There's a pachinko machine mounted on a column at Ginko, the Tremont sushi bar that opened last October. It's a pinball-meets-slots arcade game popular in Japan and an expression of chef-owner Dante Boccuzzi's desire to evoke Tokyo's flashy, playful, futuristic spirit.
The snug basement space with just 40 seats under Restaurant Dante is dominated by a U-shaped bar with a glass surface. Beneath is a bed of water with stones, coins and fake fish. Chrome panels patterned with sparkly bubbles are suspended overhead. Shiny white and black tile and red vinyl cover three walls while the fourth is decorated with back-lit, brightly colored glass panels — an installation designed by artist GianCarlo Calicchia, Boccuzzi's business partner.
The flat-screen shows Godzilla and other old sci-fi movies, and the overall effect suggests a decorator equally inspired by Dr. Seuss and Hello Kitty.
But the menu is a very serious take on sushi, Japan's edible art form. The seafood, much of it flown in from Asia and Hawaii, is top quality. Taishi Noma, classically trained in Kyoto and working as a sushi chef in the U.S. for 18 years, is in charge. Knife skills are critical, and Noma watches over his staff, ensuring perfection in each slice of snapper and salmon.
It's logical to ask why Dante Boccuzzi, a Parma-born guy with Italian roots known for the edgy American food he serves upstairs, would open a restaurant specializing in raw fish and vinegared rice. He explains he got hooked on this way of eating in the late '90s during his time as executive chef at Nobu, a Japanese restaurant in Milan. He had dreamed of doing something like Ginko ever since coming home to Cleveland in 2007.
Now that he has, local sushi lovers have reason to rejoice. Everything is impeccable, from conception to execution, and every bite is beautiful. There's elegance to the simple sliver of cured mackerel (saba, $4), showiness (and crunch) in shrimp tempura and asparagus enveloped in edible soy paper ($9), and mystery to a dense black slab of pickled eggplant (nasu, $3).
Sushi is ordered and priced by the piece or in six-piece portions. This makes exploring the menu easy. Choose among traditional single-fish preparations and multi-ingredient combinations such as Ika Okura (squid and okra, $5).
The options are organized according to style of preparation: gunkan (ingredients held together by a seaweed collar), nigiri (on rice), otsukuri (no rice), and rolls (large seaweed wraps). I learned these meanings by asking. Staff members answered all my questions without making me feel self-conscious and were generous with advice about what to order and how to eat it.
The bartender turned me on to a specialty roll dubbed Eye of the Tiger ($10). Made with scallops, shiitake mushroom and burdock root, it lives up to the name with a pupil and iris fashioned from dabs of spicy mayo and reduced balsamic. Although it's a challenge, pop whole pieces in your mouth to experience all the wonderful flavors at once. Maguro Yamaimo Uzura, a dazzling matchup of tuna, yam and raw quail egg that becomes the "sauce" ($6), is best consumed the same way.
For those who will never eat raw fish, no matter how good I say it is, and don't much like it cooked either, there are plenty of excellent alternatives. Tomago sushi features a wedge of chilled, slightly sweet omelet stuffed with rice ($3). Vegetable tempura rolls have a fresh, clean taste and pleasantly crisp texture ($5-$6). Niku tataki is a thin slice of beef, seared rare, sprawled across a mound of rice like a diva on a divan ($5).
Shabu Shabu, available only at the two booths, each equipped with a hot plate hidden beneath a panel in the table, is a do-it-yourself deal (certified Angus beef $25, Wagyu beef $50). Diners put pieces of strip loin in hot dashi (broth) to cook along with cabbage, green onions and mushrooms. Two dipping sauces, ponzu with daikon and a sesame mustard, add dimension to the simple ingredients.
Beyond the center of your meal, blistered shisito peppers, some hot, some not ($8), are a palate-perking starter, and a scoop of lemony yuzu sorbet ($5) is a fine finish. For a cocktail, try the shiso martini, a shake-up of citrus, vodka and Cointreau. A bright green yushiso leaf, tasting of mint and eucalyptus, floats atop a layer of froth. The drink is just one more sign that Boccuzzi is offering something new with his diverse repertoire.