Who decided to mix cream cheese with raw salmon and wrap it in rice and nori to create the first Philadelphia roll? Certainly the combination of salmon and cream cheese is nothing new to the Western palate — it’s one of the most enjoyable bagel schmears in history.
But the Westernization of sushi disturbs me. There is something wrong with taking a thousands-year-old tradition and mucking it up with cream cheese, cilantro and jalapenos, then drizzling it with creamy wasabi sauce. Should there be a place on our tables for Asian pesto sauce? What is Asian pesto sauce?
All these questions, and more, can be answered (or at least pondered) at RA Sushi Bar Restaurant, a sushi palace new to Midtown. All the usual elements of the mundane are on hand: glaring R & B and rock and roll, bamboo sculptures, a stylish outdoor sushi bar and waitstaff wearing T-shirts that say “Nice ____. Can I ___ them?”
A chain that blew in from Scottsdale, Az., RA Sushi was founded by kindergarten buddies Rich Howland and Scott Kilpatrick in 1997. By 2002 Japanese giant Benihana Inc., had bought the concept, expanding to cities including Tucson, San Diego, Chicago, Las Vegas, Houston, Palm Beach Gardens and South Miami and a dozen or so more. The maki signature at RA is actually named after a different city: Vegas. The “viva Las Vegas” roll is a perfect manifestation of that old line “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” I wish this gooey maki mess had — it’s so busy my mouth couldn’t tell what was happening. Kani kama is rolled up with rice and seaweed, tempura fried, then topped with a gob of spicy tuna mixed with crab and other unidentifiable gingery gunk, then drizzled with a too-sweet eel sauce and crowned with a very pretty dried lotus root. The only thing that didn’t pop out of this roll was Cleopatra.
Meanwhile, Aerosmith’s “Love In an Elevator” was blasting. I decided to move away from sushi — perhaps sashimi, just simple raw fish, would prove more pleasurable. Luckily, I was right: tuna, salmon and yellow snapper are all fine, fresh and straightforward. A mango ceviche holds its own, too — bits of tasty lobster, scallops, shrimp and mango seem tranquil in a little boat of fresh endive with avocado (Western sushi’s favorite friend, second to cream cheese). And wait — there are limes and tomatoes and pine nuts — it’s like a happy little salad!
But when the Killers’ “Human” roared so loudly that I resorted to mock sign language to communicate with the other people at my table, I made a wrong turn with the menu by ordering chicken teriyaki udon, a plebeian dish of overcooked udon noodles and stir fried muckety muck.
More muckety muck arrived with a plate of beef teriyaki, slices of medium-rare steak slathered with so much sweet sauce over undercooked rice that it was hard to make out what was what.
But the resounding blow actually came earlier in the evening when I realized that every signature cocktail at RA is made with vodka — a spirit that is to cocktails what cream cheese and avocado is to sushi.
And so an evening ends. Another lunch is over. I wonder, as I pick through what is left of a plateful of “ra’ckin” shrimp — a deep-fried number with speckles of black and white sesame seeds and more creamy sauce, this time with ginger and teriyaki — am I just too old to enjoy sushi with mango and cream cheese? After all, I like Aerosmith. And the Killers.
And then I get a last glimpse of that T-shirt on the back of a waiter.
Ra Sushi Bar Restaurant, 1080 Peachtree Street, Atlanta, 404-267-0114
Food: Sushi, sort of
Service: A good group of young, attractive servers who seem genuinely pleased to be there
Price range: $$
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover
Hours of operation: Open for lunch and dinner seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. with a late-night menu available until midnight. The bar is open until 1 a.m. Monday-Saturday and midnight on Sunday.
Best dishes: Mango ceviche, sashimi trio
Vegetarian selections and special dietary needs: Many salads, dishes that could easily be served without meat
Parking: Available on the first two levels of the garage located adjacent to the restaurant on the east side of Crescent and 11th streets is free for the first two hours.
Reservations: Parties of eight or more can be placed on a preferred seating list
Wheelchair access: Yes
Smoking: Patio after 10 p.m. only
Noise level: Very high
Web site: www.RAsushi.com
Pricing code: $$$$$ means more than $75; $$$$ means $75 and less; $$$ means $50 and less; $$ means $25 and less; $ means $15 and less. The price code represents a typical full-course meal for one excluding drinks.
Key to AJC ratings
Sets the standard for fine dining in the region.
One of the best in the Atlanta area.
Merits a drive if you're looking for this kind of dining.
A worthy addition to its neighborhood, but food may be hit and miss.
Food is more miss than hit.
Restaurants that do not meet these criteria may be rated Poor.
About the Author
Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution
Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com