WITH THE SUDDEN ubiquity of Japanese restaurants in the suburbs, and so many of them good, it's hard not to get a little spoiled. But even some that are less successful in purely traditional terms may have attractive features. Call them the Miss Congenialities of the sushi bar world.
At Obi Sushi, 'shi's got the look. The room could have been put together from clips out of a home fashions zine, with its stone trim, full-length mural, columnar lighting fixtures (a nice twist on traditional lanterns), water wall, an exposed staircase and "loft" seating that looks startlingly like a rooftop. It has an even more TriBeCa-chic exhibition kitchen setup, with the stainless steel appliances visible right through the sushi bar, and a list of about 20 premium sakes as well as beers and wine.
But the food doesn't always quite make the cut -- literally. An order of really luxuriant (and suitably expensive) toro sashimi was all but ruined by clumsy slicing across the grain, which made the fish extremely tough. (That it was also sliced a little too thickly was undoubtedly intended as a gift to American palates, but only exacerbated the problem.) On one occasion the sea urchin was specifically touted by one of the sushi chefs as particularly good, but it was a couple of days past its prime flavor. And soft-shell crab tempura was so heavily battered that the crab flavor was all but obliterated.
That said, Obi has many nice dishes, including some fairly unusual ones. The eel spring roll resembles a Middle Eastern "cigar," unagi, shiitakes and spinach wrapped tightly in rice paper and fried. The gyoza, the fried dumplings, are stuffed with tuna rather than pork, a nice twist. "Obi scallops" are grilled and tossed with edamame-flavored butter, a promising flavor pairing (although the scallops could have been more gingerly handled). Deep-fried calamari legs were better balanced than the crab, but the wasabi mayo didn't quite cut the mustard. The octopus in vinaigrette (takosu) was very tender, and the eggplant dengaku, three tiny eggplant grilled with different miso-based sauces, was a fine rendition of a dish offered too rarely.
Beef tataki was good quality, though no flavor surprise. Ika sansai, a salad-size combination of spicy squid and sticky yam, is a personal favorite, but admittedly a textural challenge for some. The teriyaki choices are a little broader than at some restaurants, including salmon and a shrimp/scallop; tofu teriyaki is a commendable attempt, deep-fried with mushroom sauce, but it had absorbed a little oil and tasted much of a muchness. The kitchen also offers pork and beef katsu, which are the Japanese version of chicken-fried steaks.
Most of the sushi is perfectly competent. One version of chirashizushi, various types of fish served over a pile of seasoned rice rather than individually portioned into nigiri, comes with chili sauce, making it rather more like the Korean version.
Obi offers several noodle dishes and soups, all familiar and comfy-making. It's especially nice to see oyaku donburi, a popular mix of chicken and eggs in teriyaki-like sauce, among the "don" dishes ("donburi" is a rice bowl), but it's only available at lunch, which is a shame, as it's one of the great remedies for colds or flu. Obi is one of a happily growing number of Japanese restaurants that offer freshly grated wasabi for aficionados (at $3 a dab). And for fans of green tea ice cream, Obi makes it own, along with ginger, red bean (with optional red bean sauce) and black sesame.
My Sushi in Cabin John is sort of two degrees of separation away from being truly Japanese. Taiwanese native Robin Wu used to work at Uni in Dupont Circle, whose own chef-owner, James Tan, is a Chinese American who trained at Sushi-Ko. And it shows in little ways: the slightly underseasoned sushi rice, the excessive sweetness of some sauces, and the uneven results of some "original" concepts. But nothing about the food disguises the even more essential sweetness of the personnel, and the fact that so many kids are already regulars is evidence of its kindliness.
The (nicely crispy) tempura-fried soft-shell crab rolls were trendily turned inside out -- that is, with the rice on the outside -- but that left the seaweed unattached to the crab like an oversize collar, and indeed it slipped off all four pieces. The same problem attended the shrimp tempura roll, although as the shrimp were somewhat more uniform in shape than the crab pieces, it was possible to keep a better grasp on them. And the shrimp shumai, a frequent special, had been reheated in the microwave and were dangerously hot inside, though delicious.
The greatest confusion for first-timers might come via the sushi menu, which uses some unfamiliar terms. For instance, what's listed as "escola" (and once so resembled scallops that it seemed like one of those T-shirt slogans translated from English to Spanish to Japanese and back) is described by the staff as white tuna, generally known as shiro or albacore, and sometimes may be; but escola is a like-flavored Gulf of Mexico mackerel. "Kanikama" is the fake crab, more familiarly known as surimi mixed with shrimp in the pleasant "dart maki" roll. The menu uses the English "yellowtail" rather than "hamachi," but also lists "kampachi," which is baby yellowtail (and a prime choice). And the futomaki, the classic fat roll of veggies, is described as having eel in it -- which is especially curious, because it correctly does not.
Among other vegetarian options are the kaiso salad, a mix of julienne cucumber, a little seaweed and the clear, crunchy mushrooms called cloud ears in a sesame oil mayo, nice but a tad overly mild; the more familiar seaweed salad, a mix of green wakame and agar with chili flakes; and cucumber, avocado or omelet maki (rolls). The kitchen prefers portabello mushrooms to shiitakes and uses them for boti sushi and maki.
"Chicken triangles," a frequent special, aren't so much triangular as half-round, but tasty, sort of fried chicken dumplings. Salmon and mango roll is just what it sounds like, more interesting than addictive, perhaps. As for the entrees, they seem even more Americanized, or child-centric. Chicken tempura was a couple of pounded breasts which arrived already cut into cubes (for the chopstick-challenged?), piled over rice and with a light glaze drizzled over, sided by two pieces of broccoli, a couple of slices of pickled radish and two spoonfuls of seaweed salad.
Among the best choices are the squid, surf clam, eel, escola and kampachi sushi; the unagi (smoked eel) dinner; and the volcano roll, a mix of shrimp tempura, surimi stick, avocado and cucumber rolled inside-out but with the rice flavored with powdered nori (the "seaweed paper" that wraps rolls). Be sure to ask for the volcano roll without the syrupy orange sauce, however.
The last little niggle, which is not the restaurant's fault but its laundry service's, is that the napkins (a giggly bamboo green) are waaay overdosed in detergent or softener, and the soapy smell and residue transfer to the lips, with unhappy results.
Still, as they used to say about pageant contestants, My Sushi is such a nice place. Single-handedly, it may be raising a new generation of healthful eaters.