The boom of the Japanese drum made us jump as the wait staff began their parade through the dining room. A guest at a neighboring table was having a birthday, and the nice folks at Sushi Kai in Glendale were helping celebrate.
A group of six hungry men were to our left, and four women wanting a quick bite before a movie were to our right. Add to that our family of four and the romantic couple across the way, and this restaurant seemed to attract every kind of diner. Why is this such a neighborhood hangout? It can't be the stainless-steel-dominated decor. It must be the sushi.
My theory proved true. Sushi Kai serves good, fresh fish and lots of it. The prices are on the high side, but the plates are generous. The sushi and sashimi have consistently good texture and flavor. The service is helpful and efficient. My only caveat is, there's a certain lack of inspiration in the rolls, at least the ones I tried.
When I go out for sushi, I always ask for the Chef's Specials, so I was surprised when they said they didn't have any. The adorable waitress suggested we try their 10-piece sushi/spicy tuna roll combination ($20) as well as their best-selling item, the baked langostino roll ($16). After complimentary miso soup and golden-fried tuna balls, the long, slender tray of sushi arrived with long, slender filets of fish.
Unlike the more common presentation of sushi where raw fish measuring maybe 3 inches by 1 inch sits atop a similarly sized hunk of rice, this sushi is close to 5 inches long with a tablespoon or so of rice hidden beneath it. The fish is the star, and rightly so. All pieces were tender, particularly the lovely, translucent white tuna. The platter also includes regular tuna, salmon, albacore, shrimp and pepper-seared tuna with minimal extras, such as a light shaving of onion.
I can see why everyone loves the baked langostino roll. Warm chunks of the lobster-like crustacean meat blend with mushrooms in a creamy dynamite sauce that is spooned over California rolls. It is decadent and comforting, but personally, I found it too rich. I preferred the clean yet full-bodied taste of the spicy tuna salad ($11), which, incidentally is no side salad. This is a full meal.
The two specialty rolls I sampled, the 911 Roll ($11) and the Rock'n Roll ($13), were fine, but not to-die-for. Neither were wrapped in seaweed or included rice. The interior of the Rock'n Roll featured four kinds of fish, mango and salty roe, but the flavors didn't blend harmoniously, and the too-thick cucumber wrapping overpowered them. A similar thing happened with the 911 Roll and its avocado exterior.
My favorite new find is the delightful sisito hot appetizer ($8). These small, slightly spicy Japanese bell peppers taste similar to regular green bell peppers but with a more concentrated flavor. They are sautéed in oil and topped with shaved onion. Another pleasant surprise at Sushi Kai are the free little extras. I already mentioned the tuna balls. But if you're lucky, you may also get coffee and mango mochi along with sliced oranges at the end of your meal. Also, we were thrilled when, instead of just adding more tea to our quickly cooling teacups, they kept bringing fresh hot cups of green tea.
I can't say this place is bursting with creative culinary genius or cutting-edge ambience, but the casual, neighborhood feel of Sushi Kai and the consistent freshness of their simplest sushi make this a place you'll want to check out.
LISA DUPUY has been writing about area restaurants since 2008. She can be reached at LDupuy@aol.com.
What: Sushi Kai Gourmet Japanese
Where: 143 S. Maryland Ave., Glendale
When: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday
Prices: Appetizers and salads $1.50 to $14; rolls, sushi and sashimi combos $8 to $28; hot foods $9 to $17; lunch specials $9 to $15
Contact: (818) 243-7393