I remember the old days of sushi in Charleston, careening across the rickety bridge to Mt. P with my future wife to hit the Oriental Garden, living in the attic of a house on Society Street and discovering that I could almost spit on Sushi Hiro, stumbling into Shi Ki for the first time after renting a movie at Blockbuster. Back then you had to travel to rent a movie and rewind the tape before returning it, and you had to go out of your way to get sushi. Now all of these things are either obsolete or ubiquitous.
Unlike VHS tapes, raw fish is everywhere, and like Italian food over the last 30 years, it's transformed into an Americanized, high-volume pop culture phenomenon, this time displaying a slightly more elevated environmental impact. Top sushi houses fly in product from the four corners of the earth, lower-priced joints get the slow boat stuff in the deep freeze and serve it up on all-you-can-eat lunch buffets, and fine dining places are trying to bend every local rule possible to serve creative "crudo."
But what we're all hoping for is something different. Some temple of Japanese gastronomy dedicated to creatively interpreting the sushi art, twisting it beyond rolls with corny names and ridiculously expensive fish laced with the fumes of an express mail jetliner. The new Zen Asian Fusion in West Ashley makes a prime candidate. It's an out-of-the-way joint near Citadel Mall. It's unpretentious, with no ego, no fanfare, except for the flaming bowls of liquor the size of a large pomelo, which two lovers were sharing the day I strode through the door with my 4-year-old, who likes these kinds of spots.
Is it kid-friendly? Yes. Does the neon bar scene, resembling a cross between the spots in Tom Cruise's Cocktail and Tron, look totally misplaced but representative of the coolest spot to hang out in West Ashley? Yes. Are James Beard award winners already hanging out there and telling others to do the same? Yes.
The dining room feels as over the top as the bar. And this is good. Bamboo sticks erupt from the middle of the room, and creative swirls of texture on the walls glitter with a shimmering light. It is dark and mysterious and playful at the same time, with a long sushi bar packed with chefs and servers. It throbs with a certain minimalist, wet rock aesthetic, very fire and ice and rather, well, zen. That, or a backup set for the next Kung Fu Panda film.
In the midst of it all, we loosened our belt and got to work quickly, moving through an assortment of appetizers and small plates: crispy Asian wings ($4.95) dusted with five spice powder, shrimp shumai ($4.95) that seemed fresh enough, gyoza with a good pan-fried edge, and an underwhelming "yellowtail jalapeño" ($11.95). I had high hopes for that last one, but it fell flat like the rest of the starters, relegated to the category of "well thought-out but poorly executed cuisine that should have been mind-blowing if not for the interplay of a hot plate, lukewarm fish, and tedious sauce." The starters all come on plates so large you'll mistakenly assume the dishes hold such exquisite flavor that they only require a couple of bites for you to be satisfied by their richness. But spending five bucks on three or four chicken wings perched in pyramidal fashion on a sterling white plate does not make them any more delicious than the ones I make at home in the Fry Daddy.
I had trouble ordering the sushi, primarily because they don't supply one of those handy checklists, and I had to sit there popping off the dozen we wanted to the waitress while she tapped her foot impatiently, waiting for us to decide. When the wife chimed in and a discussion over the merits of paying another five bucks for the egg omelet nigiri ensued, the server left altogether. She'd be back in 15 minutes, even if it took us only five to decide.
So we looked for better options. Perhaps the Thai basil beef ($11.50) (which my grandma has eaten three times now and declares a close second to Basil's downtown), or maybe the pad Thai ($12.25), an acceptable version of the classic dish except for the shrimp, which were so tough I wondered if they swam in from the Gulf, trying to outrun that epic oil spill. There are other options too, like the rolls. And then I realized that a Godzilla ($10.95), with its spicy tuna innards and avocado lashings draped atop, might show where the real talent here resides — and so we flowed back to the sushi, wishing that waitress would hurry up so we could just blurt out the first ten sushi items on the menu.
Or maybe we could just order an omakase? Imagine that. A place could actually skip the little sheet of paper, focus on a few creative offerings, made with fresh local ingredients, and leave things like the "Bagel" roll (not eating that) to the amateurs? The "Sushi & Sashimi Combo (For 2)" ($46.95) was as close as we were gonna get. But it's worlds ahead of the pack.
I knew this when my daughter started hyperventilating at the sight of a baseball-sized sculpture of a bird in flight freshly carved from a single carrot. It sat perched on a large platter filled with various cold, well-prepared sashimi, maki, nigiri, and even a handroll. The entire platter is a piece of elaborate showmanship, impressive in its theatricality and honest in its quality — probably aligned with the universal chakras of the collective consciousness, but I was too dumb to know it. Its wispy grass tassels and crystalline ice bed will leave you wondering if it's an edible sculpture or perhaps a set piece for a feng shui magazine shoot in Martha Stewart Living.
It is the holy grail of Zen — the standard order from now on. And it comes bearing gifts. I saw a woman in the booth next door stash a colorful, oversized scallop shell into her purse before heading for the door. Our bird was decapitated by my eager child within three minutes of arrival, and the only thing I could use our shell for was an ashtray, so I left it alone.
Zen possesses the best quality sushi west of the Ashley by far and can compete with anyone in town at any price level, which is quite the bargain these days considering the competition. What it lacks is service and focus. They have an oversized menu (in quantity and diversity) and lack execution. They bring 15 dishes to the table to serve three people and then stack them up in your face like a teetering Jenga tower before carting them away. The only remedy seems to be those flaming bowls of liquor. My neighbors sucked down three the last time I visited. Next time I go, I'm calling mine in ahead of time, so it's waiting for me upon arrival. Then I'm ordering the fish special and asking the waitress to give me the bird.