Connoisseurs judge sushi restaurants based on all sorts of criteria, and while I’m no expert, there are a few points I get persnickety about. However, I take it as a positive sign if I spot a couple of elderly Japanese gentlemen sitting at a sushi bar, scarfing down food and getting a little rowdy on sake or beer — as I did the first time I poked my head in the door at Sushi Land East, which, thank goodness, had just taken over a space formerly occupied by a Cold Stone Creamery. Years have passed since that day. I wondered if the zest of those early days had endured.
The dining room is cozy but somewhat cluttered, with Japanese-inspired art and bright-red walls doing their best to liven things up. A handful of chairs and tables runs along the wall opposite the small sushi bar. Two tatami-mat tables occupy a front corner, in case you don’t mind having to remove your shoes before you dine — more of a hassle now that temperatures have dropped. Lunches can be crowded; dinners are sometimes quiet. On a busy night, you’ll have to wander the neighborhood if you choose to wait, since there’s no room to linger inside without hovering over occupied tables.
The Japanese nachos are an example of Sushi Land East’s early creativity and verve. Squares of nori are slightly tempura-battered and fried into crispy “chips,” and then topped with a jumble of pico de gallo and small dice of raw tuna. They’re light, refreshing, bold, and tantalizing. I always want to order more.
The salads may look a little dull and small, but they’re actually powerful and addictive. Our tangle of hijiki (black seaweed) was meaty, earthy, almost mushroomy — with just the tiniest bit of bite as well as a sprinkle of sesame seeds for a nutty, crunchy contrast. Thin disks of cool cucumber are marinated in a salty-sweet dressing, while scraps of soft, chewy nori add some complementary brininess here and there.
The tuna tataki appetizer is a heap of ruby-red fish and tart, aromatic yuzu. Its gorgeousness, though, was muffled beneath a wad of shredded daikon radish. Our assorted tempura was fine — well cooked but still slightly toothy vegetables plus a sheet or two of nori, all fried to a delicate but audible crispness. Our six pieces of sashimi were gloriously colorful but oddly bland and unremarkable, and the gyoza (pot stickers) were pleasantly tender and savory but ultimately forgettable.
The rest of the menu consists of nigiri, sashimi, and maki (rolls) as well as some noodle- and rice-based bowls. The one bowl we tried — eel — felt like my new favorite comfort food: a bed of impressively sticky rice topped with a few shreds of lettuce; fatty, meaty grilled fish; and that salty-sweet sauce created (and named) for it.
Most of the predictable maki selections are here — spicy tuna and other unadorned fish; vegetable combos; and dragon, rainbow, caterpillar, and the like. Others are intriguing and creative, like the T.S. roll, with its snapper and crisp pickles. There’s an alternative for carbophobes and Whole Life Challenge disciples — the crunchy sashimi roll, a variety of fish rolled in nori, crusted in sesame seeds, and very quickly fried to give it a superficial snap. Rich, soft, and full-flavored is the dragon roll — “crab,” buttery avocado, and cucumber curled up in rice and topped with sweet, fatty eel. I appreciated the thin strips of tempura carrot, green pepper, and onion, which acted as decorative and textural accents.
You may prefer the simpler single-ingredient route of nigiri. My tamago, omelet-style egg seasoned with mirin and soy sauce, was unpleasantly cloying, almost like an eggy pancake. Its supporting platform of rice, bound by a thin belt of dark-green nori, crumbled the minute it left the plate. The tempura shrimp of another nigiri was ideally cooked, but an odd, out-of-place deposit of mayonnaise on top of the rice had turned its crust gummy.
Hot tea is available to wash all of this down, though ours was served, peculiarly, in Western-style coffee mugs. Kirin lager is on tap, and a selection of Japanese microbrews is available in bottles and cans. Of the fairly wide but not intimidating selection of sakes, we tried the Seven Spearsmen — fruity at the outset, but with a sophisticated superdry finish.
I wasn’t sure if I should attribute our server’s brevity and minimal enthusiasm to shyness or an ambivalence about his job. He was generally helpful and delivered food in a timely fashion, but throughout the meal, in particular near the end, he disappeared behind the bar or into the kitchen for large chunks of time. It’s details like this that make me think the passion has fizzled just a touch at Sushi Land East. The food is still fine, but it feels workmanlike. Somehow, I get the feeling that here, simply being “good enough” is good enough. ◀