Sushi King

6490 Dobbin Rd., Columbia

997-1266

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Prices: Most dinner entrees $8.95 to $15.95.

Credit Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.

Just what does it mean when a restaurant uses the words "king" or "queen" to trumpet the specialty of the house? If you've ever eaten anything other than ice cream at the Dairy Queen, you'll know that it sometimes declares an item's competitiveness in the world at large, but more often it indicates the item's relationship to the rest of the things on the menu.

Sushi King, a restaurant with a full Japanese menu, is a case in point -- the sushi compares very well with that of other restaurants in the same price range, and it leaves the menu's other dishes in the dust.

Sushi King's serene dining room has a sushi bar at the far end, with three dining areas divided by woven bamboo planters and two private, screened rooms that seat about six each. Bright paper lanterns and fish prints accent the walls. The service is courteous and eager.

Apart from a few distinguished appetizers and hot dishes, sushi (vinegared rice with raw fish and/or vegetables) and sashimi (sliced raw fish) are by far the best value here. Both have all the hallmarks of quality: Fish is odorless and has the dewy sheen and clean taste of absolute freshness; portions are ample, the ends of the fish slices draping generously over each rice ball; and presentation is lovely.

The good-sized a la carte sushi menu comprising both nigiri zushi (rice balls with seafood toppings) and maki zushi (filled rice rolls) is augmented by other dishes such as chirashi sushi and tekka don (bowls of rice topped with raw fish) from the appetizer and entree sections.

Despite the seemingly endless variety of flavor, color and texture within the sushi and sashimi selections, raw fish is not for everyone. Those wanting hot dishes won't go wrong with appetizers such as chicken yaki tori (broiled skewered chicken and scallions in a teriyaki glaze), agedofu (a huge portion of custardy deep-fried tofu in tempura sauce with scallions and radish, and a crunchy topping of fried bonito flakes), shu mai (meaty steamed shrimp dumplings) and one of the most delicate versions of gyoza (pan fried dumplings) I have ever had.

Getting a great entree is a matter of knowing what to stay away from. Teriyaki dishes are sweeter than average. And while there are superior scallops in the seafood teriyaki, the salmon and shrimp are overcooked and do not pass muster for freshness. The nabe mono (casseroles cooked at the table on individual gas burners) can be very tricky too. One minute's inattention from our server turned a gorgeous piece of fresh lobster in my vegetable and seafood casserole into tough pith and rendered leathery the thin slices of beef in my companion's sukiyaki. Had it not been overcooked, the sukiyaki would still have been a bad choice because of its painfully sweet broth.

Unless you are resolved to watch the pot yourself, it would be safer to order the shabu-shabu, an eat-as-you-cook Japanese fondue of sliced beef and vegetable pieces that you immerse in simmering broth until they are cooked to your liking.

Tempura is light, lacy and almost greaseless, but the dipping sauce needs a little more character. The vegetable slices inside the batter are thinner and more delicate than elsewhere and probably wouldn't be filling enough as a main dish.

More substantial are the seafood and vegetable tempura assortments, which feature exquisitely plump, creamy-textured shrimp. I expected the squid to be more tender than it is in the squid shoga yaki, but the generous portion broiled in a zingy ginger sauce made it a worthwhile experiment.

The best cooked dish on Sushi King's menu is also one of the most reasonably priced: Una don is broiled freshwater eel with rice, served in a beautiful lacquerware box. Sweet, succulent lengths of eel meat topped with toasted sesame seeds are arranged in rows over the rice, which catches just the right amount of caramelized glaze.

Entrees are served with a good miso (fermented soybean paste) soup and a delicate lettuce, cucumber and shredded carrot salad with an intriguing sweet vinegar dressing.

The bar has a complete line of cocktails and spirits, with a good selection of imported beers and a few wines that include Japanese plum wine and sake.

Availability of desserts varies from day to day, but none except the fresh fruit would be a terrible loss.

The Western intruder on the menu is ice cream, served plain, flavored with green tea or fried in tempura batter. Dairy fat is jarring after a Japanese meal, but even more so when it is not of premium quality and has ice crystals that betray bad storage. Green tea ice cream was bitter the time I tasted it, as if the tea leaves had remained too long in the tea used to flavor it. Tempura batter is not well suited in flavor or texture to encasing ice cream.

Yokan, or red bean paste, had more integrity, but its sweet gumminess might not be appreciated by non-Japanese palates.