by Ron Bechtol
Sukeban, Blue Star’s sushi and sparkling wine bôite with an anime vibe, has been open long enough now to get its groove. The cheeky boss-girl and Samurai sword-wielder murals suggested irreverence from the get-go, while the shou sugi ban (charred wood) wall cladding (most of us first saw it used in SA at Kimura), suggested a nod to the traditional past. Where does that leave us? Right about where you think it might: deliciously in between attitudes.
For starters (and it makes a good one), sparkling wine isn’t what most of us first think of when Japanese cuisine comes to mind; for those of a classic bent, several sakes (you may safely skip the warmed carafe), and a number of fine Japanese whiskies are available. But it’s the sparklers that are the true passion of Gerry Shirley, who, along with his wife Mon, are the twin poles of the place. The list, not including a $15 flight of three, stretches to 22 offerings at prices from $25 for a modest prosecco to $275 for a boss-man Roederer Cristal, but I have had the best luck just asking Shirley what’s new, what he’s willing to open, what he most wants to share …
The best and most recent example was a Quattro Mani Franciacorta brut from the Italian region many think of as offering tremendous value in Champagne-style wines. Yeasty-toasty on the nose, it offered up apple (even baked apple) on the palate, and it was sensational both solo and with sashimi — about which more later. On an earlier visit, the discovery was a maverick, brut nature Champagne uncharacteristically made from 100 percent pinot blanc by Francois Diligent. More delicate than the Franciacorta, it set one up with white flowers and citrus then followed up with green apple and more citrus. None of this would be of interest if the wines didn’t work with the food, of course.
So here’s an experiment: place an order of nigiri or sashimi, take a tiny bit of the wasabi that will appear alongside (you can dilute it with soy sauce), and then follow it with a sip of your sparkler. Does it work for you? It did for me, with the bubbles racing along the tongue in pursuit of the sharpness of the wasabi. The irony, however, is that the wasabi-soy dip, which most of us are used to using no matter what, is often not needed or wanted at all. I wouldn’t use it with the spicy scallop nigiri, for example; it already comes spiked with a zingy soy-mayo in which tiny beads of tobiko have been bathed. The pop of the roe, the slight burn of the sauce … they’re perfect playmates for a flute of bubbly.
Of course, the scallops don’t really stand a chance in such a confrontation. If it’s the pure taste of fish you’re after, head straight for the sashimi — and if your server suggests that a particular offering is good right now, pay attention. The suggestion landed me an especially fresh and delicate order of silky, sliced yellowtail. It was so pristine, in fact, that I almost totally resisted dunking in the soy-wasabi — though I might have liked a little flaky sea salt or a splash of yuzu. Again, the bubbly was boss. I’d also have it with the Japanese omelet, done expertly here, that many consider to be another real test of a sushi joint.
With rolls, however, the equation changes, maybe even to beer or a well-crafted cocktail from the bar — in part because I’m always a little leery of them. I couldn’t bring myself to order the signature Bossgirl roll, for example; it had strawberry and goat cheese in addition to two tunas. And, as advised by Mon, the Ninja roll with softshell crab is really there for folks who are shy of raw seafood. The Kareshi roll with tuna, yellowtail avocado and mango first won me over visually; the warm Tiger Eye with smoked salmon and pickled carrot stuffed inside of squid and served with eel sauce triumphed out of sheer invention and more cheek.
If the nigiri and sashimi are well-executed (and handsomely presented) and the rolls a question of preference, plates that come out of the kitchen have batted around .500. The ribeye mini-taco probably deserves its own, non-Mexican moniker to avoid comparison; you get two crispy wafers, the roughly chopped beef is well seasoned but a little overdone for my taste. Same goes for anything wagyu; this is beef that deserves to be very rare, and so far it hasn’t come out that way in the skewers. But the chicken yakitori is on point, and the kitchen does a fine job with tempura shrimp. Tuna poké, the current darling of the food world, is available for $12; you are advised that the large plate of serrano whitefish is also raw and seriously spiked. You know the drill: bring out boss bubbly once again.Sukeban, 1420 S. Alamo St., Suite 101, (210) 562 3231,