Sizing Up Sushi
Sushi first came to Buffalo in the early 1990s. At the time it was the food of the wealthy, a privilege reserved for those who supped at the linen-clad tables of fine dining restaurants. Consuming raw fish was considered by the common class as largely unappetizing—and whether that was true or not didn’t matter, because it simply wasn’t accessible.
Today, sushi restaurants are nearly as prevalent as taco joints in WNY. In nearly every neighborhood you will find at least one, and in several you will find many more. Take the Elmwood Village, for instance: Within a few city blocks there are at least five locations where sushi can be purchased, the options ranging from the to-go section at the Co-op to the elegant minimalism of Kuni’s on Lexington Avenue.
But do Buffalonians, who have limited access to truly fresh seafood, really know good sushi from bad? Before your hackles rise, we are not calling WNY diners provincial, not at all. But the revelation people have after queuing up outside of Lloyd taco truck goes to prove that not all of us can travel the globe sampling the best of the best. Sometimes we eat what is available. Buffalonians know good food the second they taste it, but if they’ve only tasted mediocre food, how will they know they deserve better? Given the increasing number of options in the region, we thought we’d examine a cluster of sushi restaurants to determine just how different the WNY sushi experience can be.
Three teams of two sampled similar offerings at three of Elmwood’s busiest sushi joints: Kuni’s, Tokyo Shanghai Bistro, and Wasabi. We all love sushi and have eaten our fair share of it here and elsewhere. Some of us are purists, while others have varying degrees of fondness for hybrid, American-style sushi.
The rating system
We ventured to each location and rated each item using four main criteria. Each diner awarded 1 to 10 points in the following categories:
Rice: Does it possess the proper texture and seasoning?
Ingredients: Are the nori and any accompanying vegetables crisp? Are the pickled ginger and wasabi fresh and bright?
Quality of fish: Is it fresh? Is it the proper temperature? Is it cut properly?
Diners also awarded 1 to 5 points for Overall service and cleanliness: How does the restaurant experience measure up?
Here’s how they rated
Kuni Sato was Buffalo’s first sushi chef. The latest incarnation of his self-titled restaurant a block off Elmwood on the quiet corner of Lexington and Ashland is peaceful despite its modest size and busy tables. Kuni’s rated well in all categories, truly setting itself apart in rice texture, quality of ingredients, and overall cleanliness and service.
Nina found her eel avocado maki to contain unbruised, ripe avocado, while Brian noted that his scallop was perfectly seasoned with wasabi by the sushi chef, and that the quality and freshness of the salmon was “really superb.” Kevin found the lack of mayonnaise as a binder in his spicy tuna roll to be refreshing and we all commented on the brilliant hue of the pickled ginger and wasabi. The group found that the rice used for both the maki and the nigiri was perfectly packed and seasoned and that the composition of each offering was balanced, with the amount of rice, fish, and any other accompanying item used in consistent proportions. The temperature of the fish was also ideal, not too warm or overly cold, allowing the full flavor and lush texture of each bite to shine.
Kuni’s doesn’t offer many of the American-style sushi options available; you won’t find fusion here. Kuni’s specializes in preparing classic sushi offerings well and with consistency, an achievement that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Mackerel Nigiri 25/30, Eel Avacado 25/30, Spicy Tuna Maki 29/30, Yellow Tail Nigiri 27/30, Scallop Nigiri 24/30, California Maki, 25/30, Salmon Nigiri 25/30, Cleanliness and Service 24/30
Tokyo Shanghai Bistro
One of Elmwood’s relative newcomers, Tokyo Shanghai Bistro is located in the 400 block of Elmwood and does a steady take-out business, offering Chinese and Japanese food.
Our group found the service to be friendly and attentive, though there were only two other tables seated in the very large dining room. The dark interior was off-putting to most, but our waitress made up for it with her bright smile.
Unfortunately, no number of smiling waitresses could make the sushi sing. Our diners were hesitant to condemn the place, noting that the Chinese food is popular and perhaps good, but the restaurant’s efforts in the sushi department were disappointing. Nick found everything to be overly “Americanized,” noting that his eel avocado maki roll was swimming in too-sweet kabayaki sauce. The spicy tuna roll came covered in an inch-thick pile of crunchy bits. When it had been fully unearthed from the mound, it proved to be very warm—“disgusting” according to taster Elizabeth. Nina had equal concerns about her mackerel, which was exceptionally oily and flaccid. The temperature of all the fish served made everyone at the table question how safe it was for consumption, and the rice seemed looked and tasted like the white rice served with Chinese take-out rather than carefully prepared and seasoned sushi rice. It did not stick together well, resulting in unevenly rolled maki and hard to eat nigiri.
Mackerel Nigiri 8/30, Eel Avacado 13/30, Spicy Tuna Maki 15/30, Yellow Tail Nigiri 18/30, Scallop Nigiri n/a, California Maki, 13/30, Salmon Nigiri 12/30, Cleanliness and Service 19/30
This restaurant is so popular, especially at lunch, that the owners opened a second location across the street and called it Blue Fin Asian Bistro. Wasabi’s lunch special is a great value and they turn take-out around quickly. The tiny location was once the home to Kuni Sato’s first restaurant and it has housed other sushi establishments since then. Wasabi also has several successful suburban locations.
We found the sushi offerings to be palatable, but nothing was exceptional. Nick noted that the fish was simply average, which echoed the comments of several other tasters, including Brian, who was accepting of his California roll but extremely unhappy with his scallop, which he described as “slimy,” and sadly missing the rice it was inexplicably served without. Elizabeth found her yellowtail limp, and the salmon ordered by the team of Christa and Brian was dull in color and flavor. All nigiri was served without the little knob of wasabi typically placed between the rice and the fish by the itamae and the fish was cut very disproportionally.
Wasabi remained somewhere in the murky middle in ratings from each taster. The only area in which they broke this pattern was when it came to service and cleanliness. Here they fell to the very bottom of the pile. The restaurant desperately needs a good cleaning and a fresh coat of interior paint. On our visit dead flies lined the interior bay window, the only architectural feature of the restaurant. The floor was dirty and we strongly urge anyone visiting to avoid the restroom at all costs. It can be hard to maintain cleanliness in a busy and small restaurant, but here it seems it has been avoided altogether.
Mackerel Nigiri 15/30, Eel Avacado 15/30, Spicy Tuna Maki 22/30, Yellow Tail Nigiri 22/30, Scallop Nigiri 15/30, California Maki, 20/30, Salmon Nigiri 15/30, Cleanliness and Service 16/30
Only when people are provided with a great number of choices can they afford to be choosy, and in a town that boasts dozens of sushi options, Buffalonians have that benefit. Despite the fact that the three we visited serve the same basic items to the same neighborhood, they each provided a very different dining experience. What may be more surprising is that the final bill at each was nearly identical within a dollar or two. It is a testimony to how price is driven by competition, but quality may not be. In our economy, who wants to spend money on a lackluster meal when something better is being offered just down the street? WNY’s dining options have never been better in both quantity and variety; now it’s up to us to be wise consumers.
Meet the Judges
Nick and Nina Barone
Nick is an accomplished web designer, owner of Buffalo Sports Tees, and a man with a passion for sushi. His wife Nina is a marketing-communications pro who loves to cook and blogs at BuffaloFoodie.com.
Kevin Purdy and Elizabeth Fox Solomon
Kevin is a food writer for Buffalo Spree who also happens to write device manuals, like The Complete Guide for Android. His wife Elizabeth is a sushi fanatic and an attorney.
Brian White and Christa Glennie Seychew
Brian White is an adventure seeker and nature lover who also happens to own Brite Research, a GIS company that specilaizes in market research and consumer demographics. Christa Glennie Seychew is Buffalo Spree's food editor.