Edmonton Restaurant Review: Sushi Sugoi (Closed)

The cover of the Sushi Sugoi menu.

The cover of the Sushi Sugoi menu.

Sushi Sugoi (@sugoiedmonton) is one of the newer Japanese restaurants in the city. Open for more than a year now, I had heard good things about it from reviews, friends and neighbours. I usually have good intentions to try a place when it first announces its presence, but, for some reason, I usually never make it until much further down the road. Perhaps I want to avoid any kinks that they might be working out in the kitchen or on the menu. After all, I want a good experience, not one that I’ll regret.

My ears initially perked up to the idea of an additional sushi restaurant on the south side of Edmonton when my friend told me she dined there one evening last fall. By the sounds of it, she was wowed by the food and the overall presentation of the dishes, telling me that they looked like works of art. I was certainly intrigued. I followed up her description of their outing by reading some other reviews on Urbanspoon and, lo and behold, they were rated quite favourably (currently they have 76% approval out of 199 votes). I jotted the name down on my vast list of eateries to try and vowed I’d make it there eventually.

That brings me to the end of February when I ran into my neighbour on the way to work. Whenever we ride the bus together, food usually ends up being a hot topic of conversation for us. This particular time, I think I was telling her about the amazing sushi that I had eaten in San Diego a few weeks ago, so, of course, we got to talking about sushi in Edmonton. Sure enough, she mentioned Sushi Sugoi, telling me that she quite liked the variety of rolls and that, for the price, the portions served were worth the money.

What did I do next? I called my friend who had traveled with me to California, so we could plan our next dinner. By the time we got together, it had been a full month since we had returned from our trip. For us, that is a long overdue meeting. Sushi was definitely in order. Neither of us barely ate during the day, so were starving on our way there after work.

The interior of the restaurant has a large sushi bar as its focal point.

The interior of the restaurant has a large sushi bar as its focal point.

Located along Calgary Trail, Sushi Sugoi sits next to a strip mall. As we drove into the parking lot, it was evident that little thought was put into the exterior of the building because it still looked very much like its predecessor, Outback Steakhouse. Thankfully, upon stepping inside the doors, we saw that the interior of the space had been gutted and redecorated in a very tasteful manner. The restaurant is sleek and modern with neutral shades, a few pops of colour and a large sushi bar as its focal point.

While we waited at the front counter, I took everything in. Although I could see people standing at the back towards the kitchen, there was no host to greet us when we entered the establishment. A few minutes went by before anyone really acknowledged us, which is something they can improve upon. But, once someone came over, they immediately took us to a booth where we were seated and presented with menus.

As we flipped through the many pages of the menu (I cannot emphasize enough how extensive it is), we were also offered o-shibori (hot wet towels), so we could clean our hands before our meal. I thought that was a nice touch. It’s actually something I haven’t seen in a long time.

What I like about their menu is that it has a clean design, and most items have some sort of description of the dish listed alongside the name, so you’re not going to wonder what exactly you’re about to eat. Similar to other Asian eateries, they still make use of numbering the items and including a selection of corresponding photos for show, but it’s minimal, and the pictures just serve to make your mouth water. Therefore, it took us a while to make our final decisions when it came to ordering our food. Originally, I was quite tempted to go with one of their bento boxes, which are only $15 (even during dinner), or one of their combos. Instead, I changed my mind and opted to test out a few of their rolls.

It was hard to pick just three each because they have three menu pages devoted to rolls. I went with a couple of the tried and true – negitoro maki and scallop maki –  as a way to compare the quality with what I might find at other places in Edmonton. I also chose the dynamite Alaska from their list of specialty rolls. My friend went with the spicy tataki maki, squash maki and inari maki.

Since I didn’t sample any of my friends rolls on this particular occasion, I cannot comment myself on how good hers were, but they did look yummy. She also told me she enjoyed them, and she would definitely come back to eat at Sushi Sugoi again.

I guess my one qualm with the service is that not all of the rolls ordered came out together, which is bound to happen at times. However, my dynamite Alaska showed up quite a bit later than the other two. Often, when I eat, I like to alternate between the different items, allowing you to really take in all the flavours and combinations. It’s like a workout for your taste buds. When you’re eating just one type of roll all at once, sometimes it becomes overwhelming or everything just starts tasting the same. So, I would have liked for the last roll to arrive at the table earlier.

Scallop Maki

Scallop Maki

No matter though, it is what it is. I was started off with the scallop maki. In my mind, I saw it as the traditional maki, wrapped in black seaweed with just a small center of scallop. Turns out, it was uramaki (an inside-out roll) with the rice wrapped around the seaweed and a fairly large middle of chopped scallop. The taste and texture of the rice was just right (slightly sticky and vinegary). The tender raw scallops were paired with tobiko and then coated with a decent amount of Japanese mayo – mixed in to give it a little bit of creaminess and tang – to create a bite that had a melt-in-your-mouth consistency.

Negitoro Maki

Negitoro Maki

The negitoro maki is how I imagined my scallop maki would be. Bite sized rolls filled with fatty tuna and chopped green onion (I believe the onions might be grown in their Urban Cultivator, which they use to grow their own organic greens and herbs year round), these were delicious. The green onions were extremely flavourful and fresh, as was the fish.

The dynamite Alaska roll was massive. Each piece was about the size of my fist, so it’s not conducive to keeping your food from falling apart. As anyone who eats sushi knows, the bigger the roll, the more difficult it is to eat in a polite manner. Etiquette suggests that you eat with either your chopsticks or your hands (as long as they’re clean), and typically, you should eat a piece of sushi in one fell swoop. The problem in North America lies with the idea of “bigger is better” where the rolls have become so large that it’s near impossible to do so. Sometimes you can still stuff the whole roll in your mouth, but you likely look like a chipmunk storing food away for the cold winter months. Inevitably, with these huge rolls you must give in and bite it apart. That’s when it usually becomes a messy pile on your plate (probably because you couldn’t quite cut that seaweed apart with your teeth). Luckily, that wasn’t really the case this time. I credit it to the fact that the roll was fried on the outside, giving the seaweed a crunchy texture that was much easier to break apart.

Dynamite Alaska

Dynamite Alaska

The ease with which this dish was consumed despite the size of its portions, is one of the main positives of this roll. While it tasted pretty good, it was quite heavy as the fried batter on the outside was thick (thankfully not greasy), so it was maybe too much in that respect. According to the menu, the middle was stuffed with smoked salmon, tobiko, prawn tempura, yam tempura, crab meat and vegetables. Smoked salmon, being a strong flavour was the most distinguishable ingredient by taste. I couldn’t really tell there was any yam tempura in the roll and the crab meat is of the imitation variety. This roll was simply okay. The main problem with rolls this large is that when it has to be divided into fractions, you’re probably only getting a bite with crab meat and nothing else. The point of combining all of those things in the middle is that they should really be eaten as a whole, and you can’t do that here. I most likely won’t order this one again, unless someone shares a plate with me. It really is best in smaller doses.

Overall, I’m leaning towards saying that I like Sushi Sugoi. The service, once they noticed us, was decent. Since the food was brought out in stages, our server was at our table enough to ensure that she checked on our satisfaction thoroughly. Regarding the food, I really liked the more traditional rolls that I had. Those were delicious; they used what seemed like very fresh ingredients while keeping the consistency of the rice perfect, which is so important when it comes to sushi. My only wish is that they stop relying so much on the imitation crab meat in their rolls (20 out of 58 make use of it) because that brings the quality down a notch, and that’s a shame. I really want the food to match the beauty of the space, and it does in some aspects, but not all. Hopefully, they’ll work on that since so many of those rolls sound absolutely scrumptious. I certainly don’t regret this visit though. In fact, I’ll probably be back soon, but I’ll be sure to stick to the tried and true classics from now on.

Edmonton AYCE Sushi Showdown: Zen Sushi & Grill vs. Watari Japanese Cuisine

Sushi has become a mainstay in the culinary adventures of most cities. Whether or not the place is near water, you can bet money that there is at least one Japanese eatery luring people in with the deliciousness of maki and sashimi. Therefore, it has become commonplace to see at least a dozen establishments spring up over the last few years, all vying for a spot in Edmonton’s sushi scene. What was more of a rarity was the all-you-can-eat (AYCE) Japanese restaurant. I only knew of maybe one or two businesses that fit the bill, but from what I had heard, it wasn’t worth the effort of going. Unlike what you can find in cities like Vancouver and Montreal, the AYCE buffet wasn’t really up to par when it came to price or quality.

My friend, however, had tried out Zen Sushi & Grill on 76 Avenue and 104 Street just south of Whyte Avenue and she suggested that we go for lunch one day. Personally, I was glad that we ventured to this location. They have another on 101 Street and 105 Avenue in downtown Edmonton, but I don’t feel particularly safe in that neighbourhood. This location has a parking lot right outside of the eatery, so parking is not only free, but a lot more convenient.

I walked into the restaurant expecting that it wasn’t going to be that big, yet, as it turns out, there is another room adjacent to the main area that houses a full bar and more tables. The windows along the front of the building really help to brighten the space, which is a mix of brick walls, wood floors and a black and brown colour palette. The look is nothing fancy, but it is modern enough and it is clean.

Lunch, I believe, was and still is around $20 per person on weekends. Once you’re seated, you receive a sheet where you can check off the items that you want to order. The menu is fairly extensive, including sushi, maki rolls, cones and an amalgam of cooked items. Sashimi, during lunch hours, is an extra $2 for 10 pieces.

The Zen menu and order sheet.

The Zen menu and order sheet.

Since I had never dined there before, we splurged and added on a couple orders of sashimi (the pieces were thicker than I would have assumed). In addition, we got a mix of sushi – salmon, tuna, inari, masago and chop chop – some miso soup, bean sprout salad, agadashi tofu, veggie tempura and tempura cod, among other items. Surprisingly, all the fish tasted fresh and not like it was at all previously frozen. The options available were more than enough to satisfy my sushi cravings as it covered the typical gamut of choices. The agadashi tofu is usually fried very well, leaving a nice thin layer of breading on the outside that soaks up the sauce. Sometimes the tempura can be a little bit greasier than I would like and at least twice I’ve noticed that when they deep fry large pieces of broccoli, the batter doesn’t always cook all the way through, so inside the head of the veggie you might find a floury consistency.

Overall, despite a couple of missteps, Zen did exceed my expectations for AYCE sushi in this landlocked city. And, while I do not think it can quite compare to what I’ve tried across the rest of the country, having eaten there many times after this first occasion, I would still recommend going for the chop chop (raw scallop) sushi, the soft shell crab maki (fantastic the first time I ate it there, not as good lately, but you never know), their agadashi tofu and the green onion cakes. What I like is that they don’t overdo the rice portions for the sushi – the balls are small as they should be.

The service is good and the owner is especially nice. I’ve been there for both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in the last year, and I can tell you that they don’t up the price on holidays. Also, although I’ve never had an issue walking in and getting a spot, they do offer to take reservations, too.

Within a year, Zen had become my go to for sushi. It was perfect for those days when you’re craving anything and everything Japanese for an affordable price. Yes, there are plenty of great sushi establishments in town nowadays, but where else can you spend under $25 and eat as much as you can fit in your belly?

This is why I was ecstatic to see that a new AYCE sushi restaurant was to take the place of the recently vacated Matahari space on 124 Street and 101 Avenue. As quickly as Matahari disappeared, the banner sign advertising the soon-to-be open Watari Japanese Cuisine was hung. Every time I drove by I became giddy with excitement wondering when they would be ready for customers. Eventually in August I’d heard that they, indeed, were officially serving food. My friend joined me for dinner after work before we headed to a show at the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival.

I had never eaten at Matahari before the eatery closed, but I had seen photos, and I’m guessing it was a quick turnaround for Watari because they kept some of the decor the same. A number of raised booths sit along the wall closest when you enter the restaurant. There are also a handful of other booths opposite and bar height tables in the middle. Again, the look is nothing spectacular, but it is pretty comfortable and it is clean as well.

We stuck with tap water, which was incredibly refreshing because they toss slices of lemon or lime and sometimes mint leaves in for flavour. With dinner, you can have up to 30 pieces of sashimi per person, so the two of us ordered the maximum (40 pieces of salmon and 20 pieces of tuna – both fresh, but the salmon was melt-in-your-mouth and the better of the two) to split. No lie, I swear we had at least two full-size fish at our table because the slices were substantial. We also tried out the tacos, sushi including salmon, tuna, inari and red snapper, miso soup, a variety of maki rolls (their Target roll of tuna and green bean is good), beef tataki (awesome), Hawaii poke(y), bean sprout and seaweed salads, a combination of shrimp and veggie tempura (you order what you want by the piece), cream cheese (and crab) wontons and beef short ribs, all of which I would urge you to try.

You could literally have rolled us out of the restaurant, we were so full by the end. However, I can happily say that we triumphed and polished off every last piece of fish and rice. For the $27.95 weekday adult dinner rate, I think we more than got our money’s worth.

Watari is so close to my parent’s place that I’ve now eaten there a few times (the latest occurrences for lunch) and, I have to say, that while it was already good the first time with my friend, it has improved each time since. Also, with over 100 items to choose from on their menu, there is definitely something for everyone, even those who are not fans of raw.

Zen and Watari, in a competition, are fairly matched. The reason for that can likely be chalked up to the fact that, apparently, the owner of Watari was the previous co-owner of Zen until he decided to open his own restaurant. I find it hard to decide which should be called the superior place, if at all. Each one has a few items that are not offered by the other, so, for me at least, there’s always going to be the temptation to visit both.

For those of you who look at this as a numbers game, I will break it down for you though. Sashimi (15 pieces per person) is already included with lunch at Watari for the $22.95 price, making it pretty much equivalent to Zen should you decide to add sashimi to your meal there. If you happen to be a senior, the cost of eating at Watari is an even better deal at $19.95. They also have a lower price of $16.95 for children. Watari also recently added late night (10pm on) prices for Friday to Sunday and statutory holidays that equal the cost of lunch (reservations are recommended on weekends).  The menu between both restaurants is relatively similar, but there are minor differences. Watari includes tacos, Hawaii poke(y), beef tataki, cream cheese wontons as well as specialty rolls created in-house. They also have the option of the Monday to Friday business lunch, which does away with the sashimi and a number of menu items, but still leaves sushi, maki rolls and the majority of their kitchen and deep fried menu items up for grabs, all for the low price of $14.95, regardless of age. Zen has chop chop sushi and soft shell crab maki on the menu, two tasty items that are not available at Watari. Both restaurants have other options that are extra in cost, but I’ve never felt the need to order any of them because what is included in the set price is more than enough for everyone.

Watari's current pricing as of October 2014. Photo courtesy of Watari's Facebook page.

Watari’s current pricing as of October 2014. Photo courtesy of Watari’s Facebook page.

Watari and Zen both have excellent service that is quick and friendly, so you can make the most out of your two hour dining limit. Once in a while they may miss bringing an an item or two, but, as long as you remember that you didn’t get it, you can always order it again in the next round. As with all AYCE establishments, they are very conscious about eating responsibly, so be sure that you order only what you can finish. Anything that is left behind is subject to extra charges as it’ll likely have to be thrown away. Both restaurants offer free parking – Zen out front and Watari has a few rows of parking behind the building.

If I really had to choose, I would say that Watari bests Zen, but only by inches. In all honesty, you cannot go wrong with either of these places. The two are favourites of mine, and they’re definitely the top AYCE sushi restaurants you’ll find in Edmonton. I’ve left both happily gratified each and every time.