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Review: Buford’s Wicked Sushi & Grill tries hard but is somewhat uneven

At Wicked Sushi & Grill, you can get your sushi rolls cold, deep-fried, baked and flambéed. Some have foreboding names (Black Widow, Rattlesnake, Heart Attack). Others riff on nearby landmarks (Mall of Georgia).

These rolls with the mock-provocative names and alternative techniques are the handiwork of chef-owner Rex Jeong. The Atlanta newcomer was born in South Korea, moved to the States as a teen and recently migrated from California to Gwinnett County. After surveying the city’s culinary landscape, he and his wife, Jeein, opened their first restaurant in February.

The chef says his better half chose the name, Wicked Sushi, as a tribute to what she calls his “naughty boy” cooking style. “She knows that I like to experiment with something new all the time,” he said via email.

In truth, Wicked Sushi is not all that different from any number of Korean-owned Japanese places in the Atlanta area that dabble in multiple cultures. The menu is anchored by familiar Japanese standards (tempura, nigiri, noodles) and several pages of bodacious, American-style sushi rolls. Buried in the copy are a couple of Korean touches aimed at lovers of bulgogi (marinated grilled beef) and gochujang (fiery red chile sauce).

Based on a couple of dinner visits, I’d say the food, with a minor few exceptions, is about as pedestrian as the Payless shoes, Gap jeans and Pottery Barn furniture you’ll encounter at the Mall of Georgia next door. As a chef, Jeong comes across more as timid altar boy than culinary daredevil.

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His food is uneven at best.

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The mixed tempura appetizer at Wicked Sushi & Grill comes with veggies like sweet potato, broccoli and squash and a couple of shrimp. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK (For the AJC)

An appetizer of mixed tempura included lovely slices of sweet potato, onion, squash and a broccoli floret, yet the shrimp had the texture of frozen stuff from a box, and the whole shebang was in need of a good sprinkle of salt.

The same could be said of his calamari tempura, which came with a little dish of the sweet chile dipping sauce normally associated with Thai spring rolls. Fat rectangles of fried tofu were crispy to the bite, silken within. Nice execution and texture. But again: woefully under-seasoned, and the accompanying dashi broth added little zip.

The fried tofu appetizer at Wicked Sushi & Grill in Buford. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK (For the AJC)

So what of the sushi?

My eight-piece chef’s choice (two pieces of salmon, tuna, cooked shrimp and smoked eel) was pretty to look at but a disappointment overall. The raw fish and the shrimp could have been fresher, but I liked the eel, trickled with sweet barbecue sauce, and ultimately, the California roll that came with the set persuaded me to stick to the fancier rolls and cooked fish.

Indeed, the Mall of Georgia roll, filled with spicy tuna and cucumber and topped with slivers of raw tuna, salmon and yellowtail, was solid. My friend wanted to try the Golden California roll, a whole, deep-fried California roll topped with eel sauce. She liked it; I found it sweet, almost beignet-like.

Next we sampled the Dragon Roll — crab stick and avocado, topped with more avocado and eel, and “baked” under the broiler. Not bad.

The bulgogi plate at Wicked Sushi & Grill. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK (For the AJC)

In the non-fish department, the bulgogi dinner comes with a house salad (mostly iceberg with a sweet ginger dressing); one of the least appealing cups of miso soup I’ve tasted; fried rice and a few pieces of veggie tempura. It’s the sort of dish that will fill you up on the cheap, but given the bounty of good Korean in Atlanta, it would be silly to go out of your way for it.

Another dish intended to have Korean flair is the spicy chirashi don. When made in traditional Japanese fashion, the bowl is an artful arrangement of pristine sashimi slices on a mound of rice. Here, chirashi is remastered with a Korean accent. A scoop of chopped white fish mixed with prickly gochujang sauce is served on a bed of rice, iceberg lettuce and shaved daikon. The entire composition is squirted, Jackson Pollock style, with tons more gochujang. It comes in a dramatic, oversize salad bowl, and the idea is to toss it all together.

The verdict? It tasted like a lettuce and rice salad with a smidgen of fish and lots of hot sauce. Nerp.

The chirashi don bowl at Wicked Sushi & Grill remasters the Japanese classic of raw fish on rice in spicy Korean style. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK (For the AJC)

For a cuisine that commonly deploys salt, soy sauce, flavor-enhancing MSG and fermentation to transform unadorned seafood and rice into umami bombs, something is missing at Wicked Sushi. That would be flavor, and a careful understanding of raw fish.

Jeong mostly works the front of the house while keeping an eye on the kitchen. He’s forever hovering at your table, asking how everything tastes. He clearly wants to please customers. In order to do that, he will try anything, including setting a sushi roll on fire. (Witness the Viking roll: spicy salmon and cream cheese, with baked salmon, scallop, lemon and eel sauce. Didn’t try it.)

For the most part, he has failed to ignite our passion. Maybe he should be naughtier.

WICKED SUSHI & GRILL

11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m Fridays-Saturdays; noon-9 p.m. Sundays. 3200 Woodward Crossing, Suite B101, Buford. 678-765-7499, wicked-sushi-grill.business.site.

Recommended: Mall of Georgia roll. California roll. Dragon roll.

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