Patrick Burke, founder of Zumi Sushi Japanese Kitchen in Hillsboro Village, says he wants to change the way we eat sushi, by making it a more frequent, efficient and affordable part of our diet. Looking around Burke's new Asian eatery on Belcourt Avenue, you can almost imagine P.F. Chang's founder Paul Fleming saying the same thing about Chinese food—especially in reference to the Pei Wei concept. Zumi has a lot of good things in common with Pei Wei, from a spare design scheme of light wood, black accents and spot color, to an efficient layout leading from menu boards to cash register to self-serve drink station to table, where a server delivers the food.
Housed in a renovated bungalow between McDougal's Village Coop and Savarino's Cucina, Zumi also recalls the charming old-house character of nearby Vandy-corridor landmark San Antonio Taco Co., a Tex-Mex institution that directs the diner down an ordering chute to a drink fountain and then to the tables. Home to one of the all-time great beer-drinking patios and the celebrated Bucket of (Rolling) Rocks, SATCO is the unofficial watering hole for students in the undergraduate, law and business schools at Vanderbilt—all of which Burke attended. Anyone who ever thought SATCO would be even more perfect if only it served sushi should take a tour of Zumi's broad front porch and upstairs back deck.
A Louisville native, Burke has traveled to Asia to explore the cuisine, and he worked with California chefs to develop Zumi's menu of sushi, noodles and other Eastern-flavored dishes. Upon ginning up the Zumi project two years ago, Burke consulted with famed California sushi chef Gary Flood. When Flood was killed by a car while crossing the street last summer, Burke promised his family that Zumi would honor the late chef—hence Gary's Gyoza and the Great Flood roll. Jason McConnell of Red Pony and Sol in Franklin also weighed in on the menu, helping shape the roster of rolls and noodle dishes.
The resulting repertoire is a medley of pretty plates bearing vibrant colors and bright flavors of ginger, mango, pepper, cilantro and avocado that accent fresh and generous portions of delicate seafood.
Step inside the front door of the former Palette Gallery and follow the low wall to the right. An orange menu board in the corner lists the succinct offerings. On our visits, a member of staff usually greeted us, handing out printed menu sheets and advising that two rolls make an ample meal. If there was one point of confusion in an otherwise efficient dining experience, it was that the printed sheet did not match the format of the menu board—a simple detail that left a few diners scratching their heads.
That aside, the offerings on the two-sided sheet are more edited and the decision more manageable than at most Asian restaurants. The cute names of rolls such as Rich Heat, Black & Gold and Tropical Crunch don't exactly give away what's inside. But rest assured that among the 11 signature rolls, the ingredients are consistently fresh, the presentations attractive and the textures intriguing.
A handy legend of colored dots offers a quick guide to rolls that include vegetarian ingredients, raw fish and intense spice. We majored in the uncooked versions, crammed with gem-colored raw fish.
Pacific Queen was filled with tuna, avocado and mango, and served with a signature sauce of sesame, chili and soy. The layering of buttery smooth fish and avocado, punctuated by crisp cucumber and dusted with crushed macadamia nuts, was a complex and playful combination of textures. The Great Flood delivered an equally clever mix, adding a temperature contrast between warm tempura-fried avocado and cool salmon and cucumber. Another roll to exploit the combination of textures was the colorful Green Sesame, which wrapped lightly cooked asparagus, carrots, cucumber, gourd and fried tofu in a coil of rice and thinly sliced avocado and plated it with a creamy trail of miso-ginger sauce.
The Rich Heat and Spicy Tuna rolls goosed the sweet, delicate fish by using the crisp sting of peppers and fresh garlic as zesty counterpoints. The deluxe Black & Gold ($9.95), named conveniently for the home team as well as for the ink-dark nori peeking out from a golden coating of tempura, is arranged like a sunburst—each coin of sushi topped with shreds of faintly sweet crab salad, on a plate adorned with daubs of sticky soy glaze.
Another raw attraction was the the poke of tuna, marinated in sesame chili sauce and topped with shreds of crab salad—a beautiful, refreshing and generous pyramid of cubed fish.
At the more familiar (and less expensive) end of the spectrum, the Cali Crunch ($4.50) is a beautiful rendition of the classic roll with cooked crabmeat and avocado. The delicate embellishment of tempura crumbs gilded the lily slightly, resulting in a texture a little too close to the rice that sticks to the bottom of the pot.
The Japanese Kitchen entrées apply the same fresh and piquant flavors of the sushi list to an array of salads, noodles and rice dishes, making these offerings a worthy deviation from the sushi roster. Basil Mango Curry—rice noodles lightly coated with a coconut-tinged sauce flecked with red pepper and basil—topped the charts. Tossed with choice of shrimp, chicken, beef or tofu and topped with sunny slices of sweet ripe mango, the dish will lure us to Belcourt on many a winter day to melt away the chill with its unabashed spicy warmth. We also enjoyed the salad of gently grilled salmon over a bed of red and green lettuces, with avocado hunks, tomatoes and whole macadamia nuts, served with a soy-citrus dressing.
A soothing bowl of Chile Shrimp piled large tender shrimp on a bed of rice or noodles strewn with shredded carrots and scallions. Relying heavily on soy, the dark-brown broth was too salty for some palates and was left in the bowl rather than slurped up.
Similarly, the Thai Fighter—a rich hot-and-sour soup bobbing with mushrooms, carrots and small peppers and textured with finely shredded bits of pork at the bottom of the bowl—was dominated by salt and went virtually uneaten, even by the most devout soup lovers.
With the exception of a few heavy-handed dishes, most items we tried were admirably balanced, with enough flavors to keep things interesting without overwhelming the palate.
On a street that draws a diverse audience of college students, working stiffs and elementary schoolers, who throng the patios at The Dog and McDougal's Chicken Fingers and Wings, Zumi admirably carries on the Belcourt Avenue tradition of family-friendly dining. Leaving the chicken fingers to the experts down the road, Zumi offers instead a short list of noodles, fresh vegetables, chicken and shrimp, which come with a chocolate-chip cookie or Japanese ginger cookies for $4.25. Don't forget to ask for a Fun Chop, a nifty plastic tool for chopstick naïfs.
For the over-21 kids, there's a short and familiar wine list, as well as an array of cold sakes and Asian and domestic beers. As if underscoring the parallel to SATCO, Zumi even serves beer in buckets. Of course, here it's not a bucket of Rocks, but Sapporo and Kirin—an elegant metaphor for how Zumi has taken a proven favorite formula and given it a Japanese twist.
Zumi Sushi Japanese Kitchen serves lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 615-844-9408.
This place has closed
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