I like to head into a restaurant review with a question. For Tsunami, the question was: how on earth can these people compete with all the other Japanese restaurants up and down Brooklineís Harvard and Beacon Streets? Around Coolidge Corner, itís easier to buy sushi than a newspaper. Do they have something new? Whatís their secret weapon?
As far as I can tell after two visits, Tsunami has picked the hardest sells of all: authenticity and quality. Theyíre doing all the regular Japanese-restaurant things, but with a little more creativity and flair. With a small space and three chefs at dinner, Tsunami sends everything hot to the table hot, everything cold quite cold, and all the sushi and sashimi freshly cut.
The appetizers we tried were impeccable, but the most impressive, " tiger eye " ($5.95), came from the sushi bar: green avocado and salty red fish roe with a white " crabstick, " wrapped in scored squid and dusted with togarashi, the Japanese red-pepper spice. Thatís a lot of color, but also a lot of flavor and texture contrasts in every bite. The flavors are pungent and immediate.
For the rest, edamame ($3.50) are emerald-green soybeans cooked and served in the pods, with coarse salt. Popping each jewel out of its pod in your mouth generates a rush of flavor. Shumai ($4.95) are the scallop-shaped dumplings of wrapped shrimp paste; theyíre irresistible fried, yet subtler and longer-lasting steamed. Beef tataki ($6.95) are carpaccio-like strips of steak, actually cooked rare, so the outsides are seared, and served over an enticing slaw of cabbage and shredded scallions, with a lemony ponzu sauce. Seaweed salad ($4) is cleverly contrasted with slightly pickled julienne cucumber, and involves several shades of green seaweed.
Noodle soups likewise rank a cut above the competition. Tempura udon ($12.95), a favorite of mine, is made with an exceptionally balanced and enticing stock. The noodles are very fat square spaghetti. The important feature is fried shrimp and vegetables melting into the broth as you go. You get some crunch from the early bites, and the batter enriches the soup later. " Seafood noodle soup " ($13.95) tasted even better. Sort of a Japanese answer to cioppino, itís the kind of mixed-seafood dish that turns into a mishmash in many types of restaurant. This one held together in part because of its remarkable spicy stock, and also because much of the seafood was perfect. Iíve never had squid rings more tender and toothsome, or such thin-cut fillets of white fish in soup like this. The noodles are thin ramen, regarded as a risqué, Chinese-type noodle in Japan. A couple of curiously tasteless scallops were the only weak point.
Ahiru ($15.95) is a rare Japanese duck dish that looks rather Chinese. But where a Chinese restaurantís cook would emphasize the fatty richness of duck, and let us pick it off the bones, Tsunamiís chef makes a boneless stir-fry on top of wilted cabbage with a single cherry tomato. Although the flavor is soy-based, the overall effect resembles what a fancy French bistro does with duck. With this dish comes sticky but aromatic rice with a dusting of mixed spice, and a white miso soup.
Reviewing Japanese restaurants is made easier by giant sashimi-sushi combinations. Tsunami has various wooden boats to make the " sashimi dinghy, " " sashimi boat, " " sashimi yacht, " and " Tsunami Cruiser " ($44.95). I would caution you against ordering the cruiser with a crew any smaller than three. And really, the discerning way to order sushi and sashimi is by the piece, having only what you want. But I have to say, I wanted almost everything on the cruiser. In Japan, sashimi is still more prestigious than sushi, and several items reminded me why this might be. Tsunami puts out the reddest and richest dark tuna Iíve had in many years. The drop in the Japanese stock market has one positive aspect, I guess.
Tsunami also has marvelous salmon, and the chef cuts it so the grain appears marbled, a trick Iíve seen only once before. And he has a neat way of cutting sea-clam feet into thin slices that make for less chewing and a cleaner flavor. All the lighter fish, from striped bass to yellowtail, were in wonderful condition. I also liked the quality and subtlety of the three slices of mackerel, a cooked sashimi that sometimes overpowers the other species. For variety, there were a number of shiso leaves (imagine a plain green coleus leaf with a flavor of grapefruit, mint, a little sage, and a lot of lemon rind) large enough to wrap a sashimi slice in. The only slices I didnít finish were a briny tuna. I also didnít approve of special items cradled in cucumber cups, as cucumber is too much for delicate sea-urchin roe, salmon eggs, and even black caviar.
On the sushi side, the cruiser included enough California maki, tuna maki, and spicy scallop maki to get a good start on a chess set. And then there were six " tempura maki " ó disks of crunchy fried shrimp wrapped in rice and seaweed. I donít know how anyone could resist these. No tiger eye on the cruiser, but the squid wrap was applied to " brushes " of cress-flavored sprouts. A hand-rolled cone of seaweed, filled with sushi rice and strips of broiled eel, arrived in a champagne glass. If you can get past the idea of eel, the flavor is oily and rich ó not fishy at all. A piece of broiled eel is like a perfect French fry, without the starchy filler.
Tsunami has something truly fun for dessert: ice cream ($2.75) in the form of five plastic-wrapped bonbons. Each one is quite cold, and wrapped in a bit of starchy coating. The flavors our night were green tea (a curiously dry flavor that works well in ice cream), red bean (the traditional Japanese sweet, but not to everyoneís taste), and mochi (a glutinous rice that has an aromatic quality like banana). And a giant gumdrop of what seemed to be green coconut, with an apple aroma, accompanied the check.
Service is quite good, with frequent refills of both green tea and ice water. The room is done in a lot of blond wood. The table is set with hashi (Japanese chopsticks) in boxes; all of them are different, like teacups at a Victorian party. Booths, café tables, and a small sushi bar are somehow arranged so that lots of people can comfortably eat different things in a small room. All Japanese restaurants are " nice, " but this is a nice, nice restaurant.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com.