Spring, it would seem, has brought rebirth to University Properties as well as the trees. For more than a year, the space that once held Rainbow Café lay vacant and barren. Last night, however, that finally changed. A new sushi restaurant, the somewhat unimaginatively titled Sushi on Chapel, will now try to thrive in a city increasingly crowded with Japanese eateries.
As it stands, there are essentially three denominations of sushi in New Haven, led by the trifecta of Miso, Miya’s and Samurai. Miso is the seat of hip and trendy sushi, Miya’s the home of bold reinterpretation that is either genius or heretical and Samurai the den of cheap mediocrity. Each place appeals to a particular type of patron, as well: Miso, the New York/Los Angeles expat; Miya’s the adventurous and full wallet-ed (at least before the check arrives); and Samurai, the underage drinker.
Sushi on Chapel’s approach, however, is as simple and straight-forward as its name. Eschewing the glitz of Miso, the experimentation of Miya’s and the sake-bombing of Samurai, owner Brian Graham has created a restaurant of unassuming elegance and excellence.
Sushi on Chapel draws its strength not from innovation, but from confidence in the fundamentals. The miso soup is exceptional, striking a perfect balance of saltiness, broth and miso well complemented by the seaweed, scallions and tofu. Even the house salad, that classic and classically overlooked staple of the Japanese restaurant experience, finds its apogee in the capable hands of Sushi on Chapel’s chefs. The lettuce is shredded, allowing the ginger dressing to distribute evenly in the salad, resulting in a zesty mix of cold and crispy.
Not many of the rolls are particularly intricate. The Sexy Shrimp roll, made with lobster, avocado, shrimp and slivered lemon with wasabi sauce drew out the sweetness of the shrimp for a surprisingly light treat, but few of the other offerings match that level of complexity. Seven of the nearly 40 rolls are explicitly described as California rolls, adorned with a variety of fish and sauces as toppings. Many of the others are mere combinations of the classic sushi ingredients of tuna, salmon, yellowtail, crab, etc. Avocado appears frequently. The lack of more ambitious and varied creations may bore some, but these rolls are as delicious as they are uncomplicated. A handroll with avocado, crab, cucumber, crispy daikon shavings and spicy mayo arrived with its nori seaweed wrapping still crunchy — the mark of a skilled sushi chef and swift serving staff.
The sushi itself is the best in New Haven. The freshness and quality of the fish makes itself apparent the moment it arrives at the table, and it is paired with perfect sushi rice. The most fundamental component of good sushi, the sushi rice, all too often gets too little attention in the kitchen and way too much attention in the sushi itself. At Sushi on Chapel however, the rice is warm and sticky, delicately suffused with vinegar. When expertly matched with the fish and a dab of wasabi, the product is sublime.
Those without a taste for raw fish will not find a great deal of accommodation on the menu. All but one of the dishes listed as entrées involve sashimi, though there are a healthy handful of meaty appetizers, such as skewered chicken or beef rolled with scallions. A house special, the Bulgogi Dup Bup — sweetly marinated beef accompanied by rice, grilled peppers and radicchio — was good, though not as sizzling as hoped for from an item served in a “hot” stone bowl.
The wait staff is pleasant and solicitous, and the décor reveals a interior design savvy rarely found in the newer New Haven restaurants. The deep brown walls, sparingly decorated with delicate flowers matches well with the dark wood tables to create an atmosphere that is stylish but not slick. For a place with prices as moderate as Sushi on Chapel (moderate for a sushi place, that is), the patron receives a very high level of quality in all measures.
For a restaurant as young as Sushi on Chapel, which only officially opened last night after less than two weeks of a troubleshooting “soft open,” one can expect any manner of deficiencies that haven’t been addressed yet. In general, one has to be more forgiving. For Sushi on Chapel, however, there is little to forgive, and much to extol.