One question — perhaps the most important question — posed by the new Bukko Island Sushi & Grill in Midtown is this: In a city that celebrates all-you-can-eat sushi, can a restaurant succeed serving the traditional à la carte version?
The folks behind Bukko would answer yes, of course, citing the appeal of quality and freshness as against mere abundance. As for me, well, after a recent meal at Bukko, I’m not sure how I would answer that question, and I urge you to drop by to consider the question for yourself.
Open or not?
I’m not a fan of the soft opening — with restaurants or any other business. If you’re taking the public’s money, you’re open. At the same time, I know from long experience that restaurants need time to settle in.
Bukko, however, frustrated my attempts to determine a “fair” time to visit.
BUKKO ISLAND SUSHI & GRILL
Address: 777 S. Center St. (entrance on Cheney Street)
On the web:www.bukkoreno.com
In late July, it wasn’t supposed to be open, but suddenly it was, though seemingly just for cocktails for a night. Then the restaurant appeared to go dark again. Then social media reports began appearing in mid-September that Bukko now was serving its full menu, albeit only in a “soft” phase.
The restaurant seemed to be playing footsie with the idea of being open. Enough, I decided. And so last week, two friends and I climbed the stairs to the second floor of the 777 S. Center St. building to have dinner.
Japan and then some
Bukko’s look is tightly styled.
The sushi bar and cocktail bar are set across from each other, two opposing arcs with a small dining area between. The main dining room features a partly open kitchen, comfortable seating, and framed images of Asian scrolls and antiques. Variously shaped lanterns — some like squashed orbs — illuminate the entire restaurant.
The menu is more wide ranging.
Nigiri, traditional rolls, and “special maki” rolls in the spirit of AYCE make up the sushi offerings (plus sashimi).
There also are Japanese and Japanese-inspired small plates, tempura dishes, kushiyaki grilled skewers, ramen and udon, and a mixed bag of “final” dishes like braised short ribs with wasabi mashed potatoes and pancit bihon guisado (a Filipino noodle dish made here with kurobuta pork).
Much of the menu at Bukko feels Japanese-ish.
Which isn’t a bad thing when things are done fairly well, like a hillock of karage fried chicken swirled with chipotle sauce, or a quartet of pork belly lollipops lacquered with maple syrup and spiked with ponzu.
Ahi poke tacos, on the other hand, are bland (Where is the soy? The sesame?). And three special maki rolls — Black and Blue, Don Won, 4th Street — don’t taste appreciably better than good-quality AYCE rolls, and the rice is too warm (a huge transgression).
Hebi saba (escolar) nigiri is fresh enough, but it doesn’t deliver the plunge to the briny deep I’m looking for.
A friend’s question about the color of hirame nigiri — halibut at Bukko, fluke at many other sushi restaurants — elicits this response from our waiter (I’m paraphrasing): You might only be familiar with all-you-can-eat sushi. We don’t do all-you-can-eat, so the flavor and color are going to different.
‘Not a problem’
Oh dear. My friend has been a chef all his life; his family has been in the food business (including the seafood trade) for nearly a century; his first toys were a toque and knife; he knows from real sushi.
The waiter’s diss (even if he doesn’t realize it’s a diss) is delivered in the cheery tone he’s been using all night to describe what is being done to our orders, what’s he’s doing with the orders as he’s setting them down, and what he’ll do with the orders once we’ve finished.
“Not a problem,” the waiter says, employing his signature phrase after each stint at table.
Unfortunately, my lad, there is a problem, and it’s not just overly attentive service (yes, there is such a thing).
It’s a problem when you imply your customers have inexperienced palates because they’ve partaken of all-you-can-eat sushi (and I’m a sushi purist who grew up in Hawaii with the real stuff and who finds much AYCE to be sticky, gloppy messes).
And it’s a problem when sushi rice is too warm. Full stop. No more need be said.
Are any of these issues beyond fixing? Of course not. More staff training will ideally take care of one problem. And better attention to fundamentals will improve the sushi experience.
I want Bukko to succeed. I want Reno to have a traditional alternative to ubiquitous AYCE sushi. And I salute the cross-cuisine exploration using Japanese cooking as a starting point.
Reno needs Bukko — I believe that. Now that the restaurant is truly open, it’s time for Bukko to demonstrate that it needs Reno.