Up to Your Gills

All-you-can-eat sushi menus are a deal - and a distant second to ordering a la carte

Me and sushi, we go way back. Almost 20 years ago, my favorite uncle, who prides himself on being the black sheep of the family, took me out to lunch at this funky little restaurant in Venice, California. As we pushed aside a beaded curtain to enter the place, I thought he was taking me to a strip joint. Turns out he was doing me the great favor of introducing me to my first sushi bar.

“I'm going to give you some invaluable advice,” he said. “Always order nato first. That way the chef will know you're serious.” So, we did. Do I still? No way. Nato is an evil-smelling, worse-tasting fermented soybean concoction, one of the few things I won't eat. While it may establish you as a connoisseur, of a stature not to be dealt California roll and other manner of what I call “beginner sushi,” it also might kill you.

“Always order uni when you're done. It has a nutty flavor that's just right to finish on,” he told me two hours later, after we'd practically cleaned the place out of fish and made a sizable dent in the sake barrel. And I always do. Although many feel the slimy, quivering, ocher-colored sea urchin ranks right up there with nato, I consider it a crucial exclamation point to a sushi binge.

And so I became a sushi addict and remain steadfast to this day, even as sushi swims in and out of vogue. The biggest bummer of my pregnancy was that raw fish was off limits. I have friends who swear the only reason I enrolled in a Japanese class was to order more effectively at a sushi bar.

Of course, money became an object once my uncle wasn't paying. I quickly learned the frightful expense of that convivial sushi bar high that develops around a good chef. A little taste of this, a tad of that, sharing sushi tips with your neighbors, and the next thing you know you're out 50 bucks. That's why my visits to Kabuto, my favorite local sushi bar, are not as frequent as I'd like.

It was therefore with great excitement that I learned of the all-you-can-eat $14.95 sushi deal at Giladon Sushi Club. Break out the ginger and wasabi, I thought, these boys are going to lose some money on me.

Actually, I'd been to an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant once before, at Lake Tahoe of all places. But there were way too many rules. They put a one-hour time limit on the deal, the chef was slow, and you could only order one serving at a time. I spent most of the hour frantically waving down the sushi chef and looking at the clock. Very relaxing.At Giladon, a strangely Southwestern-looking place near 16th and Mission, the only rule printed on the all-you-can-eat menu is no sharing. And all-you-can-eaters can't sit at the sushi bar, something of a disappointment. Finally, in a recent move, Giladon decided to limit the all-you-can-eat menu to between 5 and 7 pm.

Eschewing nato, I opened with maguro (tuna) and hamachi (yellowtail), and sat back awaiting what I hoped would be an hours-long love affair. When they arrived, in the form of maki, or sushi rolls of seaweed and rice wrapped around morsels of fish or vegetables, I thought there'd been a mistake. I then realized with dismay that although it wasn't printed anywhere on the menu, a blackboard near the sushi bar did say “super rolls only” under the all-you-can-eat menu.

Now I'm a nigiri woman all the way, preferring the ovals of rice topped with a slice of raw fish. Or sashimi, slices of raw fish solo. To me, the maki are a waste of time, filling you up on too much seaweed and rice, not enough fish. No wonder they can do it for $14.95.

However, for maki fans, Giladon's rolls are good, if oversize, compounding the OD on seaweed and rice problem. And there's a big variety: 25 different rolls, including regular and spicy maguro and hamachi; soft-shell crab; grilled salmon; spicy prawn; fried mackerel; squid tempura; and some unfortunate choices, like salmon and cream cheese, and the Wendy, a veggie roll filled with lettuce, tomato, spinach and cucumber. I was dying to try the burdock root, but they were out.

At Giladon, you can also get something called Around the World for $17.95, which includes maguro, hamachi and king salmon sashimi, or order à la carte. The world music played during my dinner ranged from traffic noise to tribal chanting. Service was pleasant, though our server was clueless about sushi.

Across town in Cow Hollow, a neighborhood that might just as well be on a different planet, is Sushi Chardonnay, one of the most regrettably named restaurants in town. But the $16 all-you-can-eat deal there is almost a total winner.

I say almost, because although there's a wide assortment of nigiri — including bonito, halibut, clam, mackerel, squid, freshwater eel, tuna and yellowtail — the sushi is premade. This is the problem I have with Isobune, that sushi-boat place in Japantown. The key to great sushi is just-carved freshness. It doesn't cut it when it sits around. Premade sushi also kills the whole theatrical aspect, in which appreciation of the chef's artful knifework is integral to the experience.

Sushi Chardonnay also offers the requisite maki, California roll, tekka roll, shrimp roll and one even I loved, the dynamite roll, consisting of yellowtail, tuna and red-hot chiles.

Sushi Chardonnay's all-you-can-eat buffet also includes miso soup and some distinctly nonsushi items: slices of rare roast beef; vegetable tempura; potstickers; fried chicken; calamari in ginger soy; marinated mussels; pasta salad; and green salad. Everything is at least competently prepared; the roast beef, tempura and calamari much better.

The room is light and spacious, and service is relaxed and friendly. In the rules category, sharing is again not permissible. There's also a sign warning, “For each remaining piece of sushi, there may be an additional $1 charge.” May be? If you're naughty?

Oh yeah, they have jello, too. There's something about Union Street swells sitting around sipping chardonnay with their jello that makes me smile.

Giladon Sushi Club, 538 Valencia, S.F., 255-2311. Open daily 5-11 pm. Sushi Chardonnay, 1785 Union, S.F., 346-5070. Open Mon-Fri 11:30 am-2 pm, Mon-Thurs 5:30-10:30 pm, Fri-Sat 5:30-11 pm, Sun 5-10 pm.

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