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Image: Chad Spencer

Follow the crowd. On a quiet weekday night in downtown Venice, that’s how my wife and I discovered Bushido Sushi Bar & Japanese Cuisine, a small eatery on the south side of Venice Avenue, catty-cornered from Centennial Park.

Other restaurants looked half-empty; not so Bushido, where young couples and high school kids and their parents crowded nearly every table and nearly every seat at the small L-shaped sushi bar in the back. In addition to the dine-in customers, Bushido does bang-up takeout business. A steady stream of drivers entered and then departed with piles of Styrofoam boxes. On a Thursday night, Bushido was clearly Venice’s lazy dinner of choice.

For good reason. In addition to the typical run of sushi, sashimi and maki you’ll find at most Japanese restaurants, Bushido owner and chef Hour Yam offers a thoughtful mix of special rolls, entrées and appetizers that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere.

Many feature grouper, the much-loved Gulf fish that’s largely ignored by most sushi restaurants, which instead concentrate on salmon and tuna and shellfish. Bushido doesn’t serve its grouper raw, but fries it before rolling it up with simpatico ingredients. Grouper—flaky but flavorful, less meaty than more common sushi ingredients—offers an interesting detour for maki fanatics. One roll ($12.75) combined grouper with Latin American flavors—cilantro and jalapeño—as well as mayonnaise and asparagus. On top lay another layer of gently grilled grouper dressed with a forgettable barbecue sauce.

Even better: the fried oyster roll ($8.95), which subs fried oysters for the grouper but keeps the cilantro, jalapeño and asparagus. The package balanced the heat of the peppers, the creamy fat of the mayo and the confounding brine of the shellfish. On the regular sushi menu, the Nassau roll ($11.95) combines hunks of lobster with mango, lime and avocado, a pan-cultural combo, but the fruit overshadowed the seafood below. 

The Maui roll ($8.95), meanwhile, highlights the nutty flavor of coconut-crusted shrimp. So often, coconut shrimp are overwhelmingly sweet; here, the sweetness was subdued, and mingled well with green onions, pineapple and spicy mayonnaise. A fried squid roll ($8.25) keeps thing simple, with a solid if unsurprising construction of crispy seafood, rice, seaweed and more hot mayonnaise.

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Grouper makes a further appearance on the restaurant’s list of appetizer specials. But the grouper cheek tempura ($7.95), genius in conception, came out under-seasoned. Even after dunking the fish nuggets in ponzu, the predominant flavor remained oil and crust. 

If you’re looking for a warmup dish, opt instead for the ika san sai ($7.75), a simple but outstanding squid salad. Thinly sliced wafers of tentacle come lightly dressed with pickled vegetables and sesame seeds. The squid, which can be chewy and bland, here was tender and flavorful. The wakame ($5.95) resides in the same flavor territory, with spaghettini-narrow strips of seaweed replacing the squid. Yam has a light touch with the sesame oil, which can overpower lesser seaweed dishes. Here it was a nice complement to the rest of the dish—not the star.

To drink, Bushido offers the typical mix of American Japanese offerings: a small selection of sakes and Japanese beers complemented by a selection of American offerings. Desserts include banana tempura or wontons, plus ice cream and a tempura cheesecake.

The service alternated between solicitous and forgetful, no doubt a result of the bustling room. As my wife and I took our time and savored a rare weekday night free from toddler bedtime routines, customers kept arriving. Older couples lingered over red wine and rolls and chatted with tables next door, while youngsters sat hunched over their cell phones, texting and snagging Pokémon. Outside, night fell and the streets grew even quieter. Much better to be in here, supping on sushi good enough to draw a crowd.

BUSHIDO SUSHI BAR & JAPANESE CUISINE

125 W. Venice Ave., Venice
(941) 485-1757
bushidosushi.com
Open 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Wine, beer and sake

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