The rise of Baltimore's finest sushi venues.WORDS BY JENN PLUM
A number of Baltimore sushi restaurants are competing for the favor of grazing college students and workers seeking a lunchtime energy boost. But some Towson residents hunger for different fare.
In almost any city, the hungry traveler can find a neighborhood devoted entirely to a specific ethnic food. New York has Chinatown, San Francisco has the North End and many cities in between have neighborhoods dedicated to hometown specialties or particular ethnic cuisines. Visitors to Baltimore can easily find Little Italy, located downtown near the Inner Harbor. But slightly off the tourists' radar is a tiny pocket of restaurants found in Towson, Maryland, all dishing up the same thing—sushi.
Just seven miles from downtown Baltimore, Towson is a suburban enclave known for its quiet neighborhoods, upscale shopping mall and scads of college students. This Baltimore County neighborhood landed on the national map last summer as the hometown of Olympic hot ticket Michael Phelps. But Phelps isn't the only good thing to come from the water in Towson, where the local restaurant scene has recently become dominated with a number of sushi joints—eight, to be exact, all within walking distance of each other.
The newest Japanese restaurant in town serves up sushi with a spin. Kyodai Rotating Sushi Bar (1 W Pennsylvania Ave), which opened in October 2004, is the first and only one of its kind in the entire state of Maryland. Owner Tony Yan had seen the rotating sushi bar work in bigger cities like New York, San Francisco and his hometown, Hong Kong. But when he decided to open one in Baltimore, he had his work cut out for him. While Yan had a clear vision of endless sushi plates rolling out on a stainless steel conveyor belt, it took others longer to catch on to this great idea.
"When I went to the health department with my plans, they had no idea what I was talking about," explains Yan with a laugh. "'So, it's a buffet?' they asked." A rotating sushi bar is a buffet of sorts, but one that is in constant motion and always fresh.
Yan's concept is simple. Two sushi chefs prepare rolls at a sushi bar and then slip the plates onto a conveyor belt which winds around the dining area. Diners watch hungrily as plates of California rolls, seared tuna and steamed edamame float by until something catches their eye. Each colored plate comes with a different price, ranging from $2.25 to $5.50. At the end of the meal, the server tallies up the total of the plates. This is the ideal dining experience for the hungry and impatient. It's also a great option for lunchtime diners looking for a truly fast food.
''The crazy thing is that I get this euphoric feeling for about 15 to 20 minutes after I eat it."
While Yan's conveyor belt is stirring up some competition in the neighborhood, the other restaurants certainly aren't suffering. Bruce Sessum, sushi chef and manager at San Sushi Too (10 W Pennsylvania Ave) has been serving a growing following in Towson for seven years. San Sushi Too has a reputation for innovative rolls, stellar service and even made-to-order sushi. Regulars know that they can have their favorite rolls, whether or not they appear on the menu. "If we have the ingredients, we'll make it," promises Sessum.
Among San Sushi Too's most popular rolls is the Terp, so named for the local icon—the Maryland Terrapin. This roll is stuffed with shrimp tempura and avocado and topped with fish eggs, crabmeat and one of San Sushi's special sauces. Another favorite that is making its way to the main menu is the Sara Roll—spicy tuna and avocado tucked inside rice and covered with thin slices of salmon, crunchy bits of toasted garlic and finished off with a sweet barbecue sauce that offers a kick.
How do all of these restaurants stay in business with so much competition? To the restaurant owners, the answer is simple—good service and regular customers. Sessum and Yan agree that repeat business is what makes a restaurant successful. "Some of these regulars come in three or four times a week," says Sessum.
One of these regulars is Al Zuro, Senior Broker at Client First Brokerage Service. On any given day, Sessum will find Al and his coworkers enjoying the sashimi at his restaurant. This has been one of Al's daily traditions for practically six years. Aside from the atmosphere and great service, he thinks of his daily sushi as a health boost.
"The salmon helps my cholesterol, and the crazy thing is that I get this euphoric feeling for about 15 to 20 minutes after I eat it," says Zuro with a chuckle. "When I eat a burger, I feel like I'm going right to sleep." Talk about a power lunch.
Another explanation for each restaurant's success is the variety offered by the different restaurants. They may all serve sushi, but don't expect the same thing to appear on all of the menus. Jasmine Asian Bistro (510 York Rd) also has a selection of Vietnamese dishes served alongside Japanese favorites. Olive & Sesame II (2 W Pennsylvania Ave) built its reputation on fresh and healthy Chinese food, doling out new takes on old favorites like sweet and sour chicken served with fresh grilled veggies. Even San Sushi Too has a secret culinary weapon—a full Thai menu with all of the classics.
Diane Feffer Neas, chair of Baltimore's chapter of The American Institute of Wine and Food and a restaurant consultant, has another explanation for Towson's sushi madness. "There is an enormous collegiate population in Towson that likes dining this way—they like grazing. And the food is reasonably priced," explains Neas.
This is certainly true. There are a number of colleges in the surrounding area, including Towson University, Goucher College, Loyola College and Johns Hopkins University. "Sushi may be a new fad to some people in Towson, but it's not to the college population," says Neas. "They grew up eating this stuff."
But the question at the forefront of everyone's mind is the same—how long until this sushi boom is a bust?
Sushi is all about quality, and at some point someone is going to rise to the top," points out Neas. With so many contenders, the competition is tight. But for now, Towson is on a roll and no one seems ready to put away the chopsticks anytime soon.