When you're aiming to please the Charleston sushi customer, there are four ingredients necessary: cream cheese, mayonnaise, tempura flakes, and sweet glaze. So when it came time to design a signature roll for his restaurant, Wasabi on Daniel Island, Chef Johnny Chan opted not to use any of them.
A year later, the Daniel Island Roll ($10) is his bestseller. Granted, it's an easy swallow — seared tuna and spicy shrimp don't exactly rank as adventurous ingredients. But Chan dresses them up with a trio of niji ("rainbow") peppers and sweet onion, accompanied by avocado and ginger sauce for a flavor blast that frequently leaves customers exclaiming that it's their favorite roll — ever.
Trained in Hong Kong and Tokyo, Chan arrived in Charleston in 1996. His sushi was straightforward and traditional. With no cream cheese in sight, people around here didn't like it one bit. He left.
After a long stint in Los Angeles, Chan returned last year with a new hybrid of California-style and classic sushi. His favorite roll on Wasabi's regular menu is the Blowfish Maki ($10).
Serving the potentially poisonous blowfish in the U.S. is a no-no, so Chan found Japanese snapper to be an excellent substitute in both texture and taste. The fish's skin is lightly seared with a blowtorch, bringing out a smoky flavor that complements tobikko (flying fish roe), yellowtail tuna, and cucumber. Yuzu kosho, a sauce derived from a Japanese citrus yuzu and the mountain pepper kosho, lends the roll its signature kick, topped by a few pinches of Himalayan rock salt, shredded from a pink block atop the sushi bar.
The Blowfish Maki induces such a pleasant clearing of the sinuses that people who fear all things hot might have a revelation. It would seem an act of vandalism to mask the snapper's flavor by using soy sauce or wasabi.
"When I serve the Blowfish Maki, I suggest, 'Don't try dipping it in soy sauce first. Just try the original flavor,'" says Chan. "That's the whole point of this roll."
Other creators of specialty rolls echo that "leave it like it is" nudging. Chef Rhett Tanner of Savory Sushi isn't held back by rules and traditionalism. A Johnson & Wales grad, Tanner emphasizes that "sushi" simply implies the inclusion of seasoned rice. That means he doesn't hesitate to put the BBQ Duck Roll ($10) at the top of his sushi list. It wraps hoisin-sauced, slow-braised duck confit around roasted red peppers, tempura asparagus, and caramelized onion cream cheese. For the non-seafood lovers, the only factor left to surmount is the nori that holds it all together.
Savory's most exciting roll may be the Tijuana ($11), a mash-up of crab meat, sambal pepper sauce, and cilantro with shrimp sauce. It's all generously topped with a slab of buttery escolar, a sweet white fish with a steaky consistency akin to tuna. It's a delicious amalgamation of flavors. The Sexy Melon ($9) roll follows suit, pairing seared, lightly caramelized tuna with avocado and jalapeño-watermelon salsa. Born out of a Guerrilla Cuisine dinner that Tanner cooked for, the interplay of melon and tuna seems too divine to be such a recent discovery.
When Legare Farm watermelons are available, Tanner sources them from just down the road on Johns Island. In November, his ingredient of the month was Meyer lemons from an uncle's tree. He's even served wreckfish sashimi with sticky pineapple rice.
In pre-Savory days, Tanner worked at the Boathouse, where he trained current Caviar & Bananas sushi chef Karen Stabler. Primarily a to-go operation, Stabler had to integrate her creative streak with combinations that could withstand a few hours sit time before their consumption.
Hence the Southern Roll, a striking meld of shrimp, pimento cheese, red pepper, and spicy pecans. "It's a great combo of flavors and textures in things you wouldn't expect in sushi," says Stabler.
A dab of house-made pimento cheese doesn't overwhelm the roll, instead the cheese works intuitively with the crunchy cayenne and syrup flavor of the pecans and the sweet peppers.
Another of Stabler's specialty rolls, the Black and Tan, needs to be enjoyed on the spot. Black "forbidden" rice, once the exclusive indulgence of the Chinese emperor, harbors lobster, spicy tuna, and pineapple in its earthy, nutty confines. The entire roll is tempura battered and fried before it's cut into glorious bite sizes of decadence.
"It's not your usual spider roll," says Stabler. "We try to catch your eye and keep you coming back for more."
On the corner of King and Radcliffe streets, O-Ku has opened us to the possibilities of traditional sushi. Every Tuesday, a box arrives from the Tsukiji market in Tokyo. Chef Sean Park doesn't know what will be inside, but it's virtually guaranteed to contain four or five fish not available anywhere else in town.
"It surprises me when I open it, and I get to say, 'OK, I can do this with that and this with that,'" says Park. "It's just like the secret ingredients in Iron Chef." Recent customers on Wednesdays and Thursdays have sampled sashimi and carpaccio of the melt-in-your-mouth filefish and golden snapper.
O-Ku also utilizes the local waters, oftentimes offering soft-shell crabs, shrimp, and oysters from Raul's Seafood.
In addition to specials, O-Ku's regular menu is a healthy mix of standards and the borderline wacky. Sashimi Tacos ($13 for four) feature raw escolar, salmon, tuna, and yellowtail, diced together with vinegar-tinged persimmon salsa in a bite-sized crispy tortilla. The Harvest Roll is a tempura-lover's heaven. Pieces of a tuna and avocado roll are individually breaded and fried, then topped with a creamy purée of Fuji apple, kabocha squash, Korean pear, and eel sauce.
Although many an American sushi joint has draped steak over a roll, O-Ku ups the ante with their Kobe Roll. Upon close inspection, the meat atop a roll of crab salad and roasted bell peppers consists of two oh-so-thinly sliced pieces of barely seared steak. By the texture alone, a blindfolded taster would struggle to determine the species of fish atop their roll. Mingled with a balsamic truffle reduction sauce, it's a pure delight.
These days sushi is so mainstream you can pick it up at the grocery store, but the notion that it's all raw fish and chopsticks still keeps the unadventurous away. For nearly 15 years, Folly Beach's Sushi By Lisa has catered to the chicken-wing-loving bar crowd.
Founder Lisa Dixon left Folly Beach in 1995 for St. Thomas, where she found work in a sushi bar. Upon returning in '98, Dixon began setting up a mobile sushi station at Center Street restaurants and bars, as well as downtown's Trio Club and Moe's Crosstown. After a decade at Snapper Jack's, she recently moved her primary operation to the Drop In Deli, where she rolls an impressive menu for dinner-goers and drinkers from 6 p.m. until the crowd subsides every Tuesday through Friday.
Dixon's best sellers include the Flaming Scorpion (shrimp, cream cheese, mango, jalapeños, almonds, and teriyaki) and the Flying Dragon (similar to the Scorpion, with tuna and crab), but it's her specialty rolls that really raise eyebrows. She's turned old salts into sushi lovers by rolling up chicken wing meat with celery and blue cheese, or pulled pork with cole slaw.
Although she's a respected sushi chef (Dixon's been hired to cater the sets of Army Wives and the movie Radio) who could open her own restaurant, she enjoys the role of the word-of-mouth guerrilla-style sushi lady, even if that means less demand for personal favorites like baby octopus and uni (sea urchin roe).
Still, one positive experience for a timid sushi eater could lead to ordering Johnny Chan's live lobster at Wasabi and popping a bite into his mouth that's still wriggling around on the plate.
"Everybody has a rainbow roll. It's kind of boring," says Chan. "The first step is for people to learn how to enjoy sushi. Our sushi history here is just getting started."