Pure pleasure

Sushi rolling with the King  
By BRIAN DUFF  |  May 24, 2006

No virtue in history has been more overrated than purity. Sociologists recently found that teens who take a “purity pledge” are more likely to engage in unprotected sex, resulting in higher rates of teen pregnancy and STDs. They also lie more than other teens. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s desire for a political community based on the purity of the general will contributed to the totalitarian impulses of the French Revolution. Plato’s obsession with purity of form helped destroy everything messy and compelling about ancient Greek culture.

Modern Japan has its own problematic fixations on purity — a creepy preoccupation with the innocence of young girls, for example, and old-fashioned beliefs that the nation should be racially homogeneous. But the Japanese obsession with purity is perhaps most deeply rooted in its cuisine. Japanese chefs typically value clarity of flavor above all, and serve simple dishes with very few ingredients. This culinary philosophy is most strongly stated in sushi, where the freshest fish is served in the simplest of ways.

The recent California reinvention of the sushi roll attacks the Japanese obsession with purity right where it is strongest. Chefs there have created rolls that offer a mix of tastes and colors that pleasantly overwhelm the senses. By finding new combinations using eel, tuna, salmon, crab, avocado, asparagus, sweet barbecue sauce, and umami, these rolls are simultaneously unmistakably Japanese and completely unconcerned with purity.

One of California’s most popular spots for this art is the tiny King of the Roll restaurant in Marin, originally run by three or four brothers who all go by the name John Wayne. Recently the youngest John Wayne moved to Portland and opened up his own King of the Roll on Congress Street in the West End. It is a great addition to the sushi scene in town.

John is a charming host, calling out greetings and recommendations as he busily slices and rolls behind the counter. While the place was recently an Indian restaurant, you would never know it. Red paper lanterns, Japanese prints, comfy booths, and wood paneling give it the feel of a favorite spot that has been around for ages. There is a deck that looks a little scrappy with its white plastic furniture, but will probably be nice on a warm evening.

While John is a small man he makes a big roll. The dragon roll was a huge, decadent mélange of flavors and textures - a sweet, light shrimp tempura nestled with crab inside a roll of seaweed and rice, which was topped with barbecued eel and avocado and then further topped with big dollops of crunchy bright orange roe. While the dragon emphasized the sweet, the tuna tempura roll John recommended, this time topped with finely diced scallions, offered a spicier kick. The Casco Bay is been cooked with a light tempura coating and topped with a slightly sweet barbecue and mostly wasabi sauce. It was a mix of sweet and umami flavors that was completely unusual.

John likes sashimi and doesn’t eat many rolls. For other purists there is plenty on offer. The hamachi nigiri is light and buttery. It had clearly been made from the freshest yellowtail. Even better was a special John recommended: monkfish liver that is light, creamy, and subtle, like a Japanese foie gras.

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