At this point -- if you're a sawagani virgin -- there's an inevitable moment of alarm during which you imagine the cracks and crevices these critters could crawl into; you try to remember if you've ever come this close to eating an insect. Still, the thin golden crust enveloping the burnt-orange shells and the glossy drizzle of sweet soy sauce are tempting. Suddenly you take the plunge, eating one whole, careful not to puncture a cheek with the spindly legs. The reward is immediate, exquisite: a chippy crunch followed by an aquatic gasp. And that's just the free stuff at Kanno.
Suzuki -- called "Elvis" by his regular customers -- also dispenses bowls of black, hair-like seaweed slicked with sweetness and sesame seeds. He brags up the seaweed's nutritional value, but when you ask how often he eats it you learn that his parents used to force it on him like American parents push spinach; he still can't stomach it. This admission might not be sanctioned by traditional Japanese sushi chefs, but Suzuki, originally from Osaka, harbors some unconventional ideas about running a sushi bar. For instance, he'll engage in any conversation as long as you tell him what you're craving. He feeds you as he chats, cutting fish and carving vegetables with the casual air of a surfer waxing his board.
Which is not to say that Suzuki is flippant about his craft. He apprenticed for several years in California, enduring the abuse of a temperamental chef and pre-dawn trips to the fish market, before ever slicing a customer's raw fish. He eventually returned to Japan to hone his skills until a connection at Shogun in Metairie lured him and his wife, Lin, to this area. These days the young chef works with various fish suppliers to procure quality product for his 5-month-old restaurant, which isn't always easy. Sea urchin, for example, rarely pass under his care because, he says, the best never make it east of California.
Kanno's menu spans six pages, but you're best off simply asking the chef to feed you. One evening, after the giveaways, he began an off-the-cuff menu with tuna salad, tossing ribbons of rare albacore crusted in citrus and spices with roasted shiitake mushrooms, arugula, baby spinach and vinegary, sesame-touched dressing. The next course looked like hors d'oeuvres at a holiday party: asparagus cuttings hid inside sheaths of deep-fried flounder and breadcrumbs; thin bands of salmon wound around the soft richness of snow crab, avocado and cream cheese.
The third (official) course was a nigiri sushi (fish on rice) assortment that, eaten from left to right, flowed like the piano intro, the rocking bridge and the sentimental mellowing of a Queen ballad. Claret-colored tuna (maguro) eased into fatty tuna (toro), which stuck to the tongue like sea butter. Perfectly full, clean salmon came next, followed by the kicker: sand-dry flounder paired with the cinnamon punch of a shiso leaf and tangy ponzu sauce for dipping. The sushi assortment concluded with sweet, cooked shrimp and the tearful, nose-searing resolve of pickled wasabi stuck into marble of rice.
When we cried uncle, Lin presented two petite homemade desserts: tiramisu light and fluffy as a French sabayon, and cocoa-dusted, pudding-soft chocolates -- both eaten with golden silverware proportioned for dolls.
If you'd rather order a la carte in the bright white dining room, try die-size cubes of tuna tartare dressed in a wonderful if unexpected non-acidic balsamic sauce; or bits of tofu nestled into a lidded crock with soy-marinated avocado and bonito shavings (dried and smoked fish). Out of 33 rolls, the barbecue eel is standard, the "natural" spicy tuna roll is a refreshing shift from fish scraps and mayonnaise to seared albacore and pickled chiles, and the ume-q-maki pits minty shiso leaf against salty-sour plum paste for an exemplary palate cleanser.
Don't bother with the grilled stone cherry clams if you see them on the specials board. For this novice, the experience was like severing raw chicken from shells the size of soap dishes. The saba box -- rice, pickled mackerel and marinated kombu (seaweed) pressed into a box and cut into six thick pieces -- is interesting if not entirely worth one person's stomach space.
Suzuki must overcome an unromantic, often empty, room, mushy rice on occasion and rolls that like to crumble in order to increase the clientele that followed him from Shogun -- and he does. If there's roughness around the edges of some rolls, it's not enough to keep me from returning for the sawagani, for the pickled plum with shiso, and for the company.