Sushi Rock and Sushi 86 opened their doors within weeks of each other some 15 years ago, but only one of them has been 86'd. You couldn't fashion a more fitting tale of opposites if you tried. The year was 2000, and the Warehouse District was exploding with new clubs and restaurants. Sushi Rock made quite a splash, with its New York City swagger and East-meets-West cuisine. The two-level complex was known for thick crowds, striped shirts and non-traditional sushi buried beneath an avalanche of superfluous garnishes.
Meanwhile, a few blocks away on Public Square, tiny Sushi 86 opened its doors. At just 250 square feet, the "restaurant" scarcely was larger than the coat check room at Sushi Rock. There was seating for fewer than five diners at a time, and the menu stuck to traditional, minimally messed-with raw fish.
Sushi 86 is the tortoise to Sushi Rock's hare. While Sushi Rock quickly expanded into new markets, Rachel and Mike Hsu, the owners of Sushi 86, slowly, methodically nurtured the business from a two-person operation to what it is today, 15 years and three addresses later.
Four years ago, Sushi 86 relocated to its current home on the Prospect end of the 5th Street Arcades, where the owners recently installed a small outdoor patio, added a liquor license, and increased their payroll to 21 staffers.
The Hsus learned from the best, starting their sushi careers at Hiroshi Tsuji's legendary (and relentless) Shuhei restaurant on Chagrin Boulevard, where Mike worked as a sushi chef and Rachel as a waitress. It was there that they gained an appreciation for the old-school sushi techniques and witnessed firsthand our growing obsession with raw fish.
"We saw how sushi was becoming a popular food," Rachel Hsu offers as the motivation for branching out on their own. The couple named their tiny downtown spot Sushi 86 after the list of items that Shuhei always seemed to be running out of.
Most sushi restaurants around town have longer, more extravagant menus than Sushi 86. But that's a point of pride here, not a weakness. "It's shorter, it's fresher and we're always rotating our product," Rachel says of the menu.
Bright, spare and tidy, the downtown sushi cafe seats about 25, not counting the front patio. Sushi 86 is one of the few restaurants that always seems to be busy: lunch, dinner, weekdays, weekends. Son Ben, a culinary school graduate who worked at Parallax and Amp 150, now does much of the sushi preparation, working behind the curved white sushi bar.
Meals begin with bowls of steamed edamame ($4), crunchy seaweed salad ($4) and deeply flavored miso soup ($2.75). Sushi 86 excels at the basics, slicing fresh-tasting fish and laying it to rest on a bed of nicely seasoned, molded rice. That includes tuna ($2.75), salmon ($2.75), yellowtail ($2.75), barely seared albacore ($2.75), and bouncy salmon roe ($2.75) bursting with salinity. Of course, you can ditch the rice altogether and go the sashimi route instead.
For those who like to mix and match various items, the bento boxes are a popular call. Each bundles together a selection of sashimi, nigiri or maki menu items. The Fresh Fish Nigiri ($13), for example, combines pieces of tuna, salmon, yellowtail and escolar on a bed of a rice. For those who prefer rolls, the Fresh Fish Maki ($8) offers nine colorful wheels of seaweed-wrapped rice and fish.
Compared to other sushi menus around, the list of large format rolls – futomaki – is pretty concise. But not only can diners always find something creative and fresh, like the 86 Roll ($10.25), filled with a rainbow of fish, fish eggs, avocado and egg, but regulars know that Ben will whip up just about anything by request. One such request by the band Hinder landed a permanent spot on the menu. It's called the 3-Way Reverse Cowgirl ($15.95), and it's about as much fun as it sounds.
A brand new liquor license means that folks can wash down all that chow with imported beer, wine, sake and Japanese whisky.
When asked how Sushi 86 has managed to outlast the big guys, Rachel says it all comes down to diversification. There is a separate menu for vegan and vegetarian customers, as well as one for the gluten free. In addition to the crowded restaurant, there's the catering business, prepackaged sushi line, and newly acquired event space perfect for cooking classes and large functions.
While other flashy restaurants, focused on empire building, burnt bright and flamed out, Sushi 86's slow and steady approach appears to be winning the race.