If your contemporary deep-fried, masago-crowned sushi could talk, it would tell you to please not drown it in soy sauce or paint it in wasabi. Of course, your contemporary sushi chef -- like Isushi Cafe's Chang Lee -- would tell you that too, if you asked. Of course, they also leave the usual accoutrements on your plate, because most realize that the ever-changing genre is a bastardization to begin with. Or, perhaps more optimistically, just evolving, both globally and regionally.
Owner/Chef Lee presides over the small but pristine sushi shop on Carmel's green but slowly blooming 116th Street corridor. It's definitely his baby (his wife's family owns Tegry Bistro in Brownsburg), though he regards it very modestly. He shouldn't. The space is beautifully, meticulously decorated. A traditional red and yellow palette is updated with modern furniture: Grommet-studded silver encircles the bamboo sushi bar, matching the short, rounded black and metal chairs for table dwellers. The place only has a few of these spots. Which is great, as Lee will tell you, for he believes sushi is not something to be rushed through, but rather enjoyed, masticated and digested.
Though he's gotta do well with the in-and-out Carmel business lunch crowd. My visit collided with a lunching businessman, who actually seemed to have no kind of urgency. The man was a transplant from California and claimed he has found nothing to match his sushi expectations -- except for this café.
Lee shrugs off such praise. Ask him what he'd order at his place, and he says it's hard to eat what you make. Somehow it tastes better when someone else makes it for you, he says.
I don't know. My crunch spicy tuna roll ($7.50) was pretty damn good. (Then again, I didn't make it.) "Sure," you say. "What doesn't taste good deep fried?" Well, sushi, in my opinion. Once you start frying it, it all tastes the same. But that's the trend now. That, and sauces like eel, spicy mayo and various and sundry masago (tiny fish egg) toppings, flavored and colored with Habanero, citrus, jalapeno, wasabi and more. Lee employs all of these flavor variations creatively.
The thing about this fried roll was that I could actually taste the spicy tuna beyond the crispy tempura sheath. The wasabi tobiko popped and sparkled, too. I was less perfectly clear on the innards of the Ali roll ($8.75), with soft shell crab, avocado and gobo (a root vegetable). But that's because these ingredients are sort of soft and ambiguous to begin with. And though I can't recommend sushi to any pregnant woman, this roll was created and named for racer Larry Dickson's pregnant wife, who thought she had found a safe way to eat sushi in her condition.
By the time I looked up from my crabsticks (that's, um, fake crab: They sit atop the Ali), Mr. California and friend were eating a salad with plumage of, perhaps, daikon radish. This was followed by a plate bursting with colors and textures, like a roll topped with blue and red masago that looked like confection-studded gumdrops. The whole exercise was a pretty one. In good taste, in fact, all around. Enough so for me to make the drive from my digs in the center of the city.