Review: Yumi’s Big Gamble – The silliness of massive ‘stunt sushi’ is self-evident, but the dish has many layers

The sushi is quantifiably bigger at Yumi, the new restaurant in St. Paul // Photo by Tj Turner

The sushi is quantifiably bigger at Yumi, the new restaurant in St. Paul // Photo by Tj Turner

Nearly a decade ago, I walked into a suburban restaurant and was greeted by a hostess eager to talk about the mussels special of the day. “The mussels today,” she said, her voice tingling with enthusiasm, “are huge!”

I’d eaten moules-frites up and down the Eastern Seaboard in previous years, and I’d never before heard mussels raved up for their sheer magnitude. Sure enough, the mussels of Edina were huge but not particularly good. Their sheer size, lack of flavor, and loose texture evoked the inside of a particularly full Kleenex.

This entire experience leapt to mind in recent months with the opening of Yumi’s new St. Paul location, the second one after its initial sushi restaurant in Excelsior. Press about Yumi has emphasized the Brobdingnagian size of the restaurant’s specialty rolls, and the hype isn’t wrong.

Feast your eyes on the Lollipop Roll, for example. For $24, you get a multilayered monster including: “Shrimp tempura, dynamite mix (fresh fish with jalapeños, garlic-chili paste, and scallions), and avocado wrapped with chef’s choice of six different types of fish and topped with eel sauce and spicy mayo.”

Wrapped with six different types of fish! Six!

Can the average diner differentiate six types of fish in one bite? Can the expert diner? How about six different kinds of fish drenched in a sugary eel sauce and a fatty spicy mayo?

Yumi’s Lollipop Roll (Left) and Lobster Roll (right) // Photo by Tj Turner

Just reading the description of this roll, traditional Japanese aesthetic principles seemed to stand just as much a chance as the hapless G.I.s in the opening sequence of “Saving Private Ryan.” Oh no! Minimalism just took it in the head! And elegance has drowned under the weight of six different kinds of fish! Has anybody seen Shinto reverence for nature? What’s that, you say? ‘Blasted,’ you say? ‘To shreds,’ you say?

I’m neither Japanese nor a trained sushi chef, however, so to confirm my hunch that we’ve departed from the norm with this stuff, I reached out to Koshiki Yonemura Smith of Tanpopo Studio, which leads small groups and custom trips to Japan. Yonemura Smith was born and raised in Japan, and she ran Tanpopo restaurant in Lowertown, St. Paul for 17 years. There she served some of the tastiest and most elegant examples of sushi I’ve been fortunate enough to eat in Minnesota. From her perspective, simplicity is the key, and that virtue sometimes runs counter to American tastes.

“I often struggle with this as I take clients to Japan for more ‘traditional sushi’ experiences,” she says. “People often would like to eat California rolls and crunchy rolls because that is the definition of what sushi is in the United States.”

Regarding the more elaborate creations, of which Yumi’s rolls are just particularly flamboyant examples, she says: “I’m not too sure if this type of sushi has caught on with Japanese diners. I don’t think so.”

The bar at Yumi in the former Fabulous Fern’s location in Saint Paul // Photo by Tj Turner

For the perspective of a current resident of Japan, I cued up the description of the Lollipop Roll and pinged an old high school friend: Quinlan Faris, who has spent the past 20 years living in Japan (currently, the northern city of Morioka) working as an interpreter, translator, and tourism consultant.

Without ruling out the possibility that this sort of thing might be served somewhere in the mega-city that is Tokyo, Faris notes: “I think what you describe would be rather weird. In Japan, the higher-end stuff tends to rely on the flavor of the ingredients and be incredibly simple. Japan values the individual flavor of the ingredients, and these American styles you described sound like they would mask the flavor of the fish, so it would be for cheaper sushi.”

For that reason, we’re hereby describing Yumi’s mega-rolls (and any other such monstrosities we eat in the future) as stunt sushi. They’re visually stunning and Instagram-ready, they’re massive, they’re ridiculous, and they’re “sushi” in much the same way that a New Jersey calzone is a Neapolitan pizza.

When we finally met the Lollipop Roll in the flesh, we sized it up warily, the way a State Fair judge might examine a gorgeous but 240-pound Polish frizzle. It looked lovely—a rainbow weave of fish, avocado, and vivid sauces. But each of its  eight massive circular slices also seemed to weigh about a quarter of a pound.

Bottoms up. Chopsticks were enough to get this thing up to and halfway into my mouth, but fingers and cheek pouch-expansion were required to get the whole thing loaded up. Sauce smeared everywhere. In terms of elegance: a perfect catastrophe.

And then, a frantic chew, a partial swallow, some more chewing and—wow. A terrific sweet-versus-heat balance, a complex tender texture, and surprisingly supple and gentle-tasting fish. Could I differentiate six varieties? Absolutely not. Could I differentiate ANY varieties in particular? Again, no. But as food, this stunt sushi was delicious. The overall effect was like taking a too-large bite of a particularly delicious and well-built poke bowl.

The same goes for the Double Dragon Roll ($22) which combines spicy tuna salad, snow crab, yellowfin tuna, snow-white tuna, burdock root, a thin slice of jalapeño pepper and a demure little squirt of sriracha. The jalapeño slice and sriracha brought some measured hot intensity that the cool sweetness of the crab and the clean richness of the tuna shone clearly, even through the mellow haze of heat. Again: chipmunk cheeks, and a bit of a culinary overload. But the effect was joyful, not deranged.

As much as we enjoyed the Lollipop and Double Dragon rolls, it was ultimately the Lobster Roll ($24) that won the stunt sushi blue ribbon. The flavor of lobster was completely missing in action in this blend of lobster salad, spicy tuna, shrimp tempura, avocado, and eel sauce, but we ultimately didn’t care—it had such a lively crunch, such a creamy texture, and such a measured, perfectly balanced sense of naturally spicy heat that every bite was sheer pleasure. The fact that it was slightly smaller than its stunt sushi compatriots was an added bonus, as it required less packing and smearing to get it stomach-bound.

The Lobster Roll, at Yumi on Cathedral Hill in Saint Paul // Photo by Tj Turner

Stunt sushi is the headline and it proves itself to be surprisingly plausible. But the more sedate aspects of Yumi are dialed in as well. We started one of our meals with an order of shrimp and vegetable tempura ($10) and it turned out to be among the best we’ve had in years—light, crisp, delicate, without even a hint of grease. The sweet potatoes shone in particular, gently tender without falling apart.

We balked a bit at the $15 price tag for six small maki rolls of negitoro, a dish of fatty tuna with scallions. But the fish was so luscious and smooth that we ended up appreciating them as a rare treat.

Avocado maki ($6) and sake nigiri (salmon, $5.75) were both on point, and while the tamago ($4.25) was much denser than any of these egg custard nigiri we’ve had anywhere else, we appreciated a new spin on a classic roll and the custard-like richness of the dish.

Yumi’s Tamago Nigiri paired with Sake Maki // Photo by Tj Turner

The absolute highlight of the night may have been the Kampachi nigiri (baby yellowtail, $8) which offered a gentle, creamy intensity that was instantly gratifying.

The only problem with Yumi’s sushi being this good is that it can create a  30–40 minute service bottleneck, even on weeknights, which points to a singular talent putting all this primo stuff on the plate as fast as he or she can manage.

When we asked Yumi’s press representative about who is leading the kitchen (and what their training might be) we got this response: “it’s more of the inspiration from original owner Yumi and the team execution” followed by a somehow even vaguer response after a second follow-up. Here’s hoping Yumi’s mystery chef isn’t a hired gun who leaves the scene after six rip-roaring months of top-notch food.

Yumi boasts an extensive Japanese whiskey list and even carries some Japanese vodkas and gins to boot, plus sake and wine. The cocktail list is manageable and the execution is passable: our Big in Japan ($11) brought together Suntory blended whisky and ginger liqueur with lemon sugar, and soda. It was light and refreshing almost to a fault and would have been perfect on a 90-degree day. And the Yumi Old Fashioned ($13) was a bit sweet and heavy on the orange, but it got the job done. We found the For Here or To Go ($14, and served in a Chinese restaurant take-out container) to be visually charming but culinarily dead—it was watery and slightly bitter and sat unconsumed on the table for more than an hour while our waitress served around it. On the positive side of the equation, the Yumi gin and tonic ($12, made with house tonic) was unusually good—aggressively astringent and even a bit pungent, but really satisfying and enjoyable despite that.

Shrimp and Vegetable Tempura with dipping sauce from Yuma // Photo by Tj Turner

It’s a tribute to Yumi that its new restaurant (even if it is a second location) is already as calm, welcoming, and organized as it appears to be—our dishes were reliably good, the standards were done with care and skill, and the creativity was off the charts. There is no question that American stunt sushi is a different animal entirely from its Japanese ancestor. But, to our surprise, this rowdy descendant is deserving of a ribbon on its own merits.

Yumi

Where: 400 Selby Avenue,
St. Paul

Web: yumisushibar.com

Phone: (651) 207-6810

Hours: Mon–Thu: 4pm–10pm; Fri & Sat: 4pm–mid; Sun: 4pm–9pm

 

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