Restaurant Review: Sushi Rama
As you walk into Sushi Rama, smack in the epicenter of white-hot and evolving RiNo, petite, clear-domed plates of sushi whiz like flying saucers up and down the length of the central dining counter by “kaiten,” a special food conveyor belt that is the core concept of James Beard semi-finalist and restaurant visionary Jeff Osaka’s latest venture.
Forget waiting for hoverboards – the future is now.
It’s a very Jetson’s scene, with hovering sputnik chandeliers and perforated double-cone sconces illuminating the high ceilings of the narrow space. Chipper, tomato-red formica counters let diners tuck their bar stools within easy access of the kaiten, providing a front-row view of the parading plates (get there early or visit at lunch to secure one of these coveted spots).
The menu offers descriptions of the available rolls, as well as a few enticing a la carte options – but part of the fun is playing fast and loose with your selections as they swing by, simply plucking the dishes that appeal to you off the line.
Bypassing some of the more straightforward nigiri options, a special not listed on the menu spun by – the Spicy Yellowtail with Jicama Salad matched the unusually warm weather and spoke to my longing for summer. Tufted on top of the roll was a light and refreshing composition of sweet, grassy jicama, cilantro and sriracha that I can’t wait to repeat in my own summer salads and tacos. The sweet slaw highlighted nuggets of mellow, buttery yellowtail, and the roll was prettily accented by evergreen-hued flakes of nori clinging to the rice.
Presentation could be a challenge for this mode of delivery – it would be so easy to just rely on novelty to obscure and justify less effort on the plate; but each cluster of rolls sent out had been nestled with care onto the tiny plates with pleasant and thoughtful accents, such as jauntily perched shishito peppers or artfully dotted sauces.
The Hama Rama was a lovely, but less successful plate. Though it arrived a visual feast, with sunny slices of yellow lemon, pale stalks of textural kaiware and a verdant shishito cap, the roll was a cacophonous mix of competing flavors. The lemon, though lovely, was bitter and overly-aggressive, clashing with the radishy prickle of the kaiware daikon sprouts and drowning out the subtle yellowtail, crab and scallop. The flavors weren’t misplaced, but rather each element dialed up too loudly to make out the melody – a squeeze of lemon or a few julienned strips of rind would’ve fallen into harmony with the other elements.
Pricing is cleverly identified visually by the color of the plate you select, ranging from $3 (red) to $5 (blue) – on my visit, the majority of selections were in the $3.50 – $4 range (yellow, green). The reasonable portions and pricing allow for experimentation, and the offerings provide a good range between classic intro sushi fare and more adventurous rolls. You retain your plates, and at the end of the meal, your selections are tallied for the bill.
The pert, efficient waiters whisked away lids and refreshed water glasses, and the rolls kept rolling by with flair. The Chrysalis was a tempura shrimp and crab mix roll crowned by unagi and a silken sliver of kiwi – not something I would typically select, but mostly sated, I opted to shoulder the risk.
Sushi featuring fruit has always elicited a bit of an eyeroll from me. They are often a cheeky reminder of how gimmicky and overladen American sushi rolls can be – stuffed with shock-value ingredients, fried whole like country fair oreos or otherwise maligned by gobs of fattening, creamy, mayo-based sauces.
This version put me firmly in my place, though – a revelatory, balanced bite actually elevated by the mellow, tropical tartness of the kiwi. The keen addition of a pinch of sesame seeds was a sophisticated detail echoing both the texture and flavor of the kiwi seeds, nudging the sweet fruit to a more savory plane. The kiwi tangoed appealingly with the unagi and eel sauce, hitting just the right blend of sweet-tart-salty to complement the lightly battered shrimp within. A hit of brightness from the cucumber and luscious creaminess from the avocado, and this roll topped the list for me.
Hinting at efficient use of space and resources, a tight drink list was refreshingly simple, with a handful of curated beers from Colorado and Japan, a house red or white, and an accessible selection of sakes. I was pleased to note a sparkling sake – bubbles bring a sense of whimsy and occasion to any meal, and their refreshing, palate-cleansing nature makes them ideally suited to complement multi-course small plate meals. In a corner out of the way, a mobile bar cart housed tiers of pre-batched cocktails ready to be wheeled over and served at a moment’s notice.
With a sweet tooth that will not be denied, I was a bit disappointed there were no dessert offerings, though they may offer a selection of mochi in the future. Maybe executive chef Jesus Silva (of Sushi Sasa) should take a page out of the Bones/Momofuku Milkbar playbook and experiment with a weekly soft-serve ice cream offering – matcha or sweetened adzuki bean paste flavors swirled in a classic cone would be a perfect nostalgia-tinged dessert to complement the fun and efficient program.
Instead, I was mollified by a luscious plum dessert wine. At only $5 a glass, sweet and round with hints of raspberry and vinegar, the viscous wine hit the right end-of-meal note to satisfy my craving.
Amidst the aged, dapple-bricked warehouses lining the streets of RiNo, Osaka has let this evolving neighborhood inspire innovation and success. Building upon local favorites Twelve (now closed) and Osaka Ramen, he continues to spread roots and add to the local character with Sushi Rama and Central Market food hall, set to open later this spring just down the road.
More than just a gimmick, Sushi Rama offers a whimsical dining diversion with fresh ingredients and thoughtful preparations. Pop in to this spunky, atomic-age space with guests both young and young at heart and prepare to leave satisfied.