DIY sushi specialty rolls help Sushi Iwa stand out

CorrespondentAugust 31, 2012 

  • More information Sushi Iwa 2026 Creekside Landing Drive, Apex 919-387-7022 Cuisine: sushi, pan-Asian Rating: **1/2 Prices: $$ Atmosphere: contemporary Asian bistro Noise level: moderate Service: friendly and well-trained Recommended: Bag of Gold, spicy tuna sandwich, specialty sushi rolls Open: Lunch and dinner daily. Reservations: accepted Other: full bar; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot. The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: *  *  *  *  *  Extraordinary *  *  *  *  Excellent. *  *  *  Above average. *  *  Average. *  Fair. The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

Crowd-sourced sushi rolls: I suppose we should have seen it coming.

After all, sushi bars owe much of their popularity in America to their willingness to adapt to Western palates and cater to our insatiable craving for novelty. And the sushi roll has proven to be their most effective delivery device.

They got us hooked on the California roll (gateway drug for the squeamish), and it wasn’t long before we were jonesing for a spicy tuna roll. Then it was on to the hard stuff: house specialty rolls. In their ongoing quest to one-up the competition, sushi chefs tantalized us with ever more outlandish ingredient combinations and a growing lexicon of fanciful names to match.

It was only a matter of time, though, before they would discover that, along with the Sea Monster, Red Dragon and Godzilla roll, they had created a monster of a different sort: a customer who is always looking for the next new thrill, devours a chef’s creations faster than he can come up with them, then deserts the place for the new sushi bar down the street.

Andi Wang and Alex Ng have a solution: let the customers create their own rolls. The sushi chef duo, who own Sushi Iwa with partner Clara Chin (she runs the front of the house), aren’t the first to come up with the idea. But they’ve taken it to a new level. They’ll not only make a roll to your specifications, but if they like it they’ll add it to the menu and let you name it.

So far, they’ve liked a lot of them. Sushi Iwa’s menu of specialty rolls has swollen to nearly 80 listings – a sizable and rapidly growing minority of them customer creations – since the restaurant opened a little over a year ago.

The selection is wildly eclectic, as you might imagine, with most rolls containing at least a half dozen ingredients. The Tarantula Wasp (crispy soft-shell crab, avocado and scallions, topped with seared tuna, jalapeño, spicy mayo and wasabi sauce) was a hit at our table recently. So was the Ho Mackerel (smoked salmon skin and tempura flakes, topped with seared mackerel, green onion and sweet soy citrus) – which I was told is another customer creation, though the menu doesn’t say so.

Traditional tastes are reasonably well served by an offering of nigiri sushi and sashimi that’s fairly standard for the most part. Fish and shellfish are consistently fresh-tasting, though a too-liberal hand with the rice vinegar marred the warm sushi rice that accompanied a chef’s sashimi selection recently. The list does contain a few pleasant surprises, notably a skillfully executed fried-head, raw-tail presentation of sweet shrimp.

You’d never guess it from the restaurant’s name (though the “bistro” in the website’s URL is a clue), but Sushi Iwa’s kitchen ventures freely outside Japanese territory.

Crab Rangoon and Vietnamese shrimp summer rolls mingle alongside edamame and age tofu on the appetizer list, where you’ll also find the contemporary pan-Asian delight Bag of Gold: crisp spring roll “purses” filled with minced chicken, crabmeat and scallion, served with a sweet-spicy dipping sauce. The Spicy Tuna Sandwich – a towering stack of barely seared minced tuna cake atop sliced avocado and a crisp rice cake – is another keeper.

The entree selection ventures even further afield, from Vietnamese pho to Hawaiian fried rice. Among the mere handful of Japanese dishes, stir-fried udon noodles are a better bet than tempura, whose dense batter is more evocative of fish and chips than it ought to be.

The bulk of the entree offering consists of dishes from China and Thailand. Based on the General Tso’s chicken, I’d say it’s a good bet most of the Chinese fare is on a par with what you’d get at a decent takeout shop.

Thai curries, on the other hand, are better than you’ll find in some dedicated Thai restaurants. The curry itself isn’t quite as exotically fragrant, perhaps, but it comes close enough to satisfy. Vegetables are bright and crisp, too, and the beef in the red curry I sampled was exceptionally tender.

Still, it’s the sushi – especially that diverse and ever-expanding list of crowd-sourced rolls – that is clearly the restaurant’s main draw. It doesn’t hurt that Sushi Iwa, like many Japanese restaurants nowadays, offers BOGO sushi all the time.

But I bet I know what you’re thinking. You’re already concocting your own roll, and thinking up a name for it, aren’t you? or

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