Proximity may be the power of newly opened Nara Sushi, not that the artfully presented food doesn't deserve an audience.
Since Sakura closed in the same space six years ago, Manitoids have had to drive either up the pass (Woodland Park's Fusion Japan), over the hill (Jun's Centennial location) or at least down to Eighth Street (Sushi Ring II) for wasabi nose burns and elegant encounters with raw fish. Not that Manitoids are 31st Street's only consumers, but the hungry demographic in this case can't be ignored.
A keep-it-weird colleague was the first to report back with an enthusiastic review of Nara, in part noting the sharpness of the space: Dark tables and wood flooring about the sushi counter, lit underneath with a cool purple hue and framed before a burgundy wall. Decorations are tastefully sparse under a black drop-ceiling, and everything feels humble and modern, a nice plain canvas to place all focus on the colorful sushi platters.
Those come courtesy of co-owner Jay Chung, who formerly operated Samurai Japanese on North Academy Boulevard. Between Chung and his co-chefs, they bring a combined 40 years of experience that shows in all the tiny touches, from edible orchids as garnish to delicately carved orange segments presented post-meal, gratis.
At lunch, a sashimi salad of cucumber, seaweed and mixed fish (which is all we're told upon inquiry of what's what) defines lightness, while a "special sauce" with mayo in the mix perpetuates the intrigue. A deluxe bento box compartmentalizes all the usual accoutrements, spotlighting a broiled mackerel fillet that holds onto the sea with its salty fishiness, smacking a bit intense. Korean beef short ribs arrive atop a cabbage bed on cast iron, pricey at $15.95 for the portion, but bearing the flavor signatures of a proper marinade.
Dinner will put you out as much as any other sushi place, price-wise, but you can always stick to the cheaper, basic rolls. Like the C.U. Roll, a California roll topped in eel, or a salmon skin roll, which lacks the unctuous crispy crunch we're seeking, though fibrous veggies compensate for some body. Nearly double your dollar to get into the showpieces like The Big Ten or Nara House Roll. The former blends egg (tamago), Japanese gourd (kampyo). asparagus, cucumber, avocado and surimi (fake crab, despite the menu saying kani, real crab) to decent effect. The Nara represents better with tempura shrimp, tuna and crab topped in a spicy tuna and avocado wrap plus panko, sweet eel sauce and spicy mayo.
For supplements we dip four airy and delightful tempura shrimp sans the veggies the menu lists, and try jalapeño red snapper "chips" from a specials list. The pepper slices top tempura pieces of the fish, drizzled in a sweet sticky sauce and cut by spicy mayo over a cabbage tangle — nothing to complain about. Everything, unsurprisingly, pairs well with warm house sake or a Ku Mojito, a boozy, minty soju advertised on a table talker.
To finish we accept the recommended red bean tempura ice cream, which arrives like a child's fantasy under a sickly maraschino-cherry-topped whipped cream mound drizzled in Hershey's. The doughy batter mutes the ice cream's flavor, but still we mop it up in that guilty good way that forgives fault, 'cuz sugar.
Nara's not flawless, nor entirely forgettable, but it is perfectly situated for some, and as fine a sushi option for everyone else as anywhere else locally.