Uni Vision - Roll with it
By Stephen Lemons

Published: March 2, 2006 Phoenix New Times

Outstanding sushi in the wiles of the northwest Valley? Yeah, right. Now you'll be telling me that President Bush has been secretly planning to sell U.S. shipping ports to some Arabic-speaking emirate in the Persian Gulf.

Huh? He did what? Guess I have to start watching Jon Stewart more often. Next thing you know, Ann Coulter will convert to Islam, and Senator Jon Kyl will start hugging Mexicans and black folk. Like ol' Cat Stevens used to sing before he converted to Islam, "Baby, baby, it's a wild world . . ." Anything can happen. Even great sushi in the northwest Valley.

Tokyo Lobby is not a new place; it's been around for nearly four years. But its reputation, one that fills the tiny eatery to bursting on the weekends, seems to have come to the fore through the stewardship of sushi maestro Kelvin Kim and wife Jennifer. The Korean-born Kelvin has been in the raw fish game since '92, and once owned a Japanese restaurant in Valencia, California, near Six Flags Magic Mountain. The lower cost of living and high demand for sushi lured the talented chef east to the PHX, and two years ago, the Kims acquired the Glendale business and began turning it into a culinary star of the ever-developing northwest Valley.

TL's name sounds vaguely like one of those Japanese "love hotels" you read about in travel guides, conjuring images from that flick Tokyo Decadence. Yet the reality is a straightforward symphony of browns, a cozy shoebox of a spot with Japanese prints on the wall, a couple of TVs, and an extremely well-kept sushi bar right of center. Here, Chef Kim is usually holding court, joshing with customers about his golf game or exchanging notes on the state of the real estate industry. The vibe is friendly and relaxed, and conversations between tables are almost inevitable.

The sushi equals that produced by several of Scottsdale's most popular joints. It's not the best sushi I've had in town, but it's in the top 10 percent, and that's still pretty admirable. I know people love all the crazy rolls so in vogue these days, and Chef Kim has some truly original ones. But I was really hankerin' after some hard-core, traditional Japanese sushi the first time I visited Tokyo Lobby, specifically some uni, the silky-smooth, beige roe of the common sea urchin, sometimes topped with a dollop of quail's egg.

Like a lot of odd edibles, sea urchin roe has the rap of being an aphrodisiac of sorts, and indeed there is some evidence to this effect. Uni has been found to contain minute quantities of anandamide, the "bliss molecule," which has been compared in structure and effect to THC, the main psychoactive element present in cannabis. Could this be why I was making goo-goo eyes at Chef Kim after downing two big pieces wrapped in seaweed? Or maybe I just wanted some more of that sweet, chilled ambrosia of the deep blue sea.

I gobbled so many of the other trad sushis on TL's menu, I bet I could write my doctoral dissertation in ichthyology: bluefin tuna, yellowtail, flying fish roe (tobiko) made green by mixing it with wasabi, octopus, freshwater eel (unagi), mackerel (saba), and my second fave sushi of all time, salmon roe (ikura), those plump red eggs that pop like tiny, salty hand grenades as you mash them in your mouth.

In all cases, the presentation was as flawless as Japanese skater Shizuka Arakawa's Olympic gold-medal performance in the women's finals last week. The fish itself was very fresh, and tasted so. I'd deduct a few technical points for the rice, which on one of my visits seemed a tad too mushy. But on subsequent trips, I didn't have this problem. So I must assume that particular experience was an aberration.

TL's assorted funky rolls I found to be hit or miss, but even the misses were hardly horrid. I was less crazy about the ones based on the California roll, which, despite its popularity, tends to be the one sushi roll I like the least. In the case of the Rolls Royce Roll, Chef Kim tops Cali rolls swimming in a thin, yogurty sauce with chunks of tomato and tuna. The Alaska roll is a California roll wrapped in salmon, the whole roll smothered in a mayonnaisey mixture of spicy tuna and scallops. And the "rock 'n' roll" is a Cali roll draped with tuna and salmon and topped with ikura. All of these were palatable, but I wouldn't order them again. There's something terminally dull about the California roll. And lumping other ingredients atop it does little to ameliorate this dullness.

On the other hand, the Marilyn Mon-Roll was nearly as luscious as the star of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes herself: a spicy tuna roll wrapped in albacore and sprinkled with crispy tempura onion. And Kim manufactures one of the best caterpillar rolls I've ever had, so rich in eel and avocado, and served warm, that it works better than tempura ice cream as a happy ending to your meal.

Appetizer-wise, Tokyo Lobby's happy to offer you a plate of monkey brains, and then sock you with a heart attack. The monkey brains are scrumptious, fat mushroom caps, stuffed with crab meat and deep fried; and as for your heart attack, I doubt the real thing is this much fun: jalapeño halves filled with cream cheese and spicy tuna and treated like a drumstick at KFC.

But if monkey brains and heart attacks seem too much like Jane Goodall meets The Island of Dr. Moreau, there's always the gyoza. Often these pot stickers are served way too soggy to be appetizing. Yet Tokyo Lobby nails them, bringing you a platter of gyoza that are brown and crispy on the outside, piping hot and juicy on the inside.

TL's sake bombers are cheap, and there's a nice little list of cold sakes for the discerning. TL also boasts a full kitchen menu with standards like chicken teriyaki, tonkatsu, and so forth, but sushi is king here, regardless of whether or not you're a uni fan like I am. Scottsdale-class sushi in northwest PHX: Now if Ann Coulter dons a burqa and Jon Kyl French-kisses Oprah Winfrey, I can truthfully say that I've seen it all.

Reproduced with permission of Phoenix New Times




Cutting edge: Sushi maestro Kelvin Kim of Tokyo Lobby starting work on one of his mountainous Volcano rolls.

Photo: Jackie Mercandetti