The Twin Cities sushi scene has come a long way since Fuji Ya, the state's first Japanese restaurant, opened in 1959. Sushi trucks have come and gone, intricate sushi rolls have become mainstays and Minnesotans have embraced a more sophisticated and demanding palate. Fuji Ya closed in 2020, but chefs Billy Tserenbat and Shigeyuki Furuwkawa, among others, have been tending to our prayers. Here's what to expect at some of the city's most promising new sushi restaurants.
There is nothing braver than to walk into Billy Sushi at a reasonable hour, on a weeknight, and hope to score two seats at the bar. An hour wait if you're lucky. Two, if you're not.
Kudos to Billy Tserenbat, formerly of Sushi Fix and Bibuta, who opened his namesake restaurant during the throes of the pandemic where the short-lived Sweet Chow, a Southeast Asian restaurant and ice cream shop, once stood. Since opening in summer 2020, Billy's has buzzed with friends and celebrities — recent drop-ins include Kanye West and members of the Utah Jazz NBA team — the types who are granted access to more reasonable times on the reservation books and Billy's generous brand of hospitality.
The North Loop is probably a more happening place to eat because of Billy. With sprawling ceilings, a long sushi bar and a comely dining area that seats 130 or so, his restaurant is certainly clubby — it recalls a vibe that falls somewhere between a Build-A-Bear version of the famous Nobu and a Benihana. Curtains partially drape floor-to-ceiling windows, so outsiders can't properly look in. "It's part of the charm," Tserenbat says. "Inside, it is your time to do whatever you want."
That also seems to be the case with the way his staff cuts sashimi. Instead of the thin, belt-buckle sized pieces found in more conventional Japanese restaurants, these are stubbier, thicker and more haphazardly cut, producing sinewy bites and a mouthfeel bordering on primal.
These cuts of fish, likely from discarded parts of less desirable fish, were ingeniously served as part of a scant $49 sashimi platter during a recent dinner. That plate consisted of tuna (fine), octopus (tough) and Hawaiian walu, a type of oily fish that was viscerally blubber-like in texture.
But sashimi is often for purists. Billy Sushi isn't for purists. Diners come for the specialty makis, or rolls, and they're pretty good if you blink an eye at the prices, which range from $19 to $35. Yes, several are vessels for mayonnaise and its spicier brethren, as well as a sickly eel sauce, but the combos are fun and comforting.
The Oh Em Gii roll combines shrimp tempura, spicy fatty tuna and unagi and a more appropriate use of walu that's topped with 24-karat gold. It's a glittery treat for even the most jaded raw bar devotees. The George Clooney, a rich amalgam of snow crab, avocado, shrimp tempura, bluefin tuna and a nicely restrained jalapeño, is another. My favorite is the Fancy & Furious — instead of seaweed, Tserenbat uses soy wrap, a creative and welcome alternative. His addition of shiso, a breed of Japanese mint, lent appealing nuance.
Mains and appetizers were not equally lavished. Simpler fare, like agedashi tofu, or tempura-fried tofu, was coated in dashi that had a gloopy consistency. And I couldn't tell if the beef kushiyaki skewers were Wagyu because it was cooked to abandon and flavored with the blunt, salty hit of teriyaki.
Under Tserenbat's more watchful direction, things feel a bit more judicious. Rolls were tighter, more precisely prepared during my most recent dinner experience as Tserenbat worked the room, starkly contrasting my first three dinners there. To his credit, surprises like Nikkei scallops — wafer-thin slices of raw Hokkaido scallops dressed in an assertive aji Amarillo sauce — and truffle salmon, lightly torched with soy, were terrific and probably would be no matter who ordered them.
Still, the experience can be transcendent when you're at the receiving end of Billy's gracious hospitality. Never mind that it can be both a beauty and curse. Phone your (famous) friend and go.
116 1st Av. N., Mpls., 612-886-1783, billysushi.net. Open 4:30-9 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 4:30-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Kado no Mise
It's unfair to point fingers at a North Loop restaurant by bemoaning the lack of standards as applied to sushi in the Midwest and comparing it to others on either coast. Some don't mean to be serious. Shigeyuki Furukawa, though, does.
His restaurant, Kado no Mise, which once resided where sister restaurant Sanjusan now lives, has moved upstairs — for the better. The seats have reduced dramatically. The more intimate sushi bar seats fewer than 10 and is open five nights a week. In 2017, when Kado opened, a lunch set used to include seven pieces of sushi and miso soup for $16. Now, menu options are $65, $105 or $145. Price hike notwithstanding, it has quietly become a league of its own.
That may be because Furukawa, alongside fellow chefs Shigeyuki Soma, Daisuke Ishizuka, Jeffrey Brunnette and Yo Hasegawa, have nearly perfected the art of a type of sushi called nigiri, in which a pressed rectangle of rice, half the size of a stick of butter, is draped with a thin cut of raw fish.
It's far more technical than it sounds. Furukawa's rice is lightly vinegared, warmed and loosely packed. Soy sauce is gently brushed over pristine slabs of fish; a tiny finger-swipe of wasabi hides underneath. If you sit at the bar, you'll get to sample each piece as it arrives. It's important that you do, because the varying temperatures of the rice can bring out the flickers of sweetness in each neta, or fish.
Only choice cuts are served, and precious they are: The belly of yellowtail (richer), during an early dinner, delivered pure elation. Either medium and fatty cuts of buttery tuna belly (chutoro and otoro) play recurrent parts in the show. There is uni, or sea urchin, and it's always from Hokkaido, an island in northern Japan. Other, less common varieties of fish — rare even among the toniest sushi-yas in New York — like Kamasu, or barracuda, and and kibinago, or baby herring with skin that gleams like aluminum — made novel yet memorable appearances. Barracuda has a gel-like texture and smoky aftertaste; the herring is lush, like mackerel but not oily.
The team run by Furukawa knows better than to serve fish as they are. On occasion, you might witness brief glimpses of creativity. They embellish and adorn, but do so with restraint.
Hirame, or flounder, a clean-tasting fish, is dotted with chiles along with chive; tai, or snapper, sang more brightly with a little sudachi, a type of Japanese citrus, and a dab of sea salt; scallops, pillowy, were accompanied with yuzu kosho, a kind of fermented chile paste made from the zest and juice of yuzu, a lime-like fruit.
Ten to 12 pieces of these nigiri in addition to a few wonderful hors d'oeuvres may not be substantial — the pieces are small as they are bite-sized — so a meal at Kado no Mise, at these prices, is an occasional indulgence. But rest assured, it will likely be enjoyed by all.
33 1st Av. N., Mpls., 612-338-1515, kadonomise.com. Open 6-9 p.m. Wed.-Sun.; reservations required.
Good sushi needn't be an expensive affair. For more everyday consumption, consider Ama Sushi, which opened at the end of last year at 50th and France.
Under the watchful eye of brothers Sonam Nyorie and Rinpo Yak, Tibetan immigrants who spent time working in multiple sushi restaurants on the East Coast, Ama serves solid fare at reasonable prices. While the fish used for nigiris and rolls are not as pristine as they are at Kado — and to a lesser extent, at Billy Sushi — they are priced to match ($8-$12) and are sturdy and well constructed.
Don't miss substantial mains, like udon in a flavorful broth, and their Tibetan staples, like the terrific momos.
5033 France Av. S., Mpls., 952-920-1547, amasushimn.com. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tue.-Fri., noon-9 p.m. Sat.-Sun.