Carla Meyer

Dining review: Ninja Sushi in Roseville operates with precision

Sauces dominate Ninja Sushi’s “scallop lover" dish.
Sauces dominate Ninja Sushi’s “scallop lover" dish. cmeyer@sacbee.com

It takes one dinner at Ninja Sushi and Teriyaki in Roseville to see why the restaurant made the 2015 Yelp top 100 list for the country (at No. 63), and also topped the sushi category in a recent Sacramento News & Review “Best of the Burbs” poll.

There are a lot of F’s in the equation. Ninja is fresh, fast, fun, family-friendly and free. The free part, to be clear, extends only to complimentary miso soup and a green-tea and strawberry ice cream dessert. But both are remarkable along with being free.

The soup blends white and dark miso and vegetables into a deeply satisfying broth that offers a much-needed reminder that miso soup need not taste as if it came off a salt-factory assembly line. And the dessert – well, it’s ice cream on fried pastry with whipped cream, and there’s plenty of it.

These two items also speak to the larger experience at Ninja, where the menu is as thick as the Tokyo phone directory in Godzilla’s day. Miso falls, along with sushi and sashimi and (this is probably only for me) pepperfin, into the category of basic tests for any sushi restaurant – standards that must be passed. Desserts, along with rolls with cream cheese and deep-fried shrimp, fall under a separate category of “treats” – dishes that can be lovely but are not essential.

Chef and co-owner Steve Kwon, who opened Ninja Sushi and Teriyaki in August 2013 (the restaurant is not related to Ninja Sushis in Sacramento and Auburn, Kwon said), shows great affinity for both categories, though my companions and I – inexperienced with navigating Ninja’s large menu – got more of the latter than we wanted.

But the test period was glorious. Ninja’s sushi combo A, with 10 pieces of sashimi and eight pieces of sushi, included buttery ono and scallop, and was exuberantly fresh overall.

Pepperfin, which combines albacore and jalapeño, is my favorite dish at Mikuni. I order it every time I see it on any menu, though most other versions disappoint me. Not Kwon’s. He spent 10 years working at Mikuni, and his pepperfin is evocative of theirs, but better. Creamy chunks of tuna melt on the tongue, and Kwon’s citrus-y ponzu sauce tastes light even when combined, in this dish, with sesame oil.

A move into treat territory rewarded as well, at least initially. The Spiderman roll holds fried soft-shell crab that tastes less oily, and more recently fried, than similar ingredients on other restaurants’ rolls. Japanese mayo-based white and (spicy) orange sauces, along with a sweet teriyaki sauce, enhanced the roll without obscuring its flavor.

But this trio of sauces began to appear too often. Though its presence on the calorie-packed and already over-the-top ninja assassin roll – which combines crab salad, deep-fried shrimp, fresh salmon, cream cheese and avocado – was to be expected, it was less welcome in the “scallop lover” dish.

We ordered the scallop dish because it was listed, like the pepperfin, under “sushi specials.” We assumed this category was a shortcut to non-fried, lighter items. And the rich-tasting scallops were not fried, but rather seared enough to give them a tantalizing hint of crunch. But the dish held not just the trio but other sauces, weighing down the delicate scallops.

Ordering exactly to one’s taste from the Ninja menu, which is so packed with items there’s little room for comprehensive descriptions, might be a trial-and-error proposition, though one can be assured that even “errors” will be tasty enough.

One look around Kwon’s small restaurant explains why he has out-Mikuni’d the beloved local chain by offering even more variations on traditional sushi. Kwon’s small restaurant, in the same Pleasant Grove Boulevard shopping center as the Roseville Chando’s, is filled with families. And for those young palates averse to rice rolls even when their contents are fried and/or cheesy, Kwan offers a kids menu that includes corn dogs cut into sushi-roll pieces and served with fries in bento boxes.

The small restaurant’s decor tends toward darker colors, but there’s a sea-evoking blue glow beneath the sushi bar and a lightness to the atmosphere altogether. The energetic young servers are quick, upon a diner’s arrival, to bring out miso soup and to charm. One insisted that looks, and not the law, had prompted an inspection of the ID of a middle-aged patron who ordered a beer.

Kwon sometimes erupts into drum routines behind the sushi counter, using what sound like real drumsticks. He also turns the lights out so birthday celebrations are candle-lit, with patrons encouraged to sing “Happy Birthday” to strangers along with the staff.

Amid all this merriment lies a precise operation. Servers are meticulous about clearing plates and refilling drinks. Dishes come fast and at the correct temperature, whether their contents are raw or cooked. The meat in the teriyaki beef and chicken is tender and so juicy that the accompanying sauce probably is not necessary.

There were few instances of over- or under-cooking in the 15 dishes we tried over three visits. The squash in the mixed tempura was a bit hard, and the ramen tasted of too much hon dashi, resulting in an overly intense umami flavor. But that’s it.

Kwon is an exceptional talent, and the issues we encountered likely will disappear with greater knowledge of his menu. Next time, I will quiz servers more closely about what’s in each dish. Because there will be a next time, and more after that.

Ninja Sushi and Teriyaki

963 Pleasant Grove Blvd., Roseville. 916-784-3446. www.ninjasushiroseville.com

  • Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 5-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4:30-9:30 p.m. Sunday
  • Beverage options: Beer, including Kirin and Sapporo on tap, and wine and sake
  • Vegetarian friendly: Yes
  • Gluten-free options: Yes
  • Noise level: Moderate to loud
  • Ambiance: Though it does not look lively from its tinted-window, shopping-center exterior, or even from the dark decor inside, this is a boisterous place. All business halts so birthdays can be celebrated, and chef/co-owner Steve Kwon breaks into drum routines behind the counter.

Overall

It’s a happy place and the food is exceptionally fresh. Things eventually grew too saucy for us, but some of that had to do with a lack of familiarity with the restaurant’s giant menu, which does not spell out every ingredient in a dish.

Food

Sushi and sashimi taste fresh from the ocean, and the pepperfin appetizer is better than Mikuni’s. The miso soup is subtler in flavor and lighter on the salt than most restaurant miso soups. The rolls are tasty, but the sauces on them can become too much.

Service 1/2

The young servers are just familiar enough with diners to make things fun, without ever being intrusive. They bring dishes out fast and always are poised to refill drinks or clear plates. Though their efficiency must have a lot to do with the place being so busy, they never make the diner feel rushed.

Value

Prices are reasonable throughout, but especially reasonable when you factor in complimentary soup and dessert.

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