You only have to read the online comments in the blogosphere to know that no matter what pronouncements you make about food, there's always someone who will argue the opposite. For every paean to bacon, someone squeals that meat is murder. For every ode to truffle oil, someone calculates the fuel cost of transportation from the Périgord.
So if I were to denounce the current obsession with speed-eating as a disgusting devolution of manners in a society that views food more as sport than as nutrition, I'd probably get blowback from people who said I was either (a) a snob, or (b) not up to the challenge. But I'll have you know I won my share of Mello Yello chugging contests back in the day, and I once ate more slices of Shakey's pepperoni pizza than any other fourth-grader at the birthday party. (You don't land in a career like mine without proving you've got the chops to hold your chow.) Still, my checkered résumé of overindulgence only serves to underscore the point that competitive eating is disgusting, especially among fourth-graders.
That's not to say dining can't have its elements of friendly competition. For example, who among us hasn't declared victory — or accepted defeat — in a restaurant when one meal emerged from the kitchen looking better than all the other entrées at the table? ("You totally out-ordered me with that duck.") But such triumphs depend largely on luck and the culinary ability of others. At GoGo Sushi, the new build-your-own-sushi eatery adjacent to Vanderbilt campus, the ordering process puts your tastes to the test. Restaurant veteran Mark Rubin and business partner Greg James have created a model that gives you, the diner, the ingredients and leeway to design sushi rolls that are — here's hoping — better than the next guy's.
Housed in the ground floor of Wesley Place, across 21st Avenue from the Vanderbilt library, GoGo Sushi is dazzling in its sleek modernity. Graphic designer Jim Vienneau's décor trades the bamboo-and-rice paper scheme of so many local sushi establishments for a vibrant and contemporary palette of green, orange and stainless steel, consistent with the sleek, antiseptic aesthetic of today's frozen yogurt culture.
The build-your-own-roll system, which puts the customer to work at a touch-screen point-of-sale terminal, has been called "Chipotle sushi" and likened to sandwich shop Which Wich, since both national chains offer similarly limitless permutations in a fast-casual setting.
At GoGo, instead of sandwich bread and tortillas, you start with a choice between the familiar dark-green seaweed wrap and a spongier lime-green soy-based roller.
Next up, rice. Do you want white or brown?
Now, what do you want to anchor your roll? Here's where it gets interesting, because there are more cooked fillings than there are raw, with a broad selection of non-fish items. Alongside the raw classics — salmon, tuna and whitefish — there's also bacon, beef, chicken, crawfish, shiitake, shrimp, smoked salmon and eel.
Next decision: Pick three accompaniments from a list of Asian pear, asparagus, avocado, spinach, carrots, cream cheese, crisp onions, cucumber, daikon, jalapeno, jicama, mandarin, mango, pineapple, potato, sprouts, strawberry and tofu skins.
For the final flourish, choose a drizzle of teriyaki or eel sauce; mayonnaise flavored with wasabi, smoked sweet chili, ginger and lime, or jalapeno; or a dusting of chili powder, panko or toasted sesame seeds.
Add on a few sides, such as seaweed salad, miso soup, edamame, then pick a beverage from a well-rounded list of beer, tea, fountain drinks and sake, and you're ready to swipe your credit card.
Once you've wrapped up your work at the monitor — and this can take a while for a party of five who are all on one ticket — you can watch the assembly process behind the open counter, get your drink, serve yourself at the soy sauce-and-ginger bar and grab a seat at the communal table or at the surrounding barstools.
Rubin — who founded Finezza and the bygone Belle Meade Brasserie — now spends his days at Second Harvest, overseeing the nonprofit culinary arts program. Meanwhile, James serves as the ever-present Head Roller, overseeing a highly mechanized sushi-making system, with Wallace-and-Gromit-worthy gadgets that regulate the traditional mixture of rice and vinegar, spread the rice onto a wrapper, and cut each roll into 10 congruent rounds.
In our experience, the end product was consistently fresh and well-made. And while we occasionally felt like we were waiting longer than necessary, despite the fact that we were among just a handful of diners in the restaurant, any criticisms we had were our own fault — because we designed the rolls ourselves.
For example, we should have known that an unadorned bacon-and-rice roll was going to be dry. On the other hand, who would have predicted that an eel-and-cucumber roll with toasted sesame seeds would be such a simple pleasure? (For the record, I declared victory with that elegantly understated combination, after my husband and I tied with identical rolls of salmon, avocado and Asian pear.)
Other whimsical highlights of the meal included an intriguing Japanese fruit-flavored soda with a glass marble trapped in the neck of the bottle; the thoughtful touch of ginger-lime simple syrup for sweetening iced tea; dessert rolls with chocolate, peanut butter and marshmallow fluff; and the biodegradable "chork" — an ingenious hybrid of chopsticks and fork.
If you're overwhelmed by the do-it-yourself decisions, never fear: Rubin and James have done the work for you with a roster of signature rolls. We particularly enjoyed the Commodore, with shrimp, avocado, pineapple, eel sauce, wasabi mayonnaise and spicy panko crunch. Still, it's a shame to miss out on the exercise of creating your own custom maki, especially if you enjoy the kind of eating challenge that doesn't come with a side of indigestion.
GoGo Sushi opens at 11 a.m. daily.
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