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Published March 30th 2014
Sensual Sophistication of Sushi by the Seashore
Picture this. I'm tired, hot, hungry, and 30 minutes from home. I am in no mood to cook, I want to eat something healthy, and it's a Saturday afternoon. I need somewhere to chill out, where the vibe is cheap and cheerful, and the food is fresh and lovingly prepared. Yeah, right, good luck with that.
As it happens, I found all these things at Sushi on James. The staff are friendly, helpful and polite. The modern décor is crisp and functional, but somehow warm and welcoming. The food is fresh, tasty and inexpensive. It feels great to step through the door and be greeted by smiling staff who seem to like working there.
The sushi bar operates on the 'sushi train' system, where plated dishes go round and round on a revolving conveyor belt.
Some dishes are identified by signage, but for the others you either have to guess or ask the staff. You can tell the price of each dish by the colour of its plate. The idea is that you help yourself to as many plates as you like, and when you are finished, the waitress counts the different coloured plates to calculate the cost. Of course, you can keep a running total of your own expenditure as the pricing structure is clearly displayed on the wall. It is easy to keep yourself within budget or share with others.
I started my culinary journey with the light and refreshing $5.50 rice paper rolls with tofu (tofu, avocado, carrot, lettuce, vermicelli in rice paper). There was nothing special here, but the soft rice paper wrapping enclosed lots of lovely crunchy salad and the dipping sauce added the touch of sweet.
The $5 chicken schnitzel with avocado was the next casualty to fall foul of my frenzied chopsticks, but who could resist the trail of mayo and teriyaki sauce? chicken Katsu is a variant of tonkatsu (one of the most popular westernised Japanese dish in Japan, where it is made with crumbed boneless pork).
Food should be evocative, and the sight of such crispy golden fillets adorned with decadent slices of soft avocado tasted as good as it looked. For me it was a new twist on a familiar combination of comfort foods. Crunchy, soft, savoury and sweet. Yum.
The next plate I chose off the train had me intrigued by its unusual shape and presentation,, as it was clearly not sushi. It turned out to be the $4 crumbed sea scallops, a dish that would normally capture the sweet lusciousness of this delicate shellfish.
Unfortunately, the dish was supposed to be served hot, but these lovely crumbed morsels were now at room temperature and not that interesting anymore. I was surprised, and disappointed, but then I saw the 'hot' menu and realised I should have ordered a fresh plate. Sure, it was a rookie mistake, but next time I will know to ask for them hot.
I must admit that by this stage my belly was full. I felt relaxed. I was in such good spirits I even started a conversation with another diner who had somehow managed to find her way here for a quick bite after stepping off a flight from Melbourne.
Then I saw something slide past in all its pinky salmon glory, and I had to get a photo. Once I lifted the plastic dome, there was no going back. I had to have it. This solitary sushi sat all alone, a thin slice of salmon wrapped around a ball of rice and topped with salmon eggs and wasabi. The $6 salmon ikura ship puts decadence back on the menu.
I was unprepared for the fireworks of flavour erupting in my mouth, as the luscious salmon roe burst one by one. The taste was salty sensuality, evoking some evolutionary genetic memory of life in the Southern Ocean. Not as much fun as devouring Beluga caviar and chilled vodka shots on a Russian ship, but hey, that's another story. All I can tell you is that this experience was reminiscent of the restaurant scene with Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally.
My final dish was a perfect way to finish such a satisfying meal. I don't know how they list it on the menu, but the chef told me it was a sweet dish consisting of red bean paste inside a rice-based ball, dipped in black sesame. Google suggests the dish is daifuku, a glutinous rice cake stuffed with anko, a sweetened paste made from azuki beans. It was sweet, soft and pliable. Yummo.
The existence of so many Japanese restaurants and sushi bars up and down the coast is a flow-on effect from the 1980s. Back then, tourism operators targeted the lucrative Japanese market and this boom was enabled by a legion of Japanese interpreters, many of whom settled on the Gold Coast. Sushi on James is a modern expression of that Japanese influence.
The sleek, modern décor is on-trend, and my first thought was how much this looked like something out of The Block Fans vs Faves. From the blonde wood wall panelling to the fabulous pendant lightshades, this is a sophisticated and well-balanced space.
I like watching chefs at work, and it must be gruelling for them to work in a goldfish bowl, as the long open kitchen stretches from front to back down the centre of the room. Customers can help themselves to the range of dishes travelling on the 'sushi train' as it winds around the room, or order something special from the menu and watch it being made.
A long communal counter runs down one side of the central kitchen hub, with a row of stools to choose from. The other side includes a few intimate booths, just perfect for a business lunch or a casual first date. The clever use of mirrored walls towards the back of the room reflects the light and creates a feeling of spaciousness, without being the least bit tacky.
Sushi on James is tucked away between a beauty salon and a bottle shop, just around the corner from the coffee shop and directly across the road from the fishmongers. If you blink you can miss it, but it is one of the few places that stays open all day Saturday and Sunday, and the staff speak English too.