To some consumers, sushi is but a vehicle for soy sauce and wasabi, eagerly combined, then used to disguise the actual flavor of a pricey piece of expertly prepared fish. Bad news: I am one of those consumers.
Meet Gus. An employed intellectual by day, Gus spends his nights and weekends propounding expertise in three arenas: reality television characters, professional New York sports teams and Anchorage sushi. Why Anchorage sushi? "Because I am from New York." Why can't I use Gus' real name? "Because even though I don't work for the FBI, CIA or the mob, revealing my identity might compromise my credibility in other arenas." Fair enough.
We met up to carpool and immediately got into an argument over whether I Luv Sushi is in Spenard or in South Anchorage (my opinion, supported by Google Maps). When we successfully arrived at I Luv Sushi South, I subjected poor Gus to repeated reminders of his foolish mapping error.
Not so fast, self. At the end of the meal, I revealed to Min Kim, the owner of I Luv Sushi, that, surprise, I was writing a review of her restaurant. She immediately suggested that I visit their new location in Spenard. Nearly a week later, the expanse of Gus' grin has not diminished.
We took Kim's advice and visited both locations.
I Luv Sushi (South)
Located in a strip mall at the corner of Lake Otis Parkway and Abbott Road, 10-year-old I Luv Sushi (South) shows its age. The Asian-motif décor is a little dated. The oscillation between indie folk and elevator music sets an inconsistent tone. And the lights are a little too bright. These aren't complaints but observations. I wouldn't invite a woman on a first date to I Luv Sushi (South), but if we hit it off, got married and had a few kids, I would certainly take the whole family.
Gus and I agreed that reviewing basic nigiri would not make for an interesting read, so we focused on ordering from the more diverse set of appetizers and rolls on the menu.
We started with the O.M.G. appetizer ($9), a squat cylinder of mashed avocado and crab meat and a mystery creamy ingredient, served with a delightfully light tempura crust wafer. This tasty Japanese guacamole will fill you up, though the wafers run out quickly -- ask for extra when you order. The Black Cod ($10), broiled after preparation with a soy paste and rice wine marinade, is served with a sweet miso sauce. Light and satisfying, this dish prominently features the miso sauce, which surprised with a hint of peanut.
Our third appetizer was the star of the meal: Yellowtail Carpaccio ($18), creamy sliced yellowtail with jalapeno slices and a splash of wasabi-olive sauce. A diner would be remiss not to order this buttery fish gently bathed in a lemon-jalapeno-wasabi-olive masterpiece. A must-eat.
For dinner, the staff recommended the Titanic Roll ($17), featuring almost every sushi roll ingredient available: shrimp tempura, avocado, cucumber, salmon, tuna, spicy tuna, tobiko, sweet eel sauce, spicy mayonnaise and creamy white sauce. After much discussion, Gus delivered his final judgment:
"At first, I was intellectually offended that this concoction even exists. But -- it is so tasty. I can't believe I could fit a whole piece in my mouth at once, and don't particularly want to. This roll just must be stripped down to its component parts to extract maximum value, like chopping up a stolen car to separately consume the tuna rims and sweet eel carburetor. Let's order another one."
That's why I invited him.
The Dragon Eye ($10) dessert, comprised of warm, chocolate-filled dumplings and mango ice cream, plus off-menu Oreo cookies, could sustain a grizzly through the winter. The mango tartness of the ice cream balanced the rich, creamy mouth feel of the sublime chocolate-stuffed dumplings and friend bananas. Non-hungry people should not have been this excited about dessert.
I Luv Sushi (Spenard)
A few days later (and full of recently consumed crow, courtesy of Gus), I picked Gus up again for round two, this time in Spenard. This new restaurant also feels its age: bigger space, more subtle lighting and big, comfortable booths. Though the music still inspired the adjective "elevator," this space felt much more versatile, good for a first date, family outing or even a birthday party. We noticed one feature a little too late: cook-your-own Korean BBQ Shabu Shabu tables on the east half of the restaurant. We sat on the western half, and still had a delicious meal.
The menu offered many of the same dishes as the South Anchorage restaurant but also featured some unique offerings. We started with Razor Clam Butter Yaki ($12), a sautéed Alaska razor clam dish with straw mushrooms in garlic-soy butter. It's very garlicky and buttery. Somehow, it is also rather light. Surprisingly, the straw mushrooms played a big role in this dish; they were the base ingredient, playing the role of pasta in this Japanese version of linguini with clam sauce. Gus and I would order this again without hesitation. Next, we ordered the Chicken Fried Rice ($15), a superior dish that reminded us of risotto. I Luv Sushi -- the best Italian restaurant in Spenard.
The Rodeo Roll ($20), a shrimp and crab meat roll topped with torched rib-eye steak slices, deep-fried thin onion and sweet eel sauce, raised some eyebrows. Surprisingly, the onions stole the show; their tempura-ish texture made this dish plain fun to eat. The eel sauce and steak produced a very heavy effect; we ate it slowly. Much like the Titanic Roll, this dish was easier enjoyed in its component parts, the peak value found by focusing on the elements. To even call this a "roll" is generous; it was more of a surf-and-turf walk-in closet.
In the end, Gus and I preferred the newer Spenard location to the South Anchorage restaurant, though both were quite good. In both locations, the appetizers impressed more than the rolls, the overall food quality was very high, and the staff was pleasant and helpful. I Luv Sushi, South or Spenard, should be on your radar for sushi, whether it's for a date night or a family feeding frenzy.
By Vikram Patel
Daily News correspondent