The little log building that sits modestly in the shadow of the (relatively) majestic Captain Cook Hotel and the downtown courthouses has always intrigued me. It's been home to several restaurants in recent years that, despite the prime real estate, have … let's just say, failed to thrive. The relatively new Arctic Sushi is hoping to buck that trend.
My daughters and I met a friend (and sushi fanatic) for a midweek late lunch. The room was fairly empty and we were offered our choice of tables. The room is pleasant -- an effective combination of Japanese sparcity and Alaskan rusticity. We chose one of the high tables near the windows, which was a great perch for people watching on a sunny day. One note: While I enjoyed the tall tables, the accompanying stools are too short. This put our plates at chest-level and made us feel weirdly diminutive. Next time, I'll ask for a phone book to sit on.
The menu is pretty typical, with a fairly complete list of sushi and sashimi, some teriyaki dishes, noodle dishes and a few Korean offerings. The sushi rolls are divided into "Lower 48" rolls, which include most of the classics, "Deep fried sushi rolls" and an extensive list of "Arctic Special Rolls" -- specialties of the house named after Alaskan locales. Some of our choices were simple: gyoza ($7.95) because my family is incapable of ignoring any type of dumpling on any type of menu; agedashi tofu ($7.95) because a friend had recommended it; and chicken yakisoba ($13.95) for my 9-year-old, who at present would rather eat nails than raw fish.
As for the sushi, we ordered the sushi/sashimi combination ($28.95) for the benefit of my 14-year-old, who is a sushi newbie. In addition, at the advice of our helpful waitress, we ordered the Bethel roll ($15.95), a spicy tuna roll topped with fresh tuna, and the Canadian roll ($14.95), which combines shrimp tempura, crabmeat, avocado and cucumber on the inside with thin slices of fresh jalapeno on the outside.
The start of the meal was not promising. The gyoza, while tasty, were too greasy (even for me) and the wrappers were a bit tough. The miso soup was watery with none of the expected bright umami taste, and it had a weirdly tinny aftertaste. We did like the agedashi tofu. It came to the table still sizzling, and inside the lightly crispy coating the tofu was creamy and velvety.
Things improved considerably when the sushi arrived. The combination platter was a perfect Sushi 101 primer. It included tuna, salmon, whitefish, yellowtail, shrimp, octopus and eel nigiri, assorted sashimi and a California roll. The dish looked and smelled fresh, and the fish glistened appetizingly. My older daughter stepped bravely into the fray by snatching up the octopus (tentacles! fun!) so I can't speak to its tastiness. But the rest of the platter delivered what good sushi should -- clean, fresh tastes of the ocean, pleasing textures and nuanced, subtle seasoning.
The rolls were also very successful. Even the California roll, which I generally find unexciting, was top notch -- creamy, slightly sweet, with good crabby flavor. The Bethel roll was a bit bland -- not much spice in the spicy tuna -- but disappeared under added wasabi. The hero of the meal was the Canadian roll -- crunchy shrimp, creamy avocado and sweet crabmeat, enlivened by thin slices of raw jalapeno.
My daughter's yakisoba dish was huge and generously full of chicken and vegetables (which, of course, she meticulously weeded out). I liked the crispy bits of noodles that must have come from a really hot wok -- it imparts both texture and a nice subtle smokiness, but I found the sauce to be way too sweet -- almost cloying. I should add that both girls disagreed and the plate was nearly clean by the end of the meal (I ate the vegetables).
The following week I placed a takeout order to bring to a friend's house. A congenial employee was packing up my order when I arrived and took great care to make sure the containers were secure and that I had all the sauces, chopsticks and napkins I needed. I selected a Ketchikan roll ($14.95) which boasts spicy yellowtail, cucumber and avocado inside, with spicy yellowtail and tempura flakes on the outside. I also ordered your standard rainbow roll ($13.95), a cucumber roll ($6.95) for the non-fish eaters of the group and an order of Hawaiian poke ($15.95).
The rolls were all excellent except perhaps the kappa roll, which weirdly enough was unraveling by the time I unpacked it. Also, it seemed like a meager portion for the price. The rainbow roll looked beautiful and the creamy texture and subtle flavor of the California roll hiding inside was outstanding. Again, I was looking for more spice in my yellowtail but it was tasty, fresh and ultimately satisfying. The winner of the night, however -- and for me, the best thing I ate at Arctic Sushi -- was the Hawaiian poke. Fat, jewel-like cubes of tender tuna tossed with a subtly spicy dressing and crisp, peppery greens. It was enormously appetizing and something I could eat every day.
Dining at Arctic Sushi had some hits and misses. The misses seemed like culinary afterthoughts -- dishes that the chef wasn't excited to prepare. The hits, encouragingly, were in the sushi itself -- especially the complex and creative specialty rolls. For me, the pleasant atmosphere, good service and quality fish tip the scales in the restaurant's favor. Here's hoping that my new go-to for Hawaiian poke will have a long life in that little log house.
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday, noon-10 p.m. Sunday
Location: 401 I St.
Contact: 248-4011, arctic-sushi.com