Carla Meyer

Dining review: Ho-hum Sushi Paradiso still searching for distinction

The chirashi-style sushi features a chef’s choice of raw fish served over rice.
The chirashi-style sushi features a chef’s choice of raw fish served over rice. Bee staff

Long before they open for business, restaurateurs start with a vision, followed by a plan. How will the restaurant look? What will it serve? What will compel people to support it?

If you’re going to do something with sushi, which seems to be on the verge of over-saturation in Sacramento, you’d better have a vision for rising above the competition.

Mike Jang, the owner of Sushi Paradiso, knew exactly what he wanted when he took over the downtown space once occupied by Trio, an under-appreciated restaurant owned by Gonul Blum doing a fusion of Turkish/Mediterranean fare. Blum moved to the Bay Area more than a year ago when her husband, a plastic surgeon, got a job transfer. Before that, the location was an under-performing eatery called Table 260.

Some observers prone to peering into restaurant windows to check on crowds (or empty seats) would be forgiven for concluding that this large and rather stylishly appointed space on busy J Street was snakebitten. Nothing seems to catch on there. Through the years, lunches might be decently crowded, but dinners remained distressingly desolate no matter what restaurant tried to make a go of it.

Jang decided to stand out by going upscale, telling The Bee that he was hiring sushi chefs from Beverly Hills and the Bay Area, and that he was only going to use “the freshest fish – the fish will be flown in from Japan.” Oh, and he peppered the menu with a smattering of Italian dishes, a seemingly eccentric move that would either change local culinary history or inspire audible gasps.

Several weeks after Sushi Paradiso opened in early 2014, I had a pasta dish alongside a selection of sushi and, after soldiering through this gooey rendition of carbonara (with shrimp, scallops and bacon), found myself leaning toward the gasping faction. I remember the sushi being decent, if unexceptional, and chalked up my experience as a bit weird. I noted that the dining room was nearly vacant.

It was a few months before I returned. The menu had expanded, but the concept was streamlined. The pasta was gone. That was a merciful decision. Before opening, Jang had told me that Sushi Paradiso was not going to be one of those “half-off sushi” joints. Yes, those places are ubiquitous and, yes, they have a stigma. During this second visit, I noted that the dining room was empty.

That’s when the plan showed signs of being reinvented. Suddenly, the menu noted that sushi rolls were 50 percent off. If upscale Japanese with an Italian twist wasn’t working, what would we have now?

Sadly, Sushi Paradiso has yet to achieve its vision for distinction, or a food style that’s energetic and with a sense of purpose. During one recent dinner visit, for instance, we felt as if we were intruding when we walked through the door and saw nothing but empty seats. An employee was sitting and taking a break. It was 7 p.m. on a Thursday, when, according to the website, “single ladies get half off drinks.”

Lunch sees more business and, even if Sushi Paradiso seems to have circled the wagons and scaled back its ambitions, this is when I can recommend a visit. The room is bustling enough to be fun, and the food, including a teriyaki chicken or thinly sliced, well-seasoned bulgogi beef, are good enough for a satisfying lunch. The poke salad, though small, was fresh and bright with spicy flavor, with plenty of plump ahi.

We found the tempura to be ordinary – a little bland and limp. The sushi rolls are adequate, but often very busy and muddled. Save for a sauce that is either rich or spicy, it is hard to distinguish one from the other. You can gobble them up and head back to work, full and maybe underwhelmed.

Dinner is another matter. At this point, I cannot recommend it as a viable option simply because the quality of the food does not hold up to superior competition like Lou’s Sushi. The dinner scene lacks the vibrancy and urban style of a place like Mikuni. Why would you eat at Sushi Paradiso? Most people need more of a reason than 50-percent-off rolls.

There are other issues. During one visit, several items on the menu were not available; some had been discontinued altogether, but the menu had not been revised. That just feels like a lack of effort. The chirashi sushi – a selection of fish set atop rice – was sub-par. The fish didn’t taste fresh, especially the salmon, and the rice had clearly been sitting for too long and was dry and dull.

The menu is replete with a long list of rolls – multiple ingredients loaded up with rice and sauces that often make it impossible to taste the fish or appreciate the textures. There may be a crunch from something deep-fried or a creaminess from avocado. If you like rolls, you’ll have dozens from which to choose. One night, we got the Ninja and the Samurai. One was spicy. One had a crunch.

There was a roll that stood out – the “Italian Dragon” – which is presumably a holdover from the Italian fusion theme. It has pesto (that tastes more like marinara) tucked in with the panko shrimp, crab, eel and rice. I would love to support creativity, even eccentricity, but this was more like a practical joke. Sushi should not share similarities with cafeteria chicken cacciatore that’s spent too much time under a heat lamp. We didn’t come close to finishing it.

Among the numerous rolls we tried, the Italian Dragon also was memorable because its shrimp, which had been battered and fried, looked a partially raw gray on the inside – not pink or white. Its taste suggested it had been separated from the sea for quite some time. Was this OK, we wondered? We inquired with the server, who was unsure. A sushi chef stopped by the table to inspect our roll. He bent over for a closer look and registered an expression that did not inspire confidence.

He said he didn’t know what kind of shrimp had been used, and shared our puzzlement about its ashen hue. “I’m not sure, but you should be OK,” he eventually said.

Was that a culinary statement? Or was he giving free medical advice?

After heading off to check on the kind of shrimp that was used, he returned moments later. “You should be OK,” he reiterated.

Let’s just say we weren’t reassured by his answer.

Nevertheless, it’s emblematic of what’s going on at Sushi Paradiso. It’s adequate for lunch. But the best we can say about dinner? The sushi rolls are 50 percent off, and if you eat them, you should be OK.

Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.

Sushi Paradiso

826 J St.

Sacramento

(916) 341-0321

www.sushiparadiso.com

Hours: 11a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 4-10 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday.

Beverage options: Wine and beer

Vegetarian friendly: Somewhat

Noise level: Quiet

Ambiance: Distressingly empty and quiet at dinner. The room is nicely decorated, with the focal point being a glass countertop at the sushi bar that is illuminated with LEDs.

Overall: 1/2

A decent option at lunch, but it’s often deserted at dinner. The rolls are now 50 percent off, suggesting this once ambitious new restaurant has retooled and retreated from its upscale vision.

Food 1/2

Ranges from decent to questionable. Too many sushi rolls don’t stand out. The classic sushi and nigiri do not showcase high-quality seafood and do not stack up to the competition.

Service

Friendly enough, but difficult to gauge, since the restaurant is often empty and our servers spent much of the time apologizing for being out of dishes we tried to order.

Value 1/2

Half off of ho-hum sushi has limited appeal. Most of the sushi rolls are now less than $10. The bulgogi bowl and spicy pork bowls for lunch were both $7. The small spicy poke salad seemed pricy at $14.

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