Monday, March 23, 2009

Techno Sushi: Oslo

It’s been over a year now since Detroit’s favorite sushi place reopened—after a rather unfortunate and unnecessary closing—under new ownership. Owners Katalia (Kat) and Roberto Lemos (DJ Bet), who worked at the first incarnation of Oslo as bartender and DJ respectively, have very much kept the spirit of the old Oslo alive, and have perhaps even improved upon it, much to the happiness and relief of techno-lovers around Detroit. The basement bar is still a weekend haven for late-night dancing and debauchery with noted techno and house DJs and hip-hop artists spinning into the wee hours (though they shut it down at 2:00AM now, instead of 4:00AM as before). Oslo was always considered to be one of the best electronic music clubs in the area, and thankfully has retained that coveted reputation.

Oslo also was considered to have some of the best sushi in the area, which was unmistakably true and a fact that even the most stern of sushi snobs would hardly fain argue. When the Lemoses took over, they joined forces with Kat's mother, co-owner and chef Lumpai Rossbach (former owner of the Royal Thai Cafe in Royal Oak), who changed up the menu a bit, giving it more of an appeal to a wider variety of tastes (i.e., those who don’t like sushi) by adding hot food (gasp!) to the menu. Rossbach has deep roots in Thailand, and introduced a variety of Thai-style dishes to the menu, as well as a few familiar dishes from the popular Cantonese style. The result is a very trendy, very hip, somewhat generic hodgepodge Asian restaurant.

On two recent trips, I sampled a variety of dishes including the sushi and sashimi. I made it a point to stray from such general and obvious selections as Almond Chicken and California Rolls, sampling instead some of the more seemingly unique and perhaps even “authentic” items on the menu. (Granted, cultural authenticity in dining is relative, but it is still the Holy Grail that critics love to chase.)

I sampled the Tom Yum soup, a hearty broth made with lemongrass, lime leaves, straw mushrooms, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and chicken. The lime and lemongrass gave it a citrusy tartness, but with the heartiness of soul-loving chicken broth. Though a stretch from traditional Thai "Tom Yum," which is actually a hot-and-sour soup, it was still flavorful and satisfying. I also tried the Steamed Dumplings, served with a sweet gyoza sauce. The dumplings were perfect--bursting with juice and wrapped in a delicate, tender dough that tears ever so easily but is also firm and resistant.

Though I have an affinity for spicy foods, I was at the mercy of my sensitive-tongued dining partner, and so when I ordered the Drunken Noodles they came ever-so-mildly mild. Made with bean sprouts, onions, bamboo, wine, egg, fresh noodles and basil, the Drunken Noodles were firm and fat and slippery, a perfect texture with a perfectly imperfect shape (noodles ranged in size and shape, proof of their homemade freshness). The flavor was rather rich, and while regrettably not spicy, still full of body with a long-lingering taste.

For sushi, I first tried the Triple Hitter (yellow tail, tuna, salmon, avocado, and masago) and the T.N.T. (spicy tuna and avocado topped with spicy sauce then baked). The Triple Hitter was mild, with no real standout flavor, though not at all unpleasant. The T.N.T. roll was a neon-colored explosion of spice, and while the "baked sushi" concept was a little off-putting, the taste was hot, hot, hot. (And I like hot.) My next venture brought me the Cherry Blossom: salmon and cucumber topped with tuna, lemon and fish eggs. Again, mild, with the standout flavor being the dried lemon on top which was, quite frankly, too much lemon. I also tried the Red Snapper and Crab Stick sashimi. The Red Snapper had a dollop of chili sauce on top, which was superb together. The Crab Stick tasted like the crab meat had been soaked in butter, and melted in my mouth as if it had. By and large, my preference tends to lean more towards sashimi than sushi, and here was no exception.

On both occasions my server was the friendly and affable Kevin, whose namesake specialty drink “Kevin Love Japan” (made with Jameson, Fuki Plum Wine, a splash of key lime juice and Sprite) is a surprisingly smooth and refreshing beverage, though deceptively strong (especially when the bartender accidentally makes you two). Kevin has a solid knowledge of sake, Japanese rice wine, which he will more than happily share. Opting instead to go it alone (mistake), I went for the Cap Ace, which tasted like…lighter fluid. When I told him as much, he cheerily answered that he’d be happy to help me choose next time, and that the house sake is actually quite good. But I know he was thinking I should have just taken his advice the first time. I know it.

For those of you with a strong thirst to quench, Oslo offers a variety of beer, sake, and creative specialty mixed drinks. If you'd like to round out your "Asian" experience, you can sample Japanese beers such as Sapporo, Asahi, or Hitachino ($7.00), or try the Chinese-brewed Tsing Tao, or even Sing Ha, a Thai beer (both $5.00). There is a small wine list with no real stars, and a comparitively extensive sake list which offers a variety of sake styles from the dry to the sweet which are made to pair with with this kind of cuisine (but I do recommend you ask for assistance with your selection if sake is not one of your areas of expertise). The cocktail menu utilizes surprising combinations to create truly unique creations, showing off Kat's mixmaster skills. I've already told you about Kevin Love Japan, but while you're there you might also want to try the Space Odyssey, made with 1800 Tequila, Bacardi 151, Liquor 43 and Seagrams 7...which adds up to 2001 (extra points for the clever name). Or if you want to try sake but are not sure you want to commit to it straight, order the Narviktini, made with Fuki Plum Wine and sake. Or you could just go for broke and order Kat's namesake, The Kat, a Svedka Vodka martini infused with peaches and fresh ginger, with a dash of peach nectar. Like angels dancing on your tongue.

The interior of Oslo is the same as ever--a post-industrial postmodern sake house set in almost-black wood with simple angles in an extremely narrow space, which fills up quickly during lunch and dinner. The expansion of the menu to include hot food has seemed to do the restaurant good, as it now appeals to more metro Detroiters than just the narrow sushi-loving niche (the Thai-loving niche is much broader, and dishes such as Sweet and Sour Chicken, Spring Rolls, and Crab Rangoon appeal to even the most reluctant tastes). On any given day the small space is bustling with groups of friends and co-workers out to dine, and most seem to opt for the Thai. Somewhat comical, for a place that made its name on sushi.

The charmingly polite Kevin noted that Oslo received the nod from the Metro Times for metro Detroit's best sushi. Now don’t get me wrong, the food is good. Perhaps some is even great. But metro Detroit’s BEST sushi? Once upon a time, but no more. (Though this is the same Reader's Poll that named Pizza Papalis "Best Gourmet Pizza" and did not include Chen Chow Brasserie under "Best Chinese," so you can really only take it so seriously.) The thrown-togetherness of the menu's culinary traditions is something that many purists (including, unfortunately, myself) take great issue with...sushi belongs in a Thai restaurant as much as it does at a Chinese diner or a high-end fish house (i.e., Not. At. All.). Unfortunately this Japanese tradition gets so frequently clumped together with whatever the nearest "Asian" or "fish" categories are, and the result is places like the N'awlins-themed Fishbones having a sushi bar. It's something that I continually raise my eyebrows and sigh at, even though I know such outward appearances of disapproval are futile.

Now, as for Oslo: they were doing sushi long before they did Thai, and so they staked their claim to it (and they did it better than most). The introduction of Thai to the menu helps broaden the restaurant's clientele and marketability; I get that. Does it bother me that people still use the word "authentic" to describe both the sushi and the Thai dishes in a restaurant that really isn't clearly either one? Yes; yes it does. But hey, as we already know, authenticity is all relative.

As far as Thai food goes, there's lots of curry and coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves, spicy garlic sauce, and peanuts (whole and as sauce). Is that "authentic" enough? The absence of nam pla makes me say no, but hey...this is America, and fish sauce is slightly unsettling on American tastebuds. As for the authenticity of the sushi, well...avocodo and cream cheese do not exist in the Japanese culinary tradition but have become a staple in American "sushi" to help acclimate to Western palate. It is no different at Oslo, where common Japanese ingredients are soiled by Westernized creations. While it is sliced and rolled expertly by Korean-born John Riney, it still cannot shake its own Americanization. Good? Yes. On par with the majority of other sushi joints? Absolutely. But the best? Sorry, but no.

Also, I miss the vegetable tempura (particularly the sweet potatoes). If you had ever dined at the old Oslo, you know exactly what I'm talking about.

Oslo is a good restaurant. On any visit there you are more than guaranteed a tasty meal with friendly, helpful service. It might not be exactly what it was before, but it is still a fine place to grab a quick bite, have a drink, and dance the night away. With regularly scheduled techno and hip-hop events such as Re-Vive Sundays with Detroit Beatdown Sounds and the bi-weekly, bi-curious Fierce Hot Mess, as well as special guest DJs on Saturdays, Oslo is still hands-down one of the best music venues in the D. So if it's a quality club scene you're looking for, then by-golly you've found it. And if it's a quick-and-easy Thai carry-out place you need, you got it. However, if it is "authentic" sushi you want, and the best in all metro Detroit, you might have to look a little further.