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Island Unto Itself 

SUSHI CAFE offers a Hawaiian spin on its menu as it goes on a roll in Faubourg St. John.

On a good night at Sushi Cafe, you enter with your own brown-bagged bottle, nab a ringside seat at the sushi counter and gamble on the menu's first unfamiliar item: Hamachi Dice. Before you can unroll a steam-treated towelette, a waitress heats your sake and empties your Sapporo into wine glasses. Working to the rump-quaking tempo of Mystikal's "Shake Ya Ass," Chef Victor Pasigan swiftly produces a plate strewn with finely diced jalapeno and red bell peppers, both as mild and sweet as tropical fruit alongside the carpaccio-thin slices of hamachi (a rich, cream-colored fish also known as Japanese amberjack). It might take several bites before the salty brown sauce pooling beneath the fish comes into focus. But then it rushes over you like an island breeze -- pineapple!

Pasigan is Hawaiian, and he expresses his heritage with a hang-10 attitude and nonconformist sushi house preparations. More rock-star line cook than Zen master, his work style is like Hawaii itself: positioned between Japan and the contiguous United States but edging closer to the latter. Sushi Cafe opened just before Thanksgiving, and already the gregarious chef interacts with his counter customers like they're family. One evening, singing along to the Beatles' "Get Back," he greeted a happy regular with a glass of ice, a Coke and the bottle of Jack Daniels the man had left behind on a previous visit.

Which is not to say that Pasigan plays favorites. He filled two deep martini glasses with one $7 order of Poke Salad for a friend and me on our first visit. "Poke," he told us, is Hawaiian for "cubes"; the gorgeous salad, a windfall for the carb intolerant, involves cubes of watermelon-colored tuna, slivers of white onion, wakame seaweed and an invisible acidity that brightens but doesn't cook the fish. Another signature, Spicy Edamame, is gigantic in portion size and originality; their pods coated in a pungent garlic butter kicked up with kimchee base, the soybeans annihilate impulse control like the smell of movie popcorn.

But then there are the bad nights, the nights when every counter seat is taken and when plastic soda bottles and torn chopsticks wrappers litter the cranking restaurant. Once you've cleared space for yourself at a table, 15 minutes could pass before the only waitress acknowledges your arrival. Acquiring a glazed mug of green tea could take another 10. At its worst, you enter with a bottomless hunger for that clean, wholesome feeling that a well-paced meal of raw fish and rice ideally produces, and you exit with that same hunger plus a headache.

Not only is the pace simultaneously dial-up slow and manic when it's busy; served raw and unadorned, the fish isn't up to par. Tuna may appear crimson-perfect, but it was mealy and flavorless when I ordered it as nigiri sushi. Likewise, generous cuts of opaque yellowtail lacked succulence and tasted hollow; salmon was dreary in color and butterless mouth-feel; and a bitsy fried softshell crab strapped with seaweed to a saddle of sushi rice tasted unkempt.

The sushi rice is always in top form: sticky but not gluey, tasting sweet and slightly fermented. It's a staunch base for norimaki rolls made with non-fish ingredients such as ume (pickled plum), crabmeat and vegetables. The ubiquitous California roll -- made here with rice outside, imitation crab inside -- is sound. The Tres Amigos sushi presented in small seaweed cups is also low-risk, bejeweled with caviar three ways: wasabi tobiko, smelt roe and ikura (plump salmon eggs).

Given the dodgy raw fish and the possibility that Sushi Cafe's small staff will be too overwhelmed to provide stress-free dining, you must question whether anything is special enough to warrant forsaking your own neighborhood sushi house. The answer: cha-soba, a soba noodle soup whose lithe, pine-colored noodles are made with green tea powder. Slightly duskier in flavor than plain buckwheat soba noodles but equally delicate, they suspend in a light, see-through broth that smacks of mushrooms, which aren't physically present, and green onions, which are. You may dip the accompanying tempura-fried vegetables into the soup as my waitress suggested, or you may choose not to sully the pristine waters.

The house miso soup is also unusually good, perpetually blooming and full-bodied. Sometimes practice makes perfect: Proprietor Yusuke Kawaharai opened Yutaro, Kenner's excellent noodle soup shop, in 2002. He also owns Tokyo Bistro and Little Tokyo, Pasigan's former stomping grounds, and was a partner in Le Printemps, the last restaurant to briefly inhabit Sushi Cafe's Faubourg St. John building. (Before that, another sushi house: Japon.)

Judging from the recent crowds, this neighborhood is primed to support a BYOB Japanese restaurant. A covered front porch, retired fireplaces and glossy woodwork suggest that the old structure was once a home. Though the interior is awkward with its disconnected rooms and retail-store lighting, it can also be warm and communal -- as if the chef were throwing a nightly dinner party. Once when a romancing couple requested more ambience, Pasigan dimmed the lights and produced candles. If requests for bulking up the staff and stepping up the fish quality are similarly addressed, good nights could become the rule here, not the exception.

click to enlarge SUSHI CAFE Chef Victor Pasigan, a native Hawaiian, offers - customers one of his signatures -- the Poke Salad, a - windfall for the carb intolerant. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • SUSHI CAFE Chef Victor Pasigan, a native Hawaiian, offers customers one of his signatures -- the Poke Salad, a windfall for the carb intolerant.
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