Sushi Dining Without All The Rules

Restaurant Review

The Joss Cafe Presents A Straightforward, Navigable (and Affordable) Menu

August 20, 2009|By Richard Gorelick | Richard Gorelick,Special to The Baltimore Sun

In an article in the current issue of Nature Neuroscience, the way you choose a sushi bar - whether to stay with your old standby or to keep looking - is used as a "classic problem" of the "exploration/exploitation dilemma."

It's nice to know your problems are classic. Joss Cafe & Sushi Bar, which opened a few months ago downtown, is my kind of sushi restaurant. The only thing it doesn't have is a bar for happy hour, for a night in the future when I might want to sneak in by myself for a quick bite after work. Other than that, it's just the kind of place I want to go to.

Over two visits, I liked everything I ordered at Joss Cafe, including food from the sushi bar and the kitchen, with the minor exception of a soft-shell crab appetizer, and that only because the menu made me think it was going to be quick-fried, Maryland-style, and it came out tempura-battered instead. I still really enjoyed it, though. Everything else was both beautiful (as it should be), delicious and convincingly fresh.

This is the second Joss Cafe (the first is in Annapolis), and what I liked most about it was how good I felt being there. This is the old Kawasaki location on Charles Street, but it's been so thoroughly remodeled that it's not recognizable. The look and feel are much more contemporary now - the shoji screens are gone, and so are the tatami mats and low tables.

The new interior is pitched perfectly between traditional and contemporary. It's warm and handsome, without being either prissily minimalist or aggressively stylist. It also looks like a place you can afford to eat in, and, for the most part, the prices are in line with other sushi restaurants around town. Most diners choose to sit in the slightly less formal area up front, which has the bonus feature of a roomwide seating counter right by the front window.

At Joss, I found the menus to be more straightforward and navigable than at other Japanese restaurants, which tend to be redundant. There are always a thousand ways you could order a sushi or sashimi combination - Joss has whittled them down to a comprehensible few and includes an offer on the menu to create combinations for patrons. I think a well-presented menu also helps you find some less usual choices, and encourages you to try them.

And it was very worth trying an appetizer from the sushi bar of steamed monkfish liver, very mild but definitely liver-y, which Joss wraps in soy paper and serves with a spicy ponzu sauce. And a smaller tick-off list for sushi and sashimi helped us find, and decide on, two brilliant rolls featuring mackerel, one of them with pickled ginger, scallion and sweet seaweed; the other with cucumber, radish sprouts and Japanese mint.

From the kitchen, we loved a simple and pretty soup with slices of rockfish and cellophane noodles, firmly packed shrimp shumai, and also renditions of more familiar items like tempura - especially the eggplant and enoki mushroom - and beef negimaki, which benefited from very thinly sliced beef and crispy grilled vegetables. The staff, whom we found to be uniformly knowledgeable and accommodating, make appetizer specials featuring Kobe beef or a visiting fish sound so good we ended up ordering them and loving them. They can make your check grow, though.

I'm curious about whether hard-core sushi fans will like Joss Cafe, too, though. It seems designed to most appeal to intermediate-class sushi diners like me, who only really start loving sushi when they stop worrying about the rules. I call everything from the sushi bar "sushi."

So, chocolate cake for dessert - it's good, so why not? But also good are green tea or red bean ice cream, stuffed in rice mocha cakes, or by itself on a plate, in a lovely scalloped scoop. A perfect grace note.

On the menu

* Ankimo, steamed monkfish liver - $8.95

* Rockfish soup - $5.95

* Sabo shiso roll, mackerel and Japanese mint - $5.50

* Saba Hakko roll, mackerel and pickled ginger - $9.95

* Beef negimaki - $8.95

* Enoki tempura - $4 (2 pieces)

* Green tea ice cream - $4.95

Joss Cafe & Sushi Bar

Where: : 413 N Charles St.

Call: : 410-244-6988

Hours:: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday, noon-11 p.m. Saturday and noon-9 p.m. Sunday

Appetizers: : $3.95-$12.95

Entrees: : $11.95-$25

Credit cards: : MC, VISA, AMEX

Food: : *** 1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Atmosphere: : *** 1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Service: : *** 1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]

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