- Walter Novak
- More than a lettuce wrap: With that plateful of pork tenderloin, wise diners will hang onto their forks.
In this, of course, the five-month-old hot spot is merely following in the footsteps of her big sister, Sushi Rock, which by now is practically a cornerstone of downtown's Warehouse District, an area packed with clubs and restaurants. Despite sharing the name with a legion of similarly themed restaurants across the country, both Rocks are locally owned, operated, and designed, and both can be best described as one part club, one part sushi bar, and one part contemporary dining room, showcasing an impressive-sounding collection of creative, sometimes Asian-influenced appetizers, entrées, and desserts. And just like her big sis, young Sushi Rock East pulls off each of these personas with varying degrees of grace.
The clubby part comes off pretty well, particularly considering that the new Rock is located not in a happenin' hood, but on the edge of an upscale mini-mall, with a bookstore and an ice-cream parlor for neighbors. Also, thanks to East Side demographics, swinging singles would do well to remember that the Sevens settled on the barstool next to them are as likely to belong to someone's granny as to a twentysomething chiquita. Still, the house music is loud, the lighting is low, and the room -- a dramatically lit, two-level marvel done up in black, crimson, plum, and steel -- offers the most energetic, authentically urbane vibe in the neighborhood. (Take that, Cheesecake Factory!)
The well-provisioned bar and its small lounge are favored territory among hipsters, especially for the collection of trendy Japanese beers, chilled sakes, and sweet, designer 'tinis. For instance, a Cîroc "snap frost" cocktail of vodka and white grape juice, garnished with frozen red grapes (the French Grape, $9), made for a flirty, feminine sip. On the other hand, while a classic "dirty" martini, with Bombay Sapphire gin and a trio of fat, blue-cheese-stuffed olives ($9) wasn't on the 'tini list, it proved to be exactly the right stuff to help a macho companion slip into a mellow frame of mind. There's also a well-thought-out wine list, with more than 100 choices by the bottle and around 30 by the glass; bottle prices range from $24, for an Argentinean Pinot Grigio to $285 for a 2002 Château Mouton Rothschild Pauillac, widely ranked among the world's finest Bordeaux.
The downside, of course, is that this is not the spot for a romantic dinner with a demure companion. Not only is the music too loud for easy conversation (a DJ takes over at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays); seating in the main dining area is painfully cramped, especially when the room is full -- which it was, or nearly so, on each of our three visits. (A second, semiprivate "overflow" dining room, tucked behind the sushi bar, was considerably less crowded, although not nearly so interesting.) It doesn't help that the restaurant has made no provisions for a coat check, so bulky winter outerwear ends up draped across chair backs and trailing onto the floors. And adding to the physical misery, diners seated near the hostess stand can count on a blast of frigid air each time someone throws open the big front doors.
For those reasons and more, our preference is to grab a seat at the elevated, semi-circular sushi bar near the back of the room. When we're perched on the tall red stools several steps above the teeming dining room, the noise is slightly attenuated, the odds of getting pushed around by fellow diners are somewhat reduced, and the well-orchestrated knife-wielding of the Korean sushi chefs makes us feel all snuggly warm inside.
Also, the sushi is very good. Not, as many newbies will insist after being seduced by the room's energy and glamour, "the best in town," but fresh, fairly apportioned (except for the relatively skimpy slice of tuna on our nigiri sushi), and prettily plated on black granite slabs, with all the usual accompaniments. Our best meal by far at SRE, in fact, was a Monday-night sit-in at the sushi bar that began with edamame and an intense version of miso soup; proceeded to a spicy tuna roll and an assortment of tuna, salmon, unagi (eel), and yellowtail nigiri, and wound up with an order of slightly sweet, custardy tomago (egg) as "dessert." Our sole complaint? While the rare, wonderful toro (fatty tuna) is prominently featured on the menu, it wasn't available on any of our three visits.
On the other hand, the kitchen's non-sushi repertoire, directed by executive chef Jeff Fisher and chef de cuisine Derek Wilson, can be unpredictable, with some otherwise worthy dishes taken down a peg or two -- or more -- by oversights and omissions. For instance, the slightly stale, crumbly kaiser rolls that held two giant lunchtime sandwiches -- a succulent, freshly ground filet mignon burger, perfectly cooked to order and generously garnished with smoked cheddar, sautéed mushrooms, and caramelized onion; and a savory but slippery combo of lean, not-too-spicy chorizo and tender grilled chicken breast, topped with arugula and roasted tomato -- were minor flubs. But the chewy, wildly salty scallops and scampi, served on a bed of starchy saffron fettuccine, in an overbearing lemon-vodka-lobster sauce, that we had for dinner? Now, that was a dud.
Grilled hanger steak proved a better choice, thickly sliced into firm, tender, rosy-red slabs and served with honest mashed potatoes, lots of deeply sautéed mushrooms and onions, and a side of sweet, buttery spaghetti squash. But even this dish lacked sizzle: Despite its abundance of savory potential, the flavors (other than the squash) seemed dull and attenuated. Finally, we gave in and asked a server for salt; a few good shakes, and the dish brightened up considerably.
Apps, too, had their ups and downs. Filet mignon "sushi" was a fave, with two thick, velvety beef tenderloin medallions settled onto pedestals of sticky rice and seasoned with a snappy sake-soy reduction. Lettuce wraps, too, offered a palate-pleasing combo of flavors and textures; but any actual "wrapping" was out of the question, since the buttery leaves of tender Bibb lettuce couldn't begin to contain the generous serving of grilled pork tenderloin (embarrassingly succulent and seasoned with a fragrant nine-spice rub), not to mention the soba noodles, julienned carrots, and red pepper strips. (Both these starters, incidentally, are more than large enough to share and could even stand on their own as light entrées.)
However, four long, slim lobster "cigars," described on the menu as "crispy" egg roll wrappers embracing a "rich" filling of lobster, mascarpone, and curry, left us cold. Not only were the wrappers flaccid rather than crisp, but the filling was bland and characterless. "If I wasn't so hungry," a companion grumbled while picking at the $12 starter, "these would hardly be worth eating at all."
Trendinistas on a tight schedule might also note that on a busy Saturday night, our time at the table dragged on for a tedious two and a half hours, from the moment we were seated until we spooned up the final bites of a shared dessert (an indulgently delish version of bananas Foster, incidentally, beribboned with oodles of caramel infused with banana liqueur). While service started off reasonably well, by midpoint its pace had slowed to a crawl; we waited 20 minutes for dessert to arrive and another 15 before our server finally brought the check.
We like to think of it as just one more reason to head straight to the sushi bar.