That early patronage explains the sprinkling of Music Row names across the menu of sushi rolls that pay homage to Koto’s early fans, including the Wayne Roll—crab, eel, egg, avocado and burdock—named for former DreamWorks exec Wayne Halper; the Norro Roll—clam, smelt egg, cucumber and burdock—named for songwriter Norro Wilson; and the Hook Roll—a zesty combo of yellowtail, green onion and spicy sauce—named for musician Gary “Hook” Pfalzbot.
Twenty-ﬁve years later, a lot has changed about Nashville’s appetite. These days, you can’t swing a dead catﬁsh without hitting a sushi bar. But not much has changed at Koto, other than the location. After opening south of Broadway, the Kerumas moved to a dark and unassuming Seventh Avenue address, which now sits in the footprint of the future federal courthouse. With that building slated for demolition, Koto recently migrated to a sleek and light storefront on Union Avenue. The move brings Haji’s hidden talents into the limelight of downtown and adds edible mass to the stretch of sidewalk that houses 417 Union and The Sports Page.
The gorgeous mahogany bar, inlaid with mother of pearl, in the back of the shotgun room will be familiar to guests of the Seventh Avenue store. The Kerumas carried it with them to the new location, where Haji can still be found assembling the colorful compositions of rice and ﬁsh that have made his restaurant a moving landmark for a quarter of a century.
While it’s no longer hard to lure Nashvillians to a sushi bar, there’s still the challenge of coaxing them downtown in the evening. Koto’s meat-and-three neighbor two doors down, 417 Union, planted a dinnertime ﬂag last year, banking on crowds of urban high-rise dwellers to provide evening trafﬁc. Koto offers the neighborhood another rare dinner option, and Haji says the nighttime trafﬁc is building steadily.
Meanwhile, at lunch, the cheery dining room is as packed as a Bento box with people tucking into well-priced meals of teriyaki, tempura, sushi and other Asian specialities. Be warned: The midday crowds can mean it takes a while to get served.
All the sushi we ordered was deliciously fresh and beautifully presented in artistic compositions on large white plates. In addition to the named rolls, we enjoyed the Dragon roll—spicy tuna wrapped in rice, covered with eel and avocado and lacquered with eel sauce that Haji makes by reducing a stock of eel heads, soy sauce, wine and sugar. The Red Dragon roll combined the buttery texture of spicy tuna with the sweet grittiness of shrimp tempura for an impressive presentation drizzled with spicy mayonnaise. The scallop nigiri was extremely buttery and fresh, melting across the tongue like an impossible hybrid of solid and liquid.
We also enjoyed the shrimp-and-scallop teriyaki, which plated the tender shellﬁsh with a medley of cabbage and broccoli in a light, non-sticky sauce and a generous speckling of black pepper.
To our surprise, the grilled collar of salmon was not the bony piece of ﬁsh from just behind the head, from which to dig buttery hunks of meat, but rather a succulent grill-kissed ﬁllet with a light, sweet glaze. While it lacked the skeletal drama of the former presentation, it was a more accessible meal.
Over the years, Koto’s menu has blended the cuisines of Haji’s native Japan—teriyaki, sushi, tempura and noodles—with a sampling of foods from Songmi’s Korean home. Bulgogi delivered thinly sliced tender beef with onions and carrots in a marinade akin to the teriyaki sauce. For a more exotic meal, try the spicy stir-fried squid, with piles of carrots, zucchini and toasted sesame seeds stir-fried in extremely spicy red pepper, whose dry heat spreads stealthily across the tongue. The abundance of squid is almost off-putting, but the ﬂavorful heat becomes addictive, as each bite of smooth meat temporarily quells the sneaky heat.
One of our favorite items was the Korean barbecue short ribs, also known as galbi. The thin slices of bone with generous tags of tender meat are marinated in soy sauce, sugar and garlic and grilled to add a smoky ﬁnish.
For 25 years, sushi has been the cornerstone of Koto’s reputation, and with 40 rolls and three dozen varieties of nigiri, fresh raw ﬁsh continues to be the draw as Koto makes its way from the Seventh Avenue fringe of downtown into the heart of the pedestrian core.
Whether or not they admit it, anyone who orders a Wayne, Norro or Hook Roll invariably wonders: How do I get a roll named after me? Haji laughs quietly and says he’ll have to keep track of what you like and what you don’t like, and then maybe he’ll come up with your signature. In the case of Norro Wilson, best known as the co-writer of Charlie Rich’s No. 1 hit “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” it happened like this: Haji frequently introduced Wilson to exotic foods such as sea urchin and giant clam. “I went crazy over giant clam, and I said, ‘Let’s make a giant-clam roll,’ ” Wilson says. Haji concocted the roll of clam with mayonnaise, cucumber and burdock roots—like small carrots—covered in smelt egg.
“It was a delicious roll,” Wilson says. “I just ate so many of the damn things, he decided to call it the Norro Roll.”
Koto serves lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner is served 5 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday.
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