When people talk about outstanding sushi, they talk about the fish as sacred object, its handling as artistry, its consumption as Zen practice.
I am here to talk about something else: Dragon Rolls. Along with Rainbow Rolls and Spider Rolls and Volcano Rolls, they are the unpure offspring that many say degrades a hallowed lineage. Self-proclaimed connoisseurs dismiss the Dragon Roll and its cousins. For this, I blame places like Sushi Dokku, the relocated (and renamed) Sushi Wabi.
Because, true, a Dragon Roll is not sacred or Zen or clean-flavored or delicate. But, when done right, you respect it! It’s delicious: the crunch of the tempura-battered shrimp contrasting with the cool avocado and deep-flavored unagi. Like a cheeseburger, it sets all the fat/sugar/salt cylinders firing. But just like there are bad, industrial cheeseburgers, there are sorry Dragon Rolls, the likes of which I had at Sushi Dokku: uncrunchy shrimp, flavorless eel, cut into fat slices and perched forlornly on the plate.
That sorry roll would have shocked me given Sushi Wabi’s place in the hearts of many Chicagoans, given the chic decor (two-person sushi-bar stools are a step forward for date nights everywhere), given the prime Randolph Street address. But by the time the Dragon Roll arrived, it was no surprise. Not after my companion’s $15 glass of Japanese whiskey came poured over enough ice to qualify it as a slushie. Or after we waited 20 minutes for a server to come back and take our order. Or after the gruel-like wakame salad and mushy salmon tartare.
Instead, it was a foreboding sign of the sushi to come: pieces of anemic, worse-for-wear fish on clumpy, sticky rice. It fell to the tiny adornments to provide flavor to the bland cuts of fish in the nigiri bites, which worked in the case of the hirame (fluke), brightened with bits of kumquat, but not in the madai, which even finger limes couldn’t make sparkle. Dokku’s generous with the fish, such as uni, but the sashimi are clumsy things nonetheless, displaying a lack of quality product and skilled assembly that even an over-the-top-maki-lover can’t help but find crude.