Roku, Roku, Roku
The mantra for hot summer dining fun at Sushi Roku
By Erica Wayne 06/12/2014
Sushi Roku, a Pasadena landmark since 2000, is not one of the cheaper Japanese restaurants in town, but it’s definitely one of the best. Its Web site touts its affiliation with something called the Innovative Dining Group, 14 (mostly Los Angeles area) restaurants where you can “escape … for exceptional cuisine and rub shoulders with the ‘who’s who’ of the city.” Normally, such a description would send me running in the opposite direction, but luckily I only saw it last week, and we’ve been fans of Sushi Roku for years.
My shoulders have never rubbed with anyone’s, famous or otherwise, at Sushi Roku, thank goodness. In fact, since we tend to eat out at off-hours and off-days, especially in congested areas like Old Pasadena, Sushi Roku’s always seemed a bit of a haven from the madding crowd. My very favorite time to visit is at about 2 p.m. for a late lunch when the restaurant’s almost deserted.
For those who’ve never been to Sushi Roku (tucked away on the west side of the One Colorado complex), let me describe its drop-dead gorgeous entry lounge with hardwood floors, black upholstered furniture, freeform wood tables, colorful floral poufs, bamboo, palms, orchids and stag ferns. Low lighting, a gentle trickle of water from the L-shaped vertical fountain surrounding the bar area within, and soft jazz all soothe rather than syncopate.
Once you’ve passed through the lounge to the inner space, which houses the bar, its two adjacent dining spaces and the sushi bar, the décor is much more dramatic. The facing of the fountain and some walls are made of stacked flagstone, lighting is even lower (rice paper lanterns and small recessed lights) and the floor is carpeted.
Tables are well-placed, perfect for quiet conversation. The sushi bar extends along the far south wall, and a grouping of freestanding stone monoliths rises toward the rear. As soon as I’m seated I invariably fall into a kind of Zen meditative state; as I peruse the menu, my mind seems to repeat “roku, roku, roku” as a subvocal mantra.
Again, according to the Web site, Pasadena’s Sushi Roku (and its four sisters in Hollywood, Santa Monica, Las Vegas and Scottsdale, Ariz.) “combines the finest, freshest fish from pristine waters around the globe with the kind of artistry that can only be provided by a mature sushi chef ensuring superlative traditional sushi, together with a splash of California innovation.”
It’s “a pioneer of contemporary sushi, incorporating diverse, nontraditional ingredients … into its edible works of art. This unique culinary experience that bridges past and present is the result of an eagerness to embrace new ideas and a profound respect for tradition.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah, but, at heart, I’m a simple girl. And while appetizers such as salmon sashimi basil wrap with burrata cheese and red wine yuzo sauce ($16) or Hokkaido scallop sashimi with pink peppercorn olive oil and osetra caviar ($16) may delight some foodies, I’m more likely to listen to my mantra (the word “roku” in Japanese means “six”) and order one of the sushi combinations (a six-piece “ume” selection of “signature style” sushi is $25.)
These custom creations are beautiful as well as delicious since the Sushi Roku chefs’ talents for garnishing are unsurpassed. Both raw and cooked dishes come decorated with sprinklings of fried onions or seaweed, sprouts, caviar, garlic chips, sesame, etc. I’m equally pleased with their more conventional preps. To me, the restaurant’s best bargain is the “sushi six” lunch: slabs of glistening tuna, yellowtail, salmon, albacore and sea bream plus a fat shrimp perched on rice with spicy salmon or California roll and miso ($16).
Sushi Roku isn’t my choice for prime rib ($38) or even pan-fried spicy jumbo shrimp ($24). And I’ve had a minor disappointment with a fried ji-dori chicken “kara age” appetizer ($10) that was too tough and overcooked to be saved, even by the lovely herbed aioli that accompanied it. But, if you like sea urchin, they serve it with udon ($16), in a crab tart ($20) and sometimes as a special risotto topped with barbecued shrimp ($21).
Some other dishes, more unusual when the original (Hollywood) Sushi Roku’s menu was created back in 1997, can now be found at local Japanese restaurants like Oba and Kabuki, possibly for lower cost. One tip for frugal dining at Sushi Roku — lunch specials with miso cod, donburi with mixed sashimi, tuna, yellowtail and salmon sushi, tempura and teriyaki can be purchased for $10-$20.
For my money, though, what Sushi Roku offers that no other Japanese restaurant in town can match is tranquility. Come in for a late lunch or early dinner, order some truly fine seafood, an Asian cocktail (e.g.,“ginger lychee mojito,” made of Bacardi, mint, lychee, ginger and lime juice, or a “far east mule,” Bombay Sapphire East, lime juice, ginger beer, Thai basil and cucumber – each $12), and, as the Beatles put it, “turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.” Roku, roku, roku … n
33 Miller Alley,