First Impressions visits dining spots in the region that are new or have undergone recent transitions. Have a candidate for First Impressions? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org .
OK, let’s start with the elephant in the room – your name is Lou.
Lou. Sushi. It’s not often we see those words lined up side by side on a big sign.
But Louis Valente, the Italian American who loves making sushi so much that he thinks it may have something to do with reincarnation, is committed to tradition, is a stickler for precision, has put in his time learning at the feet of his mentors, and is ready to rock midtown with sushi of the highest order.
That’s the business plan, and Valente is committed to making it happen.
He’s humble. He’s hungry. And he’s gifted. Just ask the legion of followers who have been watching social media with interest as Valente was making the transition from sushi chef at Zen Sushi on 15th Street to owner/sushi chef at Lou’s Sushi on P Street.
Clearly, Valente has cachet and star potential. How much does he love and respect the craft? He was moved to tears watching “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.”
When we walked into Lou’s Sushi for a first visit, we were blinded – not by the aura that is Lou, but by the setting sun. On the to-do list: Order blinds for large west-facing window at front of building. Order mirrors for bathrooms.
But also on that list: Keep doing what you’re doing with the food. The sushi here is seriously good, has plenty of personality and is rife with creative touches while adhering to sushi traditions.
Valente’s sushi obsession dates to 1993, when he was in his early 20s and visited his first sushi joint in Los Angeles. He was mesmerized. The ambiance. The focus of the chefs. The way they moved. The beauty of the food.
“I knew I wanted to make it my career,” he told me during a phone conversation. At 23, he got a job washing dishes at a sushi restaurant in Malibu, but there were no non-Asians working in sushi back then. Then he got a lucky break – one of the sushi chefs broke his leg skiing. Valente had been watching and studying, and he got his chance. He spent two years working under his mentor, Go Kawano.
“To be honest, I think I might have been Japanese in another life,” he said with a laugh. “I took to it right away. I learned fast.”
When he moved to the Bay Area to attend the California Culinary Academy, he couldn’t get a job as a sushi chef, even though he had written references in Japanese.
“I got laughed out of every restaurant,” he said.
Valente’s perseverance is our reward. He opened his place Oct. 1.
Menu: There are about a dozen sushi rolls on the menu, a variety of specialty dishes, including some perfectly made vegetable tempura and a signature dish called the “L-Train,” a Valente creation that includes grilled asparagus wrapped with tuna, with snow crab, a shiso leaf and two types of garlic sauce. While there appear to be limited options for vegetarians, Valente says he enjoys making special items for vegetarians. Just ask. The nigiri options include sea urchin, fresh water eel, albacore, yellowtail and several others. There is also a selection of sashimi.
Price point: The prices appear to be competitive for the Sacramento marketplace, with sushi rolls ranging from $7 (veggie) to $15 for the very complex Mt. Fuji (more on that one in a minute). Nigiri is $5.50 to $9, and sashimi tops out at $20 for the uni, with all other fish varieties priced at $13.
Ambiance: Think quaint and cozy with a neighborhood feel. This is a sushi restaurant, not a sports bar. No TVs. No loud music. And Valente promises they’re ordering that window shade any day now. You can sit at the sushi bar and interact with Valente or get one of the tables if socializing with friends is more your thing. The place seats 30.
Drinks: There is a small selection of sake and a limited numbers of beers for now, but Lou’s is installing four taps and Valente says they are going to embrace craft beer – soon.
Service: Friendly, low-key, efficient.
First impressions: Once the sun dipped below the horizon, we had a pleasant if not enthralling meal, complete with tempura that was precisely prepared and a variety of rolls that showed plenty of Valente’s skill.
One of the signature sushi rolls here is surely going to be the Mt. Fuji, which is a visual treat to be certain – a roll with spicy tuna and asparagus enveloped by rice and topped with salmon and avocado. Valente stands each piece straight up in a circle and tops them with snow crab and finally, the big flourish, a plethora of tempura flakes that may remind you of snow.
The “Daniel, My Brother” reminded us of a Vietnamese spring roll, complete with salmon, asparagus and cucumber, and topped with shiso, striped bass and sriracha. This is a dynamic, intensely flavored and herbaceous roll that may overwhelm timid palates. We washed it down with one of two varieties of sake we shared that night.
Don’t overlook the seafood nachos, which are a spicy rendition of the chef’s choice seafood served over smashed avocado on triangles of crisply fried wontons. It’s a fun, delicious appetizer. The vegetable tempura, often made with haste at many a sushi joint, was uncommonly good here. The vegetables included broccoli, yam, zucchini, green bell pepper and carrot.
We arrived for an early weeknight dinner to find we had the place to ourselves, but as our meal progressed, the dining room filled to near-capacity. The vibe was low-key and non-club-like, meaning it’s easy to get serious about the food while still enjoying a laid-back neighborhood atmosphere.
Valente has a hand in every dish that arrives at the table. It’s a personal sushi place and, with his humble demeanor and respect for tradition, he’s an easy guy to like.
Try it if : You already applaud Valente’s skill with sushi and want to embrace a sushi joint that has a neighborhood feel.
Forget it if: You think there are already too many sushi places, and the last thing you need is another one.