It looks like your average Japanese restaurant. There’s teriyaki on the menu. It’s in a nondescript second-floor location on Mass. Ave. And then there’s the name, nondescript itself, like calling a place “Restaurant Sandwich” or “Trattoria Pasta.”
But Cafe Sushi isn’t your average Japanese restaurant. Take a seat at the bar and that becomes clear. This is a destination for people who care about sushi — not rolls filled with 12 different things, draped in avocado, drizzled with spicy mayonnaise, and named for mythical beasts, but sushi in its purer, more pared-back form, sushi that adheres more closely to its traditional roots.
Now, I will never turn down a Krazy Kraken Rainbow Maki. I will eat it happily, drink a few beers, and belt out ’90s college-radio hits at karaoke until your ears bleed and you beg me to please, please stop (about three bars in). But when I want serious sushi, you’ll find me here — possibly alongside your favorite local chef, a food-loving novelist, a Harvard professor. Cafe Sushi’s reputation precedes it.
We are here for the omakase, or chef’s choice. For $90 or so (the price varies slightly depending on what seafood is available), chef Seizi Imura and his team prepare seven or eight courses that reveal, in a steadily intensifying arpeggio, the many nuances of raw fish. The price isn’t chump change, but it is a deal, in the scheme of omakase around town and in the world, and for the quality of its thoughtfulness and its fish. (O Ya and Uni, both of which I love, have a different, and dearer, gestalt.)
Imura took over this restaurant from his parents, who opened it in 1984, bringing with him what he’d learned working at the well-known Sushi Ran in Sausalito, Calif.; brother Kenzi now works here, too. They get most of their seafood directly from Japan, and make most of the accompaniments in house. The omakase emphasizes the Japanese concept of “shun,” meaning the best possible time to eat a specific ingredient. As much as New England embraces its winter root vegetables and summertime stone fruit, we tend to forget that seafood has its seasons, too.
Things might begin with a sashimi course of kamasu, or barracuda, its skin torched, served with house-aged soy sauce, myoga (Japanese ginger), and maitake mushrooms with the spicy Korean sauce ssamjang.
This segues into an assortment of nigiri, seafood pressed onto palm-size pillows of rice. It features several types of white fish, side by side. Think isaki (grunt) with preserved-lemon paste; konbu-cured sea bass with wasabi oil, bonito flakes, and yuzu; sea bream with salt and lemon zest; and ishidai (striped beakfish) with miso and cured blood-orange peel.
The courses progress to coral-hued fish: perhaps umi masu (ocean trout) with shiso and kelp; Arctic char with sauteed scallions, sesame oil, and preserved lime peel; and king salmon with napa cabbage mixed with wasabi-root tops.
Next is sunomono, a palate cleanser involving something vinegary or pickled — say, ankimo (monkfish liver) with ponzu gelee, shiso, pickled watermelon radish, and pomegranate.
Then mackerel and its ilk, darker and oilier, each kind complemented by something bright and acidic: Spanish mackerel with charred pickled red cabbage; herring with dried cranberries rehydrated in shiso vinegar; sardine with pickled red onion and ginger. This is the crescendo.
Which leads to jackfish, the crowd-pleasers of the sushi world. There’s shima aji, or striped jack, with soy-laden seaweed and sake-spiked miso; kanpachi, or amberjack, with candied kumquat and grated daikon radish; and yellowtail with shiso, shallot marmalade, and finger lime. Why serve the intense mackerels before the milder jackfish? “People love them, so I leave them toward the end,” Imura says. “It’s kind of like being a comedian. You don’t put all your great material at the start.”
Slide into eel with ponzu and chestnut puree. And then the finale: two kinds of uni, served simply, mild, briny funk accented by lemon zest and grated wasabi root (the real stuff, not the neon-green paste you might be accustomed to). It’s not so much a meal as it is a journey or a flipbook, the courses of fish run together in succession to form a complete picture. It leads you somewhere, bite by bite.
In other cities — New York, for instance — serious sushi is having a moment. It isn’t picking up much speed here, and I don’t know if it will. Can Boston, with its relatively small Japanese population, sustain more than a handful of high-level, craft-driven counters where pristine fish and precision are the two essential ingredients? On the one hand, the unadorned quality of the food, the lack of frippery, would seem to speak to the New England spirit. On the other, paying top dollar for something so (perfectly) unadorned and delicate would not. Where’s the sauce? Where’s the beef? Like the non-museumgoer says at the museum: That’s art? I could make that! My kid could make that.
Maybe if your kid happens to be trained in using Extremely Sharp Knives, but I’m pretty sure that’s been sliced from the school budget. In the meantime, there’s Cafe Sushi. It is a unique experience, to sit at a small bar and tell the chef in front of you: I trust you. Show me something special. And the chef does.
I’m here for that. And I don’t even have to sing karaoke.
1105 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-492-0434, www.cafesushi