Café Sushi is my mom’s go-to sushi spot on the Left Bank of the Charles. As it turns out, it’s the go-to sushi spot for many, and an industry favorite that has been serving the Cambridge community for over three decades. Nestled inside a kind of vintage strip-mall style building on Mass Ave between Central and Harvard Squares, Café Sushi takes on a rather unassuming presence. Working up a storm behind the neon blue light of the bar is chef and owner Seizi Imura and team, whose open kitchen performance alone builds up an appetite.
It was Imura’s father who first opened the place in 1984. When he came of age, Imura started working there as well. But the West Coast beckoned Imura, who moved to California to work at Michelin-starred Sushi Ran near Berkeley. After a few years, things got too comfortable for the chef there, and he moved back to Cambridge to take over his father’s business. In doing so, his biggest challenge was to change the reputation of the joint, which over the course of 20 years, had become known as a decent but nothing-special watering hole for those seeking well-made Japanese sushi classics. Just another spot for that after-gym spicy tuna roll, basically. And as there was a strong demand for these sushi bar staples in Cambridge, Imura had a tough time introducing anything new. But, through strategic special offers and plenty of face-time across the counter with his guests, he began to gradually convince the clientele to think outside the box and order some of his more inventive creations. These days, alongside the caterpillar roll and futomaki, you’ll find stuff like Kama (a broiled preparation of many different types of fish collar), Salmon Aburi (seared salmon belly with ponzu and negi) and Umai Masu (Irish ocean trout with hickory smoked caramelized onions). The sake program is pretty vast and the wines carefully selected to pair with the food.
This past November, we stopped by at Café Sushi for lunch. My mom, at this point, is a regular, so I left the ordering up to her, while I chose a nice dry Austrian Gewürz to go with some of the more intensely flavored dishes I knew she’d choose.
The Gewürztraminer went very well with our first dish, Café Sushi’s tofu steak with hatcho miso glaze. If the standard for tofu were closer to this, I’d actually give vegan a chance (but it doesn’t so I don’t). Fluffy, frothy, feather-light steaks of tofu, masterfully sautéed in butter and sake until reaching the perfect golden brown, sitting in a clean and clear dashi broth. The tofu skin tightens up from the cooking and actually achieves a golden brown, charred crust. This snappy exterior offers mesmorizing contrast with the silky smooth, jiggly, juicy tofu center. An aptly named dish, this is indeed a steak of tofu, with the same satisfying, melt-in-your-mouth consistency as an expertly cooked filet mignon. And the hatcho miso glaze over the top! A glossy and wonderfully thick sauce, screaming out the pure essence of miso – that meaty, earthy, deeply umami taste with a slight touch of sweetness at the very end. It’s good. Really, really good.
While I have for a long time been kind of over tuna tataki, my mom convinced me to try their version. Beautiful bluefin tuna, very delicately seared, came with touches of lemon juice and truffle oil, as well as some kizami wasabi (chopped wasabi marinated in soy sauce). I don’t remember tasting too much of the truffle, though the delicate spice of this “wasabi relish” did wonders when paired to the the very clean flavors of the tuna. The quality of the fish here was undeniable even if this sushi bar classic doesn’t excite me too much these days.
Hungry from a morning of errands, I convinced my mom to get one of the heartier, busier signature maki. We got the Crunch Roll, which was a rice-outside roll of barbecued eel and avocado, topped with a colorful array of stuff: a mash of spicy snow crab, tobiko (flying fish roe), crunchy tempura flakes and a deliciously thick and gooey eel sauce. I knew full well when I ordered that this would be an over-indulgent embarrassment of riches and not one of those simple and delicate makis with focus on the balance between just a handful of ingredients. This was an aptly named explosion of textures and flavors, a dense little bomb stuffed with sticky rice, tender eel and the most perfectly ripe and butter-smooth avocado, further accentuated by the creamy, fibrous delight of the crab and crunch from the flakes. The flavors in there were exciting as well: the almost nutty, slightly smoky, oily and delicious eel was given even more “oomph” by the hickory-flavored, sticky sweet eel sauce. This duo was lifted a bit by the briny twang of the fish roe and the white-hot heat of the wasabi, carefully applied. Definitely not for the sushi minimalist, but perfect if you’re looking for a full mouthful of perfectly complementary tastes and textures.
This last time with my mom, we stayed pretty close to the classics. They were absolutely delicious. Next time, however, I’m going for that fish collar.