Sushi by the Bay has its strengths and weaknesses. Plan accordingly.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
The Superman Burrito had me ready to fly. The Popcorn Lobster looked popping on paper. And I figured the Hungry Roll would bury my appetite.
They didn’t. That’s the trouble with expectations– they can really screw up a good time. Once I reconfigured mine, I found my way at Sushi by the Bay, but not before I reached a verdict, namely: It’s not my spot for destination sushi dinners.
It is, however, a key addition along North Fremont Street– especially for the business set– as it fills a long-vacant sashimi vacuum in North Monterey. Lunch, unsurprisingly enough, is the busiest time of the day there, and the best hope for this six-month-old business to hold fast in a spot where it has proved difficult for a parade of restaurants to do so.
Lunch was most heroic when I grazed in-house. Roasted rice tea touched down in a porcelain pot quickly, a sign of two strengths here: great service, starring super-amiable sushi chef-owner Hoon Choi behind a bar that seats six or seven sushi seekers, and the fact that tasty items like tea, salad, rice and miso soup are included in the modest lunch-box cost.
Given those supporting acts, the three-item combo ($11.90/lunch) was a lot to entertain, even for sushi, though I gamely tamed the mixed tempura, California roll and salmon teriyaki. Drawn from a list of 12 options, they came out fresh and fast.
Another time I tried a two-item lunch box for take-out; the quality of the salad and the quantity of the crunch roll I ordered came in below the in-house experience, and the miso and tea weren’t included. Nevertheless, the roll (cooked shrimp, spicy crabmeat, cucumber and avocado) and six generous chunks of mixed sashimi made for a sizable and healthy lunch.
While the blue-collar lunch box proved the most satisfying, many of the most appetizing (and spectacular) sounding by-the-bay items hail from two upscale lists, the lineup of 20 “cooked and tempura rolls” and the eight “baked rolls” (though the “Sashimi Combination II” found elsewhere, with 32 different kinds of fish, has a certain holy-mackerel magnetism).
The cooked and tempura rolls include everything from a Ninja and a Spider– albacore tempura, crab, masago, $8.90; soft-shell crab with gobo, cucumber, avocado, $9.90, respectively– to an In & Out and a Double Double. (For the record, the In & Out pimps spicy tuna, shrimp tempura, avocado and seared tuna for $8.90 while the Double Double packs in shrimp tempura with crab and grilled shrimp at $9.90 a pop.)
It’s on that list that I found the Superman Burrito, and despite feeling like the guy who orders pasta at a steakhouse (by ordering a burrito at a sushi joint), I went with it– like speeding or cussing, it felt as fun as it felt wrong.
Though fresh, Superman came off wimpy and uninspired– paging Clark Kent– with a light wad of spicy tuna and barely discernable-at-best salmon and shrimp wrapped with a bit of tomato in two small sheathes of iceberg lettuce. All told, it wasn’t a package quite worth the $9.90 double-roll bill.
The Hungry Roll (shrimp tempura, eels, crabmeat topped with salmon and a house special sauce, $11.90), meanwhile, felt similarly mis-monikered, arriving a little sloppy and, for a double-roll price, undersized.
The Popcorn Lobster ($11.90)– itsy bitsies of baby lobster tempura sprinkled over a plate and decorated with a touch of spicy tuna and sauce– was itself disappointing, though a pair of spirited and sociable servers and a tray of large Asahi ($2.95/small; $4.95/large) and warm sake (also $2.95/$4.95) softened our censure during my first dinner visit. (There’s also Sho Chikubai and Nigori cold sake by the bottle for $7.95.)
The friends that joined me were more disappointed than I was in the other stardard rolls they ordered, sampling the yellow tail and the albacore delight (with cream cheese, avocado and sliced lemon, $9.90); I liked the addition of cucumber and avocado in the Philadelphia ($6.90), for instance.
Interestingly, I have other pals that are also particular about their pink and purple pieces of fish– and they simply love the joint. Like I did when I had my best trip there, they always sit at the counter. They also order off-menu items by asking for the freshest sashimis and taking the always-ebullient owner-chef’s recommendations– which includes accepting his mystery sushi challenge, which has included everything from conch to giant clam (remember, his Combo II has 32 kinds of fish).
I’m not sure if Henry David Thoreau’s listening, but if he is, the same guy who said, “We are always paid for our suspicion by finding what we suspect” might be smiling as widely as the sushi chef behind the counter.
Sushi by the Bay 2240 Fremont St., Monterey • 11:30am-2:30pm, 5-9pm Mon-Fri (until 9:30pm Fri); 11:30am-9:30pm Sat; closed Sun. • 644-9626.