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Fish Tale Come True 

Fresh ingredients, talented sushi chefs and an ever-changing assortment of rolls with non-traditional twists have proved so successful at Rock-N-Sake (823 Fulton St., 581-7253) that the restaurant expects to open its first franchise within a year.

"The concept is to serve unique Japanese cuisine and the freshest fish in a very casual, relaxed atmosphere," says General Manager Tisbee Manthey. "Most Japanese restaurants are very quiet and proper." The idea has caught on, and Rock-N-Sake owners Duke Nelson and Joseph Ulloa expect the debut franchise to open in Houma.

Although the Warehouse District restaurant sticks close to the traditional on its cooked menu items, the dishes created at the sushi bar all have a non-traditional flair, and the chefs introduce specials to keep the offerings fresh.

"The cooked items are classic Japanese cuisine," she says. "With the rolls, we like to infuse new ideas -- like mango. We like to keep that fresh." That's one reason the restaurant introduces new specials every month, with some making it onto the permanent menu. The Hawaii Five-O Roll, for instance, has made the transition because of customers' enthusiasm for the coconut-tempura shrimp that has cream cheese, mango and avocado rolled on the outside. A seasonal offering is the light Cloud-9 Roll, which features escolar and asparagus on the inside, shrimp and avocado rolled on the outside and is topped with furikake seasoning.

"We have the monthly specials so it's not the same old thing every time you come in," Manthey says. "We definitely encourage the sushi chefs to come up with new stuff. That's one of our mainstays."

Current specials include an appetizer of seasoned calamari that is tempura-fried with bell peppers and onions and a Heavenly Eel Roll, which combines barbecue eel, cream cheese and avocado in the interior, and the outside is rolled in tempura-fried carrots and topped with eel sauce. Tuna salad takes on a whole new meaning when it consists of strips of seared fresh yellowfin tuna placed on top of a bed of seaweed and vegetables, then dressed with ponzu sauce and sesame seeds.

The menu offers a large variety of cooked entrees, appetizers, noodles and rice dishes, soups and salads. The sushi bar, which Manthey says is the largest in the city, seats 20 and generally has four chefs on duty. It also keeps a stock of soy paper, which can be substituted for seaweed in any roll. The restaurant's bar also is stocked with more than the norm.

"We have one of the largest cold sake lists in the city," she says. "We also have 20 wines by the glass. There's always a good wine you can pair up with your meal, and we have almost every Japanese beer." Sake also is used to make specialty drinks such as margaritas, Cosmopolitans, screwdrivers and other cocktails. Customers also can try infused sake by the shot, including Asian pear, black raspberry, citron and hazelnut. Those who prefer standard cocktails will find the expected range of liquors as well.

Rock-N-Sake also has a skill at changing first-timers to regulars by easing them into cooked Japanese cuisine and working up to the sushi and sashimi. "We know what to do with them," Manthey says. "We start them with crunchy rolls and slowly work our way up to tuna. Once they get the taste for it, they get a craving for it. It's like no other food craving you get."

Off-site catering also is available from Rock-N-Sake for both small and large groups. Orders can be as small as 60 pieces or as large as 5,000 for events ranging from conventions and hotel functions to weddings and small parties. The restaurant also customizes the catering orders instead of having a list of limited catering offerings.

Because it is only a couple of blocks from the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, Rock-N-Sake serves a large number of visitors who either see the restaurant while walking in the district or are referred by hotel concierges and convention planners. It also has a respectable following of regulars who visit often to satisfy their sushi cravings.

In addition to the cuisine, the restaurant also offers a feast for the eyes with a comfortable decor spiced up by original artworks that include local artists' paintings and a bounty of neon creations by Eric Ehlenberger, a theme Manthey says will be carried through in new franchise stores.

The eatery, one of only two restaurants on Fulton Street when it opened three years ago, serves dinner every day and lunch on weekdays.

click to enlarge Chef Alfredo cuts up some fresh salmon that will be wrapped up in a sushi roll for a diner at Rock-N-Sake.
  • Chef Alfredo cuts up some fresh salmon that will be wrapped up in a sushi roll for a diner at Rock-N-Sake.
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