Remember when sushi was considered light fare?
There was a time when a sushi dinner might be followed by a stop at, say, Five Guys. After all, who could expect a few pieces of unadorned raw fish draped over a nugget of rice to satisfy the super-size American appetite?
That is a concern you're not likely to encounter at Arlington's Sushi-Zen. This friendly neighborhood restaurant in Lee-Harrison Shopping Center does sushi American-style: big, with combinations that often snub tradition and with good results.
Take the restaurant's signature Sushi-Zen Roll -- a log, really, featuring eel, salmon and yellowtail, with avocado and tiny beads of fish roe. Sliced crosswise into eight large pieces, it's nearly a meal in itself. Similarly impressive (in size and in taste) is the Godzilla Roll, stuffed with salmon, tuna, yellowtail and shrimp tempura -- tails poking out at either end -- and rolled in black-green roe.
Others include the TNT Roll (baked salmon and cucumber inside and spicy sauce and roe outside), Volcano Roll (spicy shrimp tempura, crab stick and avocado), and a jumbo deep-fried spicy tuna roll. The latter is actually much lighter than it sounds, with a nearly transparent veil of crispy batter and, inside, tuna that is still pink after a brief dip in the fryer.
"This is all-American innovation," said Rosie Gordon Mochizuki, who co-owns the restaurant with her husband, Shoji.
Among its regular customers, she said, Sushi-Zen is known for its sushi boats, hand-carved wooden fishing boats, complete with masts -- small, medium or large -- on which are arranged various pieces of nigiri (hand-formed) sushi and sushi rolls. A small boat, which serves two people and costs $34, includes a California roll and a tuna roll, plus 18 pieces of nigiri sushi -- tuna, salmon, flounder, red snapper, shrimp, squid and octopus. The large boat ($69) offers four rolls and 38 pieces and serves four to five people. Miso soup and a small salad are included.
Not everything that Sushi-Zen offers is over-the-top. The sushi menu includes the standard list of simple, fresh nigiri sushi, such as shrimp, salmon, tuna, yellowtail, and, when it's in season, toro -- the deliciously rich, fatty tuna.
The restaurant also offers smaller rolls -- California, Alaska (smoked salmon), Spider (soft-shell crab) and Boston Mackerel (a strip of mackerel over a roll of avocado, crab stick and smelt roe), plus an appetizing selection of vegetarian sushi, such as mushroom roll, asparagus roll and plum leaves roll, to name a few.
"We have 20 items [on the sushi menu] that are fully cooked or vegetarian, so that people who are kind of cautious can stick their toes in," Rosie Mochizuki said.
Sushi may be the specialty at Sushi-Zen, but it is by no means all the extensive menu has to offer. Appetizers include gyoza (fried meat dumplings), age-dofu (fried cubes of soft tofu with ginger) and boiled edamame beans, served in the pods.
On a recent snowy day, a steaming bowl of tempura udon noodles was just the thing to combat the outdoor chill. The shrimp and vegetable tempura that accompanied the noodles and broth was brought to the table on the side rather than in the soup, a nice touch meant to keep the tempura batter from becoming too soggy.
Bento boxes -- red lacquered boxes that hold an assortment of food, such as salmon teriyaki and shrimp tempura, or sushi and tempura -- are popular lunch items. The bento boxes and most other lunch and dinner entrees include a bowl of miso soup and a small salad drizzled with a refreshing creamy citrus dressing.
Dinner specials include unaju, broiled freshwater eel served over rice; breaded and fried pork cutlet; and beef, chicken, seafood or vegetable sukiyaki.
The Mochizukis opened Sushi-Zen in 1997 after Shoji Mochizuki was laid off from his job with a Japanese company. "He knew how to cook and he liked to cook, so he and a friend decided they would have a restaurant," Rosie Mochizuki said. The partner has since moved on to other ventures.
When the restaurant first opened, the strip mall was run-down. The Mochizukis took over a spot vacated by a McDonald's. Last year, however, Harris Teeter opened a new supermarket and renovated the shopping center with new landscaping and sidewalks.
Over the years, Sushi-Zen has earned a reputation as a kid-friendly place. "A lot of families come in, and they know each other," Rosie Mochizuki said. "I had two very active children and I was terrified to go into restaurants with them, so we're very tolerant."
Children are provided with training chopsticks, regular chopsticks bound together with a rubber band, to make picking up rice or noodles or dumplings easier.
Sushi-Zen still manages to be a relaxing place, with soft, instrumental music, decorative rice paper lanterns and shoji (rice paper) screens (which also serve as a reference to Shoji Mochizuki's name). The atmosphere also is reflected in the restaurant's name.
"In Japanese, there are many different meanings and ways to write the word 'zen,' " Rosie Mochizuki said. "The Japanese character that my husband chose is 'dining table.' It refers to a time when people come together at the end of the day, to be a family, to have good food and conversation."
Got a restaurant recommendation? E-mail Domenica Marchetti at firstname.lastname@example.org.