I'm not sure why so many sushi restaurants are suddenly swamping Madison. Maybe it seems easy to plop some fish over rice if you can't afford a bona fide cook. But of course the simplest dishes, done right, are really the most complex, and nothing is more demanding than sushi. That's why authentic sushi chefs train for years to perfect the austerely elegant culinary tradition and pay it proper homage.
But for whatever reason, slapdash local sushi joints keep popping up. The latest is T. Sushi, though only the name suggests the dining room has much to do with sushi. In fact for sushi lovers, there is more sinister foreshadowing - the big hint of things about to go desperately wrong - than in a slasher video. The mash-up of an interior is part neo-baroque (glass chandeliers), part Arabian Nights harem pants (swags of ivory and red fabric draping off the ceiling), part louche lounge meets North Woods tavern (a huge bar piled high with vodka bottles almost overtaking the room, sitting flat in the middle like a centerpiece).
It's easy to miss what should be the truer centerpiece. The sushi bar itself is small and parked, like an afterthought, in the back of the room, and it looks abandoned. Sushi restaurants usually like to flaunt their fresh, opulent main event, the seafood laid out along the sushi bar like an exuberant Dutch still-life. The puny sushi counter at T. Sushi, on the other hand, is pretty much denuded. There are a few paltry plates of fish and a plastic tub of what looks like crabmeat. Why such a small display?
"Some of the seafood is frozen," one of the sushi chefs told me. "This isn't Chicago."
Right-o. No, it isn't. And T. Sushi is out to prove it. What's odd is that, despite the apparent paucity of seafood, and the frozen fish (probably the biggest sushi taboo), the restaurant's menu consists almost entirely of sushi. That's one very big gamble given the sourcing. And it's a gamble that predictably doesn't pay off.
Sushi is essentially defined by rice and the seafood, and mostly T. gets both things wrong. The very sparing list of nigiri and sashimi (only eight to choose from) hints at the problem. While the super white tuna and the blue crab nigiri were among the best dishes we sampled, because they showed at least some restraint, the big pillows of gummy, wet rice overwhelmed the fish. Move onto the kitchen's maki, though, and the oversized gumdrops of unpolished rice simply obliterate the seafood. The masago materializes as a huge pinwheel of a roll packed with lots of that glutinous rice, some tempura asparagus, and a wispy nub of bluefin tuna that you could (and probably will) miss altogether, though it's the almost invisible bluefin that apparently justifies the whopping $15 price.
Worse is the unagi maki. If you pop out the tiny kernel of very dry eel, it drops onto your plate like an apology; it's the size of a small baby's pinkie. The spider maki? You won't be tasting much crab. Buried inside the typically bloated roll is a greasy crunch of batter that tastes mostly of something jarring and spicy, like Cajun seasoning.
All of this amounts to some of the worst bite-for-bite value on State Street (none of these dishes warrant their high prices), though if you do end up at T. Sushi there are two dishes that show real potential. Head to the specialties section of the menu, where the prices shoot into the sushi stratosphere but at least offer a taste of something other than, you know, rice. The $20 "Original" features enough blue crab and bluefin tuna to make an impression, and the addition of mango, and a blood orange and mandarin sauce, pays off in nice, bright flavors. And the Golden Dragon is the best of the bunch. You'll miss the disappearing act of shrimp tempura peeking out of the roll itself, but big slabs of silky salmon come draped over the top and justify the $16 tab. They'd appreciate that in Chicago.