Hi-Def Sushi: Sushi Haru puts the chef on stage and a spotlight on freshness

Sushi Haru
Prices: Moderate
Lunch (weekdays) and Dinner (Closed Sun.)
1035 Johnnie Dodds Blvd.
Mt. Pleasant
(843) 849-6743

At many restaurants, the best appetizer is the smell of cooking that hits you the minute you walk through the door — the smash of seared meat at a steak house, the rich aroma of fresh pies in the oven at a pizza joint. So how does a sushi place pull this off, where the food isn't cooked and, by all accounts, a strong smell is the last thing to be desired? Mt. Pleasant's Sushi Haru has a couple of interesting solutions.

The restaurant occupies a small storefront in the Fairmont Shopping Center on Johnnie Dodds Boulevard, the former home of the Vietnamese noodle bar Pho Bac. Now successfully reengineered in a Japanese motif, Sushi Haru has eight four-top tables and a low bar with stools along the counter at the back where the sushi chef works. The interior can charitably be called minimalist: nondescript green walls, a plain thin carpet, and white drop ceiling. The owners are slowly building out the décor, though, recently adding some brown Japanese-esqe molding to the walls, wrapping the reach-in drink cooler with more brown wood, and throwing in a few samurai swords and similar knick-knacks.

And to stimulate the appetite? A big flat screen TV is suspended over the sushi counter and a camera is aimed directly down at the prep board, allowing you to watch the chef as he works, an effective emphasis on the fresh preparation. Even craftier is the large collage on the side wall showing glossy color photographs of whole fish and untrimmed fillets along with the packing slip from the most recent shipment — a clever touch that suggests freshness and connects you more directly to your upcoming meal.

Sushi Haru's large menu has over 120 items, the more dramatic (and higher numbered) illustrated with brightly-colored photographs. At the low end of the numbers are the salads and appetizers, then you start getting into the traditional nigiri, then the basic rolls, the cooked stuff, and finally the fanciful "Special Rolls" with intriguing names like "Daddy's Girl" and "Russian Roulette." Off the numbered list are a selection of hibachi entrées including steak, chicken, and shrimp.

Going in, I was determined to try the live scallop, one of the house specialties chalked on the little blackboard over by the counter. This is a scallop about as fresh as it can get — scooped from the shell just moments before being brought to your plate, the next best thing to actually pulling it from the ocean yourself. But it wasn't to be. "I'm sorry," the waitress told us. "We're all out tonight."

Promising alternatives were uni (sea urchin), uzura (quail eggs), and giant clams, but we ended up anchoring our selection with toro, another rarity in Charleston but a featured attraction at good sushi restaurants in other parts of the country. Most bluefin tuna that you see on sushi menus is akami, the dark, leaner meat taken from the side of the fish. Toro is the fattier cut from the belly of the bluefin and is prized by sushi connoisseurs for its rich, buttery flavor. We figured it was a must-have, and filled out the white slip with our other choices and watched on the flat screen as they were rolled up by the chef.

The seaweed salad (No. 2, $5.49) is crisp and tangy and a good preview to the rest of the meal. The toro (No. 35, market price, which was $11.95 on my last visit) comes out in two long, rectangular pieces, pale pink in color — almost tan — and laid over a lump of white sushi rice and a thin layer of wasabi. The flavor is quite mild, especially compared to regular bluefin (maguro), and it is marbled through with thick veins of rich white fat, which give it a very tender, rich texture — one that almost seems to melt on your tongue. It's a smooth and subtle experience, but perhaps not so exceptional that it rates the high market price. A more economical option is the Paradise Scallop (No. 49, $5.49), a gunkan-maki style selection consisting of rice topped with chunks of scallop mixed with spicy orange roe and scallions and held together by a nori wrap into a tower of flavor. The combination works, with the firm texture of the scallops blending nicely with the spiciness and crunch of the roe.

As you move higher up in numbers on the menu, you start to leave the reservation. The Paradise Roll (No. 80, $11.50) is an ambitious six-piece creation with small chunks of bluefin tuna, salmon, yellow tail tuna, avocado, and scallions decorated with orange and yellow roe. The rolls are beautiful, but the sheer number of ingredients work against themselves, making it hard to distinguish the textures and flavors and blending everything into a rather bland whole. The TNT Roll (#71, $6.95) — spicy tuna rolled in rice, tempura fried, and drizzled with a sweet glaze sauce — is crispy with a tender spiciness in the middle. But, after the stirring freshness of the nigiri it's something of a let down. "A fish camp appetizer," my dining companion concluded, rather harshly. Two TNT rolls were the only items left uneaten on the platter at the end of the meal.

Just as we were making one last perusal of the menu and deciding if we had room for more (and at a sushi joint you always have room for more), the front door burst open and two men bustled through the dining room, lugging a massive five-foot-long white cardboard box between them. They disappeared back into the kitchen area, and a few moments later our waitress approached and said, "You can have live scallops now if you like." The shipment had arrived!


The live scallop ($7.50) is served in one half of the scallop shell, which is lined with three thin slices of lemon, then white rice, and a sprinkling of yellow roe. The two portions of scallop are thinly sliced and laid on top, garnished with a few green sprouts. The taste of the scallop is very clean and pure, with a tender buttery texture and just a hint of lemon from the slices at the bottom of the rice.

It was the perfect capper on the night, and before we left, the packing slip from the box that had just come in the door was posted on the wall — a little bit of theater at work. The delivery was from New York Fish House, an Elizabeth, N.J.-based supplier that delivers sushi-grade fish to over 2,000 restaurants in the United States.

In the end, the theater works, and the ultimate test is the flavor of the fish. For sushi fans, Sushi Haru is a fine addition to the Charleston dining scene, bringing a selection of hard-to-find fresh items and a chance for a little culinary adventurousness. Just stay low in the numbers.

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