this country: thin-sliced, vinegared cucumbers and translucent white squid tentacles, with their distinctive crunch and ooze. On top rests a crunchy, delicious fried whiting head, to be eaten eyes, pointy pout, and all.
Then there is a parade of nigiri, fish on rice. At Cafe Sushi, these aren’t too big, as they can be elsewhere. They are delicate yet satisfying mouthfuls, the rice cooked perfectly, mildly seasoned. (Pickled ginger, on the other hand, is too sharp and vinegary.) There might be orata with wasabi oil and lime salt; yellowtail with cherry blossom leaf and plum; house-cured tuna with the citrus-and-chili paste yuzu kosho; tender, tiny squid; soy-cured local bluefish. Tea-smoked salmon from Machias, Maine, is so heavenly it takes restraint not to order a whole plate of nigiri topped with this alone. At the point when the palate might be starting to feel the slightest bit jaded, Imura presses pause and sends out a refresher: a steaming cup of the simplest broth, made from the bones of madai, Japanese sea bream.
At the end, the diner is sated not stuffed, quite content. “That might be the best sushi experience I’ve ever had in Boston,” says a friend who has sampled sushi all over Japan.
Omakase can be an expensive way to eat. Our $60 tasting menu feels fairly priced, but ordering a la carte gives control over both the bill and the menu. And it brings the opportunity to try the likes of oshi-zushi, a style in which rice is pressed together with salmon or mackerel, burdock root, shiso, ginger, and kombu. Too, vegetarians are treated unusually well at Cafe Sushi, with nigiri featuring combinations such as pickled fiddleheads and the Korean chili paste gochujang, marinated eggplant and yuzu kosho, and smoky, rich seared avocado with truffle oil, salt, and lemon juice.
Cafe Sushi has been in business since 1984, owned by Imura’s parents. He learned to make sushi there, then left it all behind to study art on the West Coast. But sushi reeled him back in. As a way to support himself during his studies, he took a job at the very wonderful Sushi Ran in Sausalito, Calif. At Cafe Sushi, we reap the benefits of his eight years there. He returned to Cambridge in 2007, to a restaurant that took a backseat to the owners’ wholesale business. It was known mainly for a deal it used to offer on Sundays, he says: “No one knew what it was called. People just called it Dollar Sushi.”
Imura has turned it around. Cooked food still lags, perhaps not a surprise given the name. But Cafe Sushi deserves to be counted among the best sushi restaurants in town.
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