by CARRIE SCOZZARO & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & M & lt;/span & ost Americans wouldn't know real sushi if it swam up and bit them on the nose. That's the bad news. This increasingly popular dish began as a kind of Japanese fast food that used to include fermented rice and preserved fish -- and early sushi was never, ever drowned in soy sauce and wasabi. Inside-out rolls? Fusion rolls? American inventions. And real sushi aficionados sit at the sushi bar and let the chef decide what they should eat. All this according to Trevor Corson's The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi from Samurai to Supermarket, which burst my bubble about my favorite food.
The good news: Ignorance is bliss. And Oiishi Sushi, a favorite Sandpoint locale whose name means "delicious," will induce the bliss author Corson describes as a chemical taste reaction to fish proteins and glutamate -- an earthy taste sensation that the Japanese call umami. (Is that where the word "yummy" came from?)
With much licking of chops, my friend Kevin and I pored over the new menu, which features nearly a dozen new rolls, gyoza (fried pork potstickers) and Hawaiian poke, alongside sushi restaurant staples like nigiri (rice topped with fish/seafood) and sashimi (just the raw fish/seafood).
We ordered miso soup to start ($3), followed by Hawaiian poke. Although Zen of Fish notes that Japanese often eat miso soup at the end of the meal to aid in digestion, I was hoping the warm broth would have the same restorative effects on my end-of-the-season cold as chicken soup does.
The tuna in the poke is similar to ahi (yellowfin) tartare or sashimi-style tuna but cubed and typically served in light marinade, sometimes over a crunchy vegetable like watercress or bok choy. Oishii's poke ($10) was a fresh-tasting maguro (red-meat tuna known as bluefin), firm-textured with a zesty marinade of scallion, sesame oil, sesame seeds and sea salt. Plenty to share, it would make a pleasant lunch alongside seaweed salad ($5) and soup.
Seating is limited at Oishii and somewhat cramped for my taste, but we were there early and had the place almost to ourselves. As my friend talked yoga with the server -- it seems everyone knows everyone in Sandpoint -- I debated saketinis ($7) while our sushi chefs, Zac and Josh, artfully prepared plates of sushi, including our Black Widow, Oxygen and John Denver rolls.
Oishii makes their sake-martinis with Momakawa sake, a premier fermented rice "wine" that is more like a light but potent hard liquor. (At 15 to 18.5 percent alcohol content, sake can sneak up on you.) The Idaho saketini with huckleberry syrup was light and not-too-sweet but the real taste-pleaser was the Sex on the City Beach (a reference to Sandpoint's City Beach), which included sake, peach, cranberry, orange and a squeeze of lime.
The Black Widow roll ($14) nearly lived up to its name, with inflammatory ingredients that killed whatever cold germs still dared to linger in my system, as well as some tastebuds I'm rather fond of. Combining tempura soft-shell crab with cucumber, avocado, cilantro and jalape & ntilde;o, it's topped with wasabi tobiko (red fish roe), tempura crunchies and creamy wasabi sauce. It would have been flavorful enough without the jalape & ntilde;o, which overpowered the other flavors and set my dining companion and myself to panting. Regardless of the hellacious jalape & ntilde;o, the tempura crunchies added a nice texture and are an innovation I've not seen at any other locations.
The Oxygen roll ($12) breathed life back into us and is one of many vegetarian offerings (another is the Vegetable roll with shiitake mushroom, cucumber, carrots, apple, scallions, avocado and celery, $10). The Oxygen roll combines asparagus, cucumber, avocado, seaweed salad, scallion and tofu with sesame seeds and lemon soy. The texture of the tofu took a little getting used to, and the asparagus was barely detectable, but overall the flavors were well matched and refreshing.
It was, however, the John Denver roll ($13) that induced the greatest "Rocky Mountain high." This roll paired tempura shrimp, cream cheese, scallion, avocado and celery with smoked salmon, tempura crunchies and a glaze made with Sriracha chili sauce and honey. The balance of textures (firm, crunchy, soft) and flavors (hot, sweet, savory) was perfect.
Inventiveness is a hallmark of the approach by chef Junior Solis, who co-owns the restaurant with neighboring Caf & eacute; Trinity's Claudia Dick. Solis designed the hip space, replete with contemporary d & eacute;cor like burnished raw steel, simulated black lacquer and pop-culture paintings of Japanese geisha and dragons. Recently celebrating the restaurant's one-year anniversary, Solis continues to tweak things, such as expanding the menu and making sushi available next door at Trinity. This year Oishii will also participate in the Festival at Sandpoint (August 7-17) and the Taste of Sandpoint (February).
Overall, dinner was a good experience -- a small but focused menu with prices that are generally reasonable. Make a mental note of items that might be too spicy for your comfort level, but otherwise be prepared for a meal that lives up to the delicious expectations.