It's a little shocking how sushi has wiggled its way into the heart of America. The most expensive restaurant in the country is a sushi bar in New York; celebrities flock to hip L.A. spots where the actresses at the tables are thinner than the slices of hamachi. The most popular nights at dining halls are sushi nights, and even supermarkets in Ohio have sushi chefs making rolls. And then there is Sushi Cruise.
Three years ago, when I drove for the first time along Foothill, past what looked to be a rusty old lobstering trawler on dry land, I vowed never to set foot in a restaurant that is or looks like a boat unless it was physically on water. Yet now, a month before graduating, here I am, the food snob who is writing a senior thesis on restaurants, setting foot inside Sushi Cruise like many 5C students have done before me.
As I approach the door (with handles shaped like anchors, as they should be), I notice the exterior décor clearly hasn't been touched since Christmas: Fake Douglas fir branches were wrapped with Christmas lights. Upon entering at 8 p.m. on a Thursday night, the enormous sushi bar sits empty while the rest of the restaurant is completely full. The scene is like a trip to Wonderland—if Lewis Carroll modeled his imaginary world after Reno, Nevada. The walls are plastered with Polaroid pictures of people celebrating some ambiguous feat (what it is, I still cannot figure out).
The televisions are, of course, tuned to the Lakers game, and the music includes the soft hum of J. Lo and Pitbull, the perfect accompaniment to such tranquil, pristine cuisine as sushi. Apart from the Cruise's obvious exterior, its décor is far from nautical; there aren't even a few strands of barnacles hanging from the lights.
Would people go to Sushi Cruise if it was not shaped like a boat? Yes. First, because it's an all-you-can-eat restaurant. This is America, after all, and the only way to draw more people to a restaurant than an all-you-can-eat menu is if you serve it in a building that looks like a boat about to sink. Nobody goes to Sushi Cruise to have slices of tuna as deeply red as a sapphire jewel. You go here to eat a lot of sushi mixed in with the rush of a sake bomb.
These sake bombs are the second, but most common, reason for a visit to Sushi Cruise. Yet the restaurant strangely ruins the whole point of a sake bomb by already serving the sake inside the beer. Hence the sake bomb experience is just a sake-beer shot instead of a pulse-driving, heart-pumping, fraternity kamikaze act of banging fists and watching the chopsticks split like the Red Sea to allow the low grade sake to mingle with the cheap beer. Does anything speak more of college-aged restaurants than a real sake bomb? No, but you won't get it at Sushi Cruise.
For $21.95, diners can eat their way to the point of becoming a whale with all-you-can-eat sushi, tempura, teriyaki, udon, soba—you name it. As bizarre as the atmosphere is inside, the real mind-numbing part of a trip to Sushi Cruise comes when you choose off of the special rolls menu available Monday through Thursday. In creating these rolls, it seems the sushi chefs went to the grocery store across the street with a blindfold, bought whatever they put in their hands, and then attempted to make them into sushi.
Let's just say the results vary. A tempura roll of banana in the interior and salmon wrapped on the exterior called the “Hakuna Matata” happens to be exquisite. It takes a page from the banana lumpia dessert often eaten in the Philippines, but the salmon influence is beyond me. I eat more bananas a week than Curious George, and once had salmon for dinner for an entire week in Seattle, so the combination sent me to the moon. The “Las Vegas” roll does not fare as well with a spicy tuna, fried won ton, and cheese concoction that forced together too many ingredients. The “pizza” roll had nothing to do with pizza at all, featuring bland scallops on top of a California roll. One could even go with a BBQ rib roll with avocado that seems to break every rule of sushi-making. The simpler green mussel roll atop California rolls yet again failed due to a musty oft-putting taste of the green mussels themselves.
All of these head-spinning, sometimes stomach-churning special rolls led us to go for simpler sushi in our successive rounds. After all, sushi is meant to be simple: fish and rice. Unfortunately, the preparations showed the basic quality issues of an-all-you-can-eat enterprise. The hamachi was not shiny and bright, but dull and an almost bronze color. The spicy tuna had some kick, but it tasted like heavily mayonnaised tuna from a can instead of actual fish. At least the plain eel roll was enjoyable, as was the palate-cleaning mixed vegetable roll.
Ultimately, its not about the quality of the fish or the consistency of the dishes: This is the Sushi Cruise, and there's nothing really like it. The sushi chefs may not be Nobu or Masa- level sushi masters, but they are downright artists when it comes to some of these sushi rolls. Next time you see banana and salmon together, thank Sushi Cruise.