The barricades are up along West Street in downtown Annapolis, where still more utility work is underway and threatens to last through the summer. But that hasn't thwarted the crowds at Tsunami, the Asian fusion restaurant whose owners are helping to lead the way toward revitalization.
Open almost five years, the sushi-bar-cum-restaurant is the centerpiece of what is becoming the retailing-restaurant empire of founders Gavin Buckley, Julie Williams, Kristin Lewis and Jody Danek.
Their newest ventures include a clothing store, spa and home store complex farther west on West Street and, by year's end, two additional restaurants.
But that's another story. The one at hand is Tsunami, where the bright blue facade only hints at the tidal wave inside.
Deep, deep blue walls, accented with niches of lime green, form the backdrop as pools of light twinkle on tabletops and in cutouts in the walls. The color is enveloping and soothing. Spare arrangements of flowers nestle in the booths.
But Tsunami is no Zen retreat. Music pulsates, and cushy booths and banquettes provide little softening effect to the room's many hard surfaces. The sound ranges from loud to cacophonous.
Still, this in-your-face kind of place has a neighborly feel. A large stainless steel bar centers the room, and it packs them in, even on Mondays and Tuesdays. There is a sushi bar with bistro tables to one side, a row of booths and banquettes on the other. French doors lead to a smaller dining room in back.
On any given day, the diversity of clientele is remarkable: at lunch one day, a young mother, with two apparent grandmothers in tow, entertained at a tea party for three toddlers; five forty-something, blond sorority sister types crowded into a booth for a birthday celebration; two young girls with long blond curls, on an outing with their parents, attacked sushi rolls with the skill of native Japanese; an assortment of young professionals on dates filled many of the seats, while the unattached hovered near the bar and older couples at adjacent tables whirled cabernet in large glasses. The joie de vivre added to the noise level.
Sushi headlines the lunch menu, with all the usual nigri favorites (individual pieces of sushi consisting of a rice base and a topping such as tuna or eel) and a large assortment of rolls.
A meal usually starts with miso soup, fresh-tasting and served in a generous bowl. Sushi preparations are impeccable, though rarely startlingly good. But many of the other Asian-inspired dishes soar.
The shrimp and scallop potstickers are pockets of silken mousse studded with chunks of seafood, served atop a rippling sea of chili and garlic sauce.
Vietnamese spring rolls, filled with mango instead of the more usual shrimp, are cut into slices -- like sushi rolls -- displaying centers of orange surrounded by the deep green of fresh lettuces, encircled by the pale rice paper wrap. A porcelain box of pungent dipping sauce adorns the plate.
Thai rub seared prawns are gently charred on the outside, emphasizing the zesty spices, then paired with a mango-avocado salsa that mellows the fire. The result is glorious -- tangy and smooth at the same time.
The dinner menu is evocative of modern Australian cuisine, incorporating Asian and European influences. Its listings are categorized as first tastes, second tastes and main tastes.
Among the first tastes, tuna sashimi, lightly seared, is matched with the same mango-avocado salsa. The salmon tartare Napoleon features a stack of deep-fried wonton circles dividing layers of citrus-infused raw salmon. Perfectly fresh oysters are crusted in crunchy rice, then deep fried and laid upon a lemongrass beurre blanc. Goat cheese and spinach fill beggar's purses, accented with curls of carrot and beet.
While salads are listed in the second taste category, brilliantly crisp greens also accompany many of the dishes.
Main tastes imbue typically European ingredients -- rack of lamb, monkfish and salmon -- with Asian touches. The lamb is flavored with a traditional Chinese five-spice combination and served with a star anise red wine sauce. A sweet-and-sour blood orange sauce offsets the sweet richness of pan-roasted duck breast. Monkfish gets a passion fruit-yuzu lime coulis.
One of the most successful dishes featured plump tiger prawns wrapped in kataifi (shredded phyllo dough), deep-fried and served atop a fiery corn and crab salsa.
The kataifi was a little too thick and the tomato nectar that was an added garnish didn't add much, but the shrimp and salsa were stars.
Even the New York strip steak gets gussied up, with a burnt sugar chili marinade and goat cheese mashed potatoes napped with a foie gras reduction.
The Asian notes continue into the desserts, especially the banana lumpia -- caramelized bananas wrapped in rice paper and deep-fried, then paired with ice cream -- and a savory mango sorbet.
But don't overlook the brownie napoleon. It's a new stack on old-fashioned good.
Tsunami, 51 West St., Annapolis, 410-990-9868. Reservations recommended. Appetizers at lunch $5 to $10, main course at lunch $6 to $13. Appetizers at dinner $5 to $18, main courses at dinner $17 to $28. Sushi, $3 to $10. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner, 5:30 to 11 p.m. nightly. Sushi bar open until 1 a.m. nightly. Accessible to handicapped individuals.
If you know of a food-related event or restaurant that you think deserves attention, please contact Nancy Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org.