We arrived early at Joss Cafe on a recent Saturday night because we'd been told that the Japanese restaurant is very small and very popular. Even at 5:30, there were quite a few tables filled in the restaurants tiny front room. But the owners have added a larger dining room in back to cut down on the lines that sometimes form outside.
By the time we left, there were no lines, but the place had been doing a brisk business for hours.
A line outside would be justifiable. This still-small restaurant on Annapolis Main Street serves Japanese dishes cooked and raw that are fresher, more imaginative and more complex in flavor than any others we can remember having eaten in this region.
It took us a long time to order; even the drink options are more varied than we usually find at Japanese restaurants. There are hot and cold sake, several varieties of beer and an interesting selection of domestic and imported wines chosen specifically to complement the food.
As for food, Joss has a menu of original appetizers, seaweed salads, nigiri (rolls) and maki (hand rolls), along with an abundant number of fresh-out-of-the-water daily specials and traditional sushi and teriyaki favorites.
We started with spicy pork shumai, seaweed salad with green mussels, albacore carpaccio and a grilled vegetable appetizer. The vegetables baby corn, squash, zucchini and carrots were lightly grilled and oiled to allow the natural flavors to emerge.
Carpaccio, a dish usually found in Italian restaurants and usually consisting of paper-thin slices of raw beef fillet, was made here from slices of albacore tuna so fresh it melted in our mouths. The tuna was served on a bed of seaweed with an extraordinary wasabi dipping sauce that managed to be both creamy and spicy at the same time.
The salad featured the same delicious seaweed (the best we've had), this time serving as a bed for several plump, just- cooked green mussels, artfully laid out in their shells. Only the shumai ground pork in red chili dumpling wrappers was merely good, and it was much improved by a peppery dipping sauce.
Our first-course feast was followed by a Full Moon salad, rockfish ponzu and a hakushika hand roll, all specials of the night. The Full Moon was crab meat and scallions rolled into salmon that was quickly seared and cut like a sushi roll. Beautifully prepared and incredibly fresh, the seafood mix was served on a seaweed salad with the excellent wasabi sauce.
Ponzu was a plate of rockfish slivers marinated in citrus and cilantro dressing a light, piquant combination. The hand roll, which was not among the recommendations of our helpful waiter, was a mysterious combination of fermented tofu and sprouts that most of us wouldn't even look at, let alone taste. Don't try this at home, or anywhere else, for that matter.
Weary but undaunted, we ordered our entrees, which combined cooked favorites salmon teriyaki and beef negimaki with a full complement of sushi (rolls) and sashimi (pieces of raw fish on rice). Everything raw tuna, yellow tail and squid was fresh, tender and flavorful. The rolls were also delicious, although the soft-shell crab could have used less chewiness and more delicacy. The standout was a crunchy ebi roll tiny, batter-fried shrimp and shreds of sweet potato rolled in rice and seaweed.
Of the cooked dinners, the salmon teriyaki was best lightly (if thoroughly) grilled, tender and juicy. The beef negimaki strip steak and whole scallions normally a favorite of ours, was sodden in its cloying sauce, which overwhelmed the flavor of the (tough) scallions and beef.
Finally, because Joss actually serves Japanese desserts, we ordered tempura bananas with vanilla ice cream and tai yaki with red bean ice cream. The bananas, delicate and luscious, were akin to bananas Foster minus the rum and table-side flames. Tai yaki was a red bean cake baked into the shape of a goldfish and served with the first red bean ice cream weve had that actually had beans in it.
When people find out that we review restaurants, they nearly always remark that we must have the most wonderful job in the world. After sometimes eating mediocre fare for weeks, we can't always agree. Joss Cafe and Sushi Bar, however, is one of those places that makes us feel lucky. It's a real gem.
Joss Cafe and Sushi Bar
195 Main St., Annapolis
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Credit cards: All major cards
Prices: Entrees $9.95 to $18.95.
Ratings system: Outstanding ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *