Sushi & Sake – Albuquerque, New Mexico
“If white wine goes with fish,
do white grapes go with sushi?“
– George Carlin
A reader once asked Washington Post humorist Gene Weingarten what he was a snob about. His reply, “I am also a snob about food. The other day, in Baltimore, I passed a sign outside a restaurant that said “Sushi Buffet!‘ and laughed out loud because it occurred to me that “sushi” and “buffet” are two words that should never appear together.” His sentiment resonates strongly with sushi aficionados who adhere to the strict rules of etiquette which governs the way in which true sushi snobs enjoy sushi.
It’s a given that a true sushi snob would never eat at an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant nor would such a snob ever be found mingling with the rabble who sit in booths or receive table service. Sushi snobs will only sit at a sushi bar in as close proximity to the sushi chef as possible. They like to converse with the sushi chef, hoping to ingratiate themselves by asking the right questions to demonstrate they are savvy connoisseurs and not “trough-divers” like most of the crowd. They treat the sushi chef like Magellan, their esteemed navigator on a culinary adventure.
Rapport with the chef established, sushi snobs will generally order Omakase, a term which translates literally from Japanese to “It’s up to you.” More specifically, omakase means the menu is left up to the chef. This gives the sushi chef the opportunity to showcase their skills, to serve what he or she thinks is good. Omakase tends to be quite expensive, giving the restaurant a nice profit margin. For the true sushi snob, this is all well and good. They accept that being a sushi snob ain’t cheap.
It used to be that the one Albuquerque sushi restaurant in which no true sushi snob would be caught dead was Sushi & Sake, which until its 2019 move back to Central Avenue offered an all-you-can-eat sushi concept which defies all the traditions to which food snobs hold fast. While some sushi snobs may adhere strictly to tradition and etiquette, it is no longer a “losing face” taboo for sushi chefs to defy centuries old traditional path. Even sacrosanct training methods are starting to fall by the wayside. Perhaps it’s because these traditional training methods are so strictly regimented and rigorous.
For up to a year, traditional training in the art of preparing sushi involves nothing but properly preparing sushi rice before a chef candidate is even allowed to clean fish. Cleaning and filleting fish involves comprehending the differences in the flesh and texture of each species. This phase of training can also take up to a year. By the time these chefs prepare their first piece of sushi, they will have mastered techniques designed to bring out the very best in each fish in terms of texture, taste and presentation.
Over the past quarter century or so, sushi’s burgeoning popularity has meant the dilution of the product. You no longer have to visit a Japanese restaurant for sushi. In Albuquerque, you can find passable to good sushi served in Vietnamese, Thai, Korean and Chinese restaurants. You can even find sushi in local organic food superstores throughout the city. It’s highly unlikely this sushi is prepared by chefs schooled in the traditional ways. This does not mean the sushi is inedible (although a true sushi snob could never choke any of it down).
Contemporary sushi chefs, even many from Japan, craft their own creative variations to their sushi, in essence creating the antithesis of the “purity” for which traditionalists strive. Another sushi tradition which has started to fall by the wayside is the prohibition of female sushi chefs. Several reasons, the most plausible having to do with traditional gender role assignments, are given for the scarcity of female sushi chefs. There is also no scarcity of Mexican sushi chefs throughout the fruited plain, a fact relished by Anthony Bourdain who championed immigrants.
In the Duke City, the restaurant with arguably the most creative sushi offerings has been Sushi & Sake, the first instantiation of which closed its doors in 2018, another Nob Hill victim of high lease rates and an approximate 30 percent drop in business in recent years (can you say ART?) In 2010, a second instantiation of Sushi & Sake launched, the scion being located on Academy where Tomato Cafe once held court for more than a decade. In 2019, Sushi & Sake returned to Central Avenue, just a few blocks east of its inaugural location.
At its first two locations, Sushi & Sake featured an “all you can eat (AYCE)” dining concept, but unlike American buffet restaurants, took precautions to minimize waste. Aside from having only one hour to consume all the sushi you can handle, you were permitted only one re-order and were charged for sushi left unconsumed. The AYCE includes one “chef’s special” per person. The menu listed twelve chef’s specials, each one seemingly a greater departure from tradition than the other. A picture of each special illustrates just how creative and colorful sushi can be when taken beyond traditional boundaries…far beyond in some cases.
Okay, I’m not talking sushi with peanut butter or chocolate here, but when is the last time you had sushi with mango. Mango is the featured ingredient on Sushi & Sake’s “Mango Tango” maki roll. Nestled inside its rice bed is tempura battered shrimp, but atop the rice are strips of tangy mango sprinkled with Masago, the small eggs of a smelt-like fish. These eggs are a different, almost luminescent, shade of orange than is the mango. The dressing accompanying the Mango Tango is a citrus and wasabi combination. A tangy sweetness is the prominent taste on this roll. It’s probably not one you would want to dip into your wasabi and soy sauce mix and maybe not even one you might order a second time, but it’s a very interesting piece of sushi.
Another unique special from the chefs’ fertile minds is the Amigo roll, perhaps the sushi equivalent of a chile relleno. Get this–a New Mexico green chile (spelled “chili” on the menu) is actually stuffed with crab meat then nestled within sushi rice. No wasabi is necessary to spice this one up. It is served with a spicy dressing that seems to include both wasabi and chile. On yet another maki roll chicken, not fish is featured–and it’s pretty darn good. So too is the “pizza roll” which is actually a California roll with salmon on top and which is baked in a small casserole dish. The “pizza sauce” seems to be a caramelized teriyaki sauce sprinkled with sesame seeds. Take it slow with this one because it comes straight out of the oven and can singe your tongue and the roof of your mouth.
There’s more, much more, but you get the picture. Sushi & Sake offers a delicious and inventive panoply of pretty maki rolls as well as thinly sliced sashimi appetizers. The name “Sushi” on the marquee is certainly well earned. So too is the “Sake” part of the restaurant’s name (though I certainly don’t know enough about sake to validate that). Sushi & Sake offers a variety of hot and cold sake, a rice wine produced in the island country for more than two millennia.
Not being sushi snobs, my Kim and I visited Sushi & Sake numerous times, indulging every visit in its all-you-can-eat sushi offering. Though we often observed diners–particularly from the Land of the Morning Calm–luxuriating in umami-infused Korean foods, we seemed preternaturally drawn to soirees of sumptuous sushi. Thankfully on one brisk October day, my friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver was craving kalbi, Korean grilled marinated short ribs. Next to chicken fried steak, kalbi may be Sr. Plata’s favorite indulgence.
23 October 2019: Kalbi is the first item listed on the “Korean Specialty Plates” section of the menu. It also has a prominent place on a paper-based menu of dinner-for-two offerings where you can combine a number of Korean barbecue items served with “all the trimmings” and perhaps a bit of “sticker shock.” Dinners for two are prepared by servers at your table on tabletop grills. Specialty plates are served with Korean small plates called banchan (which literally translates to “side dishes”) and a bowl of miso soup. Had it been served more than lukewarm we might not have found it so unremarkable. All the usual ingredients (seaweed, bonito flakes, cubed tofu, scallions) are in perfect proportion and it’s less salty than some miso soup tends to be, but on brisk days, hot soup would be appreciated.
23 October 2019: After thoroughly perusing the menu, Sr. Plata determined the best combination of variety and value could be obtained by ordering a Bento Box (small house salad, miso soup, steamed rice, four pieces of tempura and your choice of two items: chicken teriyaki, beef teriyaki, bulgogi, spicy pork, kalbi, salmon teriyaki, daily sushi roll or five pieces of nigiri sushi). Wisegeek describes a bento box as “the Japanese equivalent of the lunchbox, though it tends to be much more aesthetically pleasing, and varies significantly in what it contains.”
Not only did Sr. Plata’s bento box include a treasure trove of kalbi, another compartment on the box featured bulgogi, the marinated and grilled beef dish Americans often call “Korean barbecue.” In retrospect, Sr. Plata wishes he had ordered two portions of kalbi. As good as kalbi may be, there’s never quite enough meat on those scrawny short ribs. The bone to meat ratio is certainly skewed heavily on the side of bone…and frustration if you haven’t quite got your fill when you run out. A discernible sugar hit was the first thing we noticed about the bulgogi which was also served on the lukewarm side. More conspicuous by absence were the caramelized bits of beef we both enjoy.
23 October 2019: Other than Asian restaurants, it seems many eateries haven’t figured out you can do more with squid than serve it as deep-fried calamari. Perhaps no one loves squid more than Koreans who prefer it stir-fried in a spicy and tangy Gochujang (Korean red chili paste) with fresh vegetables. Sushi & Sake’s spicy squid dish is one of the most esthetic and appealing squid dishes you’ll ever see, a veritable culinary work-of-art. In Korea, spicy squid is served with a bowl of rice because it’s made too spicy to eat alone. This fire-eater would certainly have appreciated more heat in my dish, but perhaps I’m an outlier. A gentleman sitting one table over was perspiring profusely from the heat. Ringlets and tentacles of perfectly stir-fried squid with a slightly elastic texture were pleasing, but the accompanied vegetables (white and green onions, green and red peppers) were most memorable.
23 October 2019: Contrary to widely-held belief, banchan (a term that is both singular and plural) are not appetizers even though they’re served ahead of the main course. Banchan represents a category all its own: snacks-within-a-meal that function as complements, contrasts, and condiments all at once. You can’t have a true Korean meal experience without banchan. There are dozens, if not hundreds or even thousands of banchan options. Six of them were served with my spicy squid. They ranged from at least three types of kimchi (and there are hundreds of kimchi types) to a lightly sweet pickled radish that stole my heart. It was my favorite bite experience at Sushi & Sake.
Sushi & Sake is so much more than the two items listed on the menu. It’s got experiential aspects all adventurous diners should try–such as having your meal prepared on a tabletop grill. It’s got Korean and Japanese items served in generous portions. It’s got value and variety.
LATEST VISIT: 23 October 2019
# OF VISITS: 5
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Teriyaki Chicken Roll; Mexican Roll; Pizza Roll; Green Chile Roll, Spicy Squid, Bento Box (Kalbi, Bulgigi)