Sushi Eye – Tempe, Arizona (CLOSED)

Sushi Eye in Tempe, Arizona
Sushi Eye in Tempe, Arizona

To Western diners used to restaurant ambience defined by an effusive, sensory bombarding, over-the-top flamboyance, many Japanese restaurants feel stark and barren in comparison. That austerity is actually by design.

The Buddhist teaching of “wabi” which means “quiet of tranquility” posits a non-attachment to material things. Wabi values the ability to make the most of starkness and poverty by cherishing the subtle beauty found only in a very simple environment.

In some sushi restaurants, the minimalist decor is not much more than functional and and nearly as raw as sashimi. Lighting is subtle, perhaps even romantic. The ambience seems to inspire hushed tones and an almost reverent mood, in some cases almost as if you’re at a Buddhist temple. That’s the concept of wabi.

In wabi fashion, the not quite wasabi colored walls at Sushi Eye are relatively stark, festooned with but a few framed images. The restaurant’s activity center and heart, the sushi bar, is more brightly illuminated. A single neko cat, symbolizing good luck, sits on that bar.

Sushi Eye is situated in a nondescript Tempe strip mall practically next door to the Fascinations Superstore where sensual shopping can precede sushi sampling if you’re so inclined. It opened in early 2006 and by year’s end had earned “best of Phoenix” honors in the sushi category from Phoenix New Times.

A briny boatload of sushi
A beauteous boatload of sushi

If my first visit is any indication, Sushi Eye is very popular with Arizona State University co-eds, several tables of which were placed together to accommodate parties of celebrating revelers.

While wabi is readily apparent in the restaurant’s decor, the attitude is definitely upbeat and hip. Even the sushi chefs (characteristically dour at some restaurants) were into the revelry, chiming in on a spirited rendition of Happy Birthday to a percussion accompaniment.

It’s unlikely the restaurant’s partying purveyor Richard Cho would ever let things get too out of hand, but it’s refreshing to visit a sushi restaurant with some life in it. This is definitely not grandma’s sushi restaurant.

Obviously attuned to his youthful clientele, Cho also goes for the “cheap pop” (in professional wrestling, a pop refers to the reaction of the crowd) with locals by naming several of his maki rolls for local landmarks. Fortunately the Cardinal Roll, named for the local professional football team, doesn’t reflect the perenially woeful performance of the hapless Cardinals.

Maki rolls appear to be the specialty of the house. While the menu lists traditional sushi, specialty rolls rule the menu where a picture of each vibrant, multi-hued roll is succeeded by a thorough description of each roll.

More succulent sushi
More succulent sushi

According to our waitress, one of the restaurant’s most popular rolls is the Climax Roll (spicy tuna and cucumber rolled with tuna and dressed in wasabi and unagi sauce, macadamia nuts and tobiko [crunchy flying fish roe]). No doubt many patrons order this roll after a visit to the Fascinations Superstore next door.

Name not withstanding, the Climax Roll is absolutely terrific, one of the best specialty rolls I’ve had in a long time. Alternating the contrasting tastes of sweet unagi sauce with the more pungent and piquant wasabi sauce creates a party on your taste buds. The tuna is amazingly fresh considering landlocked Tempe’s distance to the briny seas.

Fresh fish seems to be the restaurant’s mission statement. You won’t encounter a single morsel of fish that doesn’t have that “just off the boat” freshness. It’s a welcome change from restaurants who serve fish obviously past its shelf life.

The RSM roll (deep fried salmon, fresh water eel, cream cheese, avocado, assorted fish topped with spicy scallops, tobiko, scallions, wasabi and macadamia nuts) is a veritable treasure trove of great ingredients and but one example of the innovative maki rolls for which Sushi Eye is known.

There is much more on the menu than maki rolls so this is one restaurant to which repeated visits are an absolute must.

Sushi Eye
780 West Elliot Road
Tempe, Arizona

LATEST VISIT: 25 June 2007
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Climax Roll, RSM Roll, ASU Roll, Rainbow Roll, California Deluxe Roll

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