For those folks in northern Baltimore County who enjoy Japanese food but are averse, because of geography or inclination, to head into Baltimore City, the good news is that several Japanese restaurants have opened up in their area in recent years. And San Sushi in Cockeysville may well have started the trend.
They do things differently at San Sushi -- and the difference seems to be working for them. A few months ago, San Sushi took over the adjacent store in its small strip center and more than doubled in size.
The restaurant was cozy and warm from the start, attracting large groups of families or friends to its few tables and the sushi bar. The additional dining room offers a welcome respite from the original crowds, but this is where the differences, at least as we see them, come into play. While the old dining room is plain to the point of Japanese starkness, the new one has a wall-sized mural of swimming fish and a really, really big TV. And the whole space is fluorescently illuminated to operating-room brightness.
So maybe this decor is a facet of Japanese culture we just hadn't caught up with until now. Or more likely it just works for the neighborhood, because when we were there, the tables in the new dining room each had quiet couples, all seated to face the TV screen. "America's Funniest Animal Videos" provided the entertainment. We have been known to watch TV while we eat -- but not when we're out.
San Sushi dispenses with many rituals and details familiar to those who enjoy Japanese food. There are no are steaming towels with which to clean up and refresh yourself before the meal, nor are there any shoji screened private rooms or shoeless and chairless dining.
Sake or big Sapporos or any other beers or wines have never been available except when customers remember to bring them. But what it may lack in style, San Sushi recovers by providing trustworthy cuisine in a friendly, spotless environment. In addition, the service is excellent. Food arrives promptly, hot dishes are steaming and beverages are refilled without waves or hoots.
Along with a respectable a la carte sushi menu, there is a large menu of kitchen-prepared food. We tried an embarrassing (to us) variety of cooked and raw dishes, most of the enduring-favorite type.
Appetizers include many traditional delicacies, such as sushi, sashimi and dumplings, as well as fish, tofu and meats served grilled and served on sticks. Vegetable tempura was fresh, light and ungreasily fried. We also ordered fried and grilled tofu. Deep-fried tofu can be magically light, but in this case it lacked the tempura airiness. The grilled tofu was a better choice, though both were drenched in a cloying tempura sauce.
We fared better with grilled tuna -- plain, simple and tasty. Shumai, steamed shrimp dumplings, are usually small, delicate, complex and tasty. San Sushi's are biggish, gummy-skinned sacks of whole baby shrimp -- and perfectly fine for what they are.
For dinner, we tried a teriyaki grill, which featured a generous helping of chicken and shrimp. Everything was as it should be -- piquant sauce, tender grilled chicken and shrimp, crisp vegetables, steaming rice.
Seafood udon, Japanese soba noodle soup with salmon, tuna, squid and shrimp, arrived steaming in an enormous bowl. The noodles were plump and luscious, the fish fresh and generous.
San Sushi's sushi, while very fresh, is, sadly, on the bland side. Tuna rolls, shrimp tempura rolls, tamago (egg) and unaki (smoked eel) lack the distinct and crystalline flavors we've come to associate with these favorites. But the rolls have come a long way from the days of our early experiences at San Sushi, when they were ragged and misshapen.
If eccentric in character for a traditional Japanese restaurant, San Sushi succeeds with an atmosphere conducive to companionable, low-key dining. The combination is clearly a winner, judging by the crowds.
9832 York Road, Cockeysville 410-453-0140
Hours: Daily for lunch and dinner, except dinner only on Sunday
Credit cards: AE, MC.V
Prices: Dinner appetizers $4.50 to $14.95; entrees $8.95 to $16.95
Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *