Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Beautifully prepared food served in lovely setting

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I've often thought I could write about a different Asian restaurant every week for a year. These days (although I admit I haven't actually counted them) I could probably say the same thing about Japanese restaurants only, which have proliferated like mushrooms in a wet season. Hardly a week goes by without an email from a reader, enthusing about a sushi place -- usually in their own neighbourhood and, they say, absolutely the best in the city.

I understand their enthusiasm. Like Asian restaurants in general, Japanese restaurants offer some of the safest bets for eating out, rarely sinking below acceptability, at least. But every now and then I hear of one that not only rises well above mere acceptability, but which offers some intriguingly rare items as well -- it wasn't just the praise that brought me to Sushi Ai.

I was prepared for good food, but what I wasn't prepared for was the charm of the place, which few of my correspondents had mentioned (I guess some have eyes only for what's on their plates). And it is an elegant little room, with back-lit classic Japanese prints on the walls, and marvellously comfortable rattan armchairs, plumped up with well-padded cushions. Even the menu and the little folder that holds the bill are things of beauty, with bronze, flower-embossed covers and dark suede-like lining. The only discordant note is the television set high on one wall, with the sound on (but not too loud).

In any case, it's the beauty of the food that matters and Sushi Ai excels there too, in both taste and presentation. The menu isn't extensive, and the fish are the standard, predictable choices, but those that are available tasted fresh and meticulously prepared. Even the pink pickled ginger seemed to have more zing than usual. Prices also are relatively reasonable, with nigiri sushi from $2.75 to $4.95 for two pieces, regular rolls from $4.50 to $5.95, and special rolls from $8.50 to $14.

Sushi are usually the draw for Japanese restaurants, but confining oneself here to sushi only would mean missing out on some fine starters: the wonderful and truly rare takoyaki, for instance -- battered and fried octopus-filled balls, prettily presented on ceramic escargot plates (six pieces for $4.95). Or the less rare but truly superior potato croquettes -- deep-fried patties of creamy mashed potatoes, dotted by the occasional kernel of corn, and topped by a dab of concentrated teriyaki sauce -- two for $2.50, but really big, and the best I can remember. Tempura aren't exactly rare, but here a crisp, lacy batter encloses firm and particularly flavourful shrimp (eight pieces for $8.95).

There's an assortment of salads as well -- among them, tuna gomo ae with avocado in a lovely sesame-seasoned dressing ($6.25); and the biggest, and possibly the best, sunomono salad of my experience -- translucent noodles with slices of cucumbers and little nubs of octopus (shrimp, surf clam or crab are other options) in a slightly sweetened rice vinegar dressing, so good I kept drinking it after the noodles were gone ($4.50).

It's a rare sushi menu that doesn't include some newfangled concoctions -- the New Hampshire, for example, with deep-fried bacon among its components, and which -- along with the Philadelphia Roll of smoked salmon and cream cheese -- I'll leave to others to try. When I come out for sushi, raw fish is what I want, and all I tried were excellent in all their forms, from the simplest nigiri sushi with moist, perfectly seasoned rice and generous toppings, to the biggest, most complex of rolls.

Tempura crumbs delivered a nice crunch to the delectable Echo Roll of salmon, tuna and surf clam with lettuce, and to the Bakudan Tuna Roll, fired by a hot sauce that bit back. Another good choice was the barbecued River Eel Roll with cucumber and a drizzle of teriyaki sauce.

The Special Rolls probably deliver the most fish for your buck. The Rainbow Roll, for instance, of avocado, fish eggs and crab meat (real crab, not fake), with a topping of tuna, salmon, octopus and clam, with both teriyaki and hot sauces. But one of the best and most exciting rolls I've had in ages is the stunning Volcano Roll, which starts with a California Roll of avocado, crab meat and fish eggs, and is then topped by a cloud-like puff of lightly cooked chopped scallops with fish roe and mayo.

The only sashimi listed are salmon and tuna, but both are firm, sweet and fresh-tasting (eight generous slices for $12.50).

Two stir-fried noodle dishes came in portions big enough for two to share. The beef yaki udon of thick, chewy noodles with plenty of tender, tasty beef slices and crunchy veggies was tops for both texture and flavour. I also liked the yakisoba of skinnier noodles interlaced with seafood -- tiny shrimp, octopus, and (possibly?) surf clams ($9.75 each).

The only dessert available is ice cream encased in sweet rice -- a commercial preparation, apparently, and in any case by then we'd had enough rice. Service is friendly, attentive and accommodating. Since space is limited, reservations would be a good idea.

marion.warhaft@freepress.mb.ca

To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below or click here.

Restaurants marked with a red flag were rated between 0.5 to 2.5 stars; yellow flags mark those rated between 2.5 to 4 stars; and green flags mark those rated rated 4.5 to 5 stars. Locations marked with a yellow dot were not assigned a star rating.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 21, 2013 C5

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