Sushi is the kind of food you can't really, in good faith, dumb down. In an age when elitism has become the dirtiest word, it remains an unapologetically elitist specialty. And that's justified. Genuine sushi chefs, the kind who turn the tradition into an art form, train for years to do justice to one piece of perfect yellowtail sashimi. And sushi purists know that the only true sushi has to start with the freshest, choicest fish, has to be cut to order, and has to be served immediately, straight from the sushi chef to your salivating mouth.
This has nothing to do with pretension. When you're dealing with raw fish it can't just sit, for health reasons alone. And the succulent taste of a sushi-grade white tuna, or unagi, isn't going to come through unless it's served the classical way.
That makes a lot of what we call sushi - the refrigerated concoctions dished up in groceries and the bastardized versions that are all matted rice and gummi-bear fish - as genuine as fishsticks. And that made me really apprehensive about the very idea of a sushi smorgasbord. While Swedish meatballs do fine behind a sneeze-guard, sushi was never really designed to sit hopefully in some wilting buffet line.
All of which appeared to bode poorly for Oysy Sushi & Seafood Buffet, the newly opened Asian smorgasbord, which sits expectantly across from East Towne and contributes to the sudden, recession-ready explosion of pan-Asian smorgasbords popping up all over town. Oysy's signature is its sushi buffet, and it seems determined to put the "oy" back into sushi. And it does.
But that doesn't mean it isn't worth your time, if you want a cheap (something that's a necessity now, for most of us), gut-busting meal. Okay, don't come for the ambiance; the big, bright room doesn't care much for décor, though there is one big unfurled fan lending a little Asian accent. And forget the sushi (we'll get to that in a minute). But you have to give credit to a restaurant that serves this much food for this little money, and the food goes beyond abundant to overkill.
In fact, the better half of the blocky dining room is taken over by enough buffet stations to resemble a food court, and there are a lot of brightly colored things to distract you. And some are fine. The snaking hot-dish station features crab legs, beef nigimaki, sole, chicken teriyaki, baked salmon, shrimp tempura, octopus, frog legs, hot and spicy shrimp, pepper shrimp and fried rice. Scoop up some of the fine, subtly fiery hot and spicy shrimp, and the actually tender beef, and you already have a decent version of a surf-and-turf meal.
Then there is a raw bar (scallops, oysters, clams and snow crab legs, riding a big sea of crushed ice), a pan-national dessert station (everything from Passover-ready macaroons to sticky rice balls) and an ice cream corner (get the green tea ice cream).
Oh yeah, and then there is the sushi. For novices, this may serve as a good primer because, if nothing else, the sushi buffet is characteristically ambitious. There is everything from salmon sashimi to unagi (freshwater eel) sushi to dragon rolls, spicy tuna rolls and Alaska rolls. But for anyone who appreciates sushi, head back for more of that hot and spicy shrimp and then drive straight to Wasabi.
Although the sushi is in fact cut fresh and replaced fairly quickly on the buffet, the fish itself is dried out and so tasteless that it's impossible to distinguish what seafood you're actually eating. And the silky, velvety texture of the best sushi gives way to renditions that are variously, and relentlessly, rubbery, flaky, ossified or gummy, and in the case of the unagi sushi (always a real test of a sushi bar's quality) chewy enough to prove impenetrable. Only the ebi (shrimp) sushi and the shrimp tempura maki retain some sense of taste.
Still, you'll go home sated, at bargain prices, and it's hard to begrudge Oysy its largesse. And it's probably one of the few places in town where you can polish off a pan-Asian buffet with pumpkin pie.
Oysy Sushi & Seafood Buffet
4126 E. Washington Ave., 608-237-7662
11 am-10 pm daily; lunch buffet served until 3:30 pm Mon.-Fri.; dinner buffet served all day Sat.-Sun. $11-$22.