Picture this: You're sitting at the sushi bar at Mizu, mesmerized by the sushi chef as he deftly transforms slabs of tuna and clumps of vinegared rice into nigiri sushi. You watch as he places two pieces on a plate and -- here's where the trance is broken -- instead of handing the plate across to a customer, he sets it on one of the flatbed cars of a miniature train that circles the sushi bar on an oval track.
If you're like most people (including me), your first thought is "How cool!" But if you're a serious fan of sushi, a healthy dose of skepticism immediately follows. Experience has taught you that, when the food is part of the show -- dinner theater, for instance, or (ahem!) Japanese steakhouses -- the food all too often plays a secondary role. You may even recognize the miniature train as a twist on kaiten sushi, a sushi bar subgenre in which sushi is placed on plates that are color-coded according to price and set on a conveyor belt. Customers take the plates they want and are charged at the end of the meal according to the number and color of the plates they've accumulated.
Well, let me reassure skeptics with a hearty "All aboard!" I've boarded the train twice so far (metaphorically speaking, of course), and I've ridden it all over Mizu's far-flung map of sushi and Japanese steakhouse fare. I've sampled liberally from the train's cargo, as well as from the extensive a la carte menu. I've even taken a couple of off-menu detours to exotic destinations, including a succulent rendition of hamachi kama, the broiled yellowtail cheek whose very availability is a promising sign. In fact, with few exceptions, I can say that every destination I've visited, from sea urchin to salmon skin roll to Mizu's signature rendition of hibachi-grilled steak, has rated "worth a trip."
Owner Trung Vu is clearly a stickler about seafood. Across the board, his fish is high quality (and priced accordingly, in line with other area sushi bars) and irreproachably fresh-tasting. The selection is impressive, too: some two dozen sashimi and nigiri sushi options covering the spectrum from delicate white tuna to fragrant smoked salmon to unctuous toro. Surf clam is as sweet and tender as it should be, and mackerel as firm. Then there's the maki sushi offering, a list of more than 30 rolls that goes far beyond the usual suspects to include maki made with traditional -- but locally hard to find -- ingredients such as oshinko (pickled Chinese cabbage) and gobo (a root vegetable with a sweet, slightly pungent taste).
Vu is particular about ingredients used in the kitchen, too. He selects a top Choice grade of beef for the Mizu rib-eye, grills it to order and serves it whole under a tangle of sweet hibachi-grilled onions and a glaze of tamarind-tinged sauce that the waitress accurately describes as "similar to A-1 sauce." And pan-seared sea bass is as impeccable as any sashimi.
Mizu's train seldom jumps the track, and invariably sets itself aright almost before you've noticed the bump. Just as you're thinking that the crust is a little greasy on the deep-fried soft shell crabs, your waitress delivers tempura shrimp in commendably light, crispy jackets. Before disappointment at the paucity of seafood in your sunomono can set in, you're charmed by the spicy delights of a squid salad.
I should note that the train cars' payload represents only a fraction of Mizu's offering. To experience the full adventure, you'll want to offload sparingly from those cars and leave room for a la carte selections from the menu. And if you think you'll have a hard time resisting the hypnotic temptation of all those pretty plates rolling past you, I suggest you ask to be seated in a booth. Sitting there, in your own semiprivate dining car, Mizu's world is truly your oyster. And I promise you'll still be able to watch the train.