At Mount Pleasant's Sushi Taro, which scores a solid four stars on Yelp, where it's repeatedly described as the best sushi bar in town, every order is preceded by a giveaway appetizer that represents the state of Charleston's sushi scene: Fried poofs of shrimp tempura are balanced on stacked cords of skinny cucumber sticks. The whole arrangement is plastered with sweet Sriracha mayonnaise, the hue of Thousand Island dressing; beribboned with sesame oil and garnished with white and black sesame seeds. It's a very full plate.
To the consternation of sushi purists, Charlestonians are still fixated on a cream- cheesed, spiced and fried interpretation of Japanese cookery. In a region with an innate appreciation for seafood and rice, the monstrous roll remains the juggernaut.
"It's too much rolls!" exclaims chef Sean Park, who one year ago opened Kanpai in Mount Pleasant to showcase the artistry he inherited from a series of sushi masters in New York. "I have no objection to the roll. When I'm hungry, I eat rolls. But from the supermarket to the bar, it's all about rolls."
Park can't explain the local reluctance to venture beyond rolls, since it's at odds with everything else he knows about Charleston dining. "The Charleston palate is so high, so delicate," he protests.
A widespread aversion to unadorned raw fish isn't the answer, since ceviche is on the menu at Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar, Coast Bar & Grill and The Ordinary, among other restaurants. Al Di La, Muse and Indaco serve crudo.
For every plausible theory, there's a discrediting fact: Perhaps sushi is too expensive? The cheapest steak at the always-bustling Hall's Chophouse is $37. Maybe it's too hard to get the right ingredients here? According to Tomo Naito, a top sushi chef in Atlanta, his supplier delivers to Charleston.
But it's the demographic reasoning that Park considers the kookiest. Nobody ever questions the wisdom of serving coq au vin in a city with very few French people. "How many Japanese people live in New York?" Park scoffs. "The ratio is probably higher here."
Charleston is hardly the only U.S. city guilty of romancing the roll. Unlike most cities, though, Charleston prides itself on its culinary reputation and kitchen sophistication, which makes its provincial approach toward one of the globe's great high-end cuisines confounding.
"There aren't any real options," says Jesse Sandole, who's planning to open a Charleston branch of his Nantucket seafood market on East Bay Street. "It's always puzzled me."
Roots of the roll
Although sushi is now sold at ballparks and rural grocery stores, it's a recent addition to the American diet. What most people now think of as sushi - fresh seafood atop a bolster of vinegared rice - didn't even exist until the 19th century, when an Edo entrepreneur decided to skip the fermentation process that was essential to sushi's antecedents. By the 1960s, modern sushi was hugely popular throughout Japan.
Around that time, a Japanese businessman named Noritoshi Kanai was casting about for a delicacy he could export to the U.S. After a single sushi meal, his American partner told him to abandon the canned snake meat and chocolate-covered ants, and focus on nigiri: In 1966, Harry Wolf and Kanai opened the first sushi bar for American eaters. Their restaurant, located in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo, inspired more sushi restaurants, including a Hollywood joint that enchanted celebrities.
"Suddenly, everyone got the idea of Yul Brenner going to a sushi bar," says Trevor Corson, author of "The Story of Sushi: The Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice." "It dovetailed with our interest in healthfulness of food, when the two things being talked about a lot were grains and fish."
Sushi chefs in Los Angeles made accommodations for their customers and the primitive state of air freight: They flipped traditional rolls inside out, hiding the exotic-seeming seaweed wrappers at their cores, and made up for the fatty cuts they couldn't get by embellishing available seafood with avocado. The California roll - first made with shrimp, and later amended to feature imitation crab - was the granddaddy of every Dragon, Volcano, Super Bad Boy, Astro Dynamite and Rockstar roll.
"We like spicy and we like creamy," Corson says. "What really made sushi mainstream is once you get past the concept, it's actually less hard to take as a flavor combination: It's sweet and sour rice, and Americans had already gotten used to sweet and sour Chinese flavors."
Avocado, mayonnaise, cream cheese, asparagus and peach sauce helped make those flavors even more acceptable to the American palate. But throwing rolls in the fryer, Corson says, was largely an economic decision.
"There are some dirty little secrets in the sushi world," Corson says. "One of which is they can get away with deep-frying fish that's a little past its prime, and we'll gobble it up."
Flirting with sushi
Beyond big cities, sushi was slow to catch on. Corson recalls a bunch of fishermen in Maine, where he lived, hanging a "sushi restaurant" sign on their bait shed. "From their point of view, eating raw fish was a stupid, gross thing," he says.
Yet when the owners of 39 Rue de Jean needed something more compatible with summer weather than braised rabbit and steak frites, they put sushi on the menu. Since the downtown restaurant opening in 2001, it's offered rolls alongside French brasserie staples.
"We knew people were going to ask why," says Holy City Hospitality operating partner Daren Wolfe, who previously served as Rue de Jean's general manager. "We laughed, 'You know, French Polynesia is not that far (from Japan).' "
Wolfe says the lobster roll, eel avocado roll and California roll are especially popular.
"We were extremely nervous about it," Wolfe says of the sushi program's introduction. "We knew it would be a complete failure or a tremendous success."
It was the latter, Wolfe says. "A lot of our female clientele really love it. You'd be surprised by how many times I see someone with a bowl of mussels and a tuna roll."
Rolls weren't supposed to be the emphasis at O-Ku, the splashiest of the city's sushi bars. Indigo Road Restaurant Group managing partner Steve Palmer envisioned the Oak Steakhouse spin-off as "kind of a take on Nobu," O-Ku general manager Kimball Brienza recalls. When the restaurant in 2010 opened on upper King Street, Park was the head chef and raw dishes dominated the menu.
"When O-Ku first opened, from what I've heard, I don't think they were quite as busy," Brienza says. "What Steve envisioned originally was all raw, and a little bit of robata, but we kind of had to add a few things, like a Chinese eggroll. After long talks with Steve and our chefs, we've come to what works for Charleston."
O-Ku hasn't given up on raw fish: Brienza says the restaurant's diverse crowd includes "Boeing guys who come for sushi," along with college students attracted by Happy Hour rolls and older diners who order seared scallops and flank steak.
But he says the dish most emblematic of O-Ku is a yellowtail carpaccio with cilantro and truffled ponzu sauce, a preparation that owes as much to Europe as Asia. Brienza's also a fan of the restaurant's rock shrimp salad.
"It's a big, hearty portion of shrimp tossed with spicy mayo," he says. "And who doesn't love spicy mayo?"
New spins on sushi
Beyond dedicated sushi restaurants, though, Charleston chefs are demonstrating the possibilities posed by sushi in the Lowcountry. Circa 1886's Marc Collins recently riffed on the genre to create the first course for his New Year's Eve menu: Parboiled Carolina Gold rice (dressed, in traditional sushi rice fashion, with sugar and rice vinegar), overlaid with shrimp, smoked salmon and tuna, seared rare. It was accompanied by a "C-weed" salad made from collard greens.
"Everybody loved it a lot," says Collins, who's just added a sake-brined salmon with Carolina Gold sushi rice; pickled ginger gel and the C-weed salad to the restaurant's standing menu.
Sandole, who's plotting a series of sushi nights for his East Bay market, theorizes Charleston's proximity to the coast might actually inhibit sushi experimentation, since most high-end chefs here stress local fish. "If you can get everything from Patriot's Point, that's great, but it's not realistic," he says.
At Kanpai, Park orders most of his fish from Hawaii. But he weaves local seafood into his sushi whenever he can: "I love tilefish, shrimp, vermillion snapper," he says. His omakase menu alludes to the region with raw conch, squash soup and stuffed game birds.
Yet despite its potential, Park suspects the sushi scene will remain sleepy without an influx of classically trained talent. "People come to Charleston to start their careers, but not at Japanese restaurants," he says. "It's not just the money. You have to give up things here, living as a minority."
Still, Park is hopeful that customer demand will eventually eclipse those concerns. He's already thinking about his next restaurant; he'd like to open an eight-seat sushi bar downtown.
"It will be a no-rolls restaurant," he vows.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.