Philadelphia’s impressive dining scene just remedied its most glaring omission. On Thursday, chef Jesse Ito opened the back room at Royal Sushi & Izakaya, making good on the first half of the Queen Village restaurant’s name and giving the city its first real-deal sushi bar.
Yes, there’s already plenty of other places to get Japanese-inspired raw fish preparations. But even the best of them (Morimoto, Zama, Raw, Double Knot) lack something. Part of what makes a true high-end sushi bar special is that it’s the only thing in the room, allowing the deft handiwork of the chef behind the counter to double as entertainment.
Basically, it’s dinner and a show.
It turns out that Ito, who trained alongside his father Matt at Haddonfield’s respected Fuji Restaurant, is a star performer, one who now gets to work on a near-ideal stage.
“This side of the restaurant is the total opposite of the other,” he says, referring to the front room of the spot he co-owns with David Frank and Stephen Simons (of Cantina Los Caballitos, Triangle Tavern, Royal Tavern, etc.).
At front, the izakaya (essentially Japanese for gastropub) buzzes with boisterous noise. It’s dark and fun and full of people, either casually snacking or feasting on piles of small plates loaded with yakitori skewers, shumai dumplings, fried meats and vegetables and yes, some sushi. But the sushi isn’t the focus, it’s just sustenance that helps egg on the party atmosphere.
Walk through a black curtain to the back and you’re in a totally different zone. A sleek wood bar is the only thing in the quiet, calm room, and it’s brightly lit. Great for Instagram, but even better for watching what happens behind it. And unlike both Morimoto and Zama, where the chef’s counter is inexplicably half-hidden from customers, Royal Sushi’s is raised higher, set at eye level when you’re sitting on the stools. It’s a perfect vantage point to watch as Ito’s knife flicks and zips and turns long strips of sea flesh into miniature works of art.
There’s a menu, and you can order a la carte, but the best experience — and this is true at any real sushi bar — is to order the omakase. The word means “chef’s choice” or “tasting menu,” and the idea is that only the chef knows what is freshest on any particular night, so letting them choose what you get is the smart way to go.
Ito offers two sizes: An 18-piece nigirizushi omakase for $110, or a 10-piece mini omakase for $55 (a stellar deal). Advance reservation is usually required for either one, but on the first night of operation, some walk-in customers also got lucky.
The most interesting thing about sushi done well is how different each piece tastes and feels. Lightly torched and lemon-dressed King salmon belly had the texture of butter, while saba (mackerel) was meaty and rich beneath fresh-ground sesame seeds. Kohada (gizzard shad) was so light it almost sublimated on the tongue, leaving behind the lightest hint of the sea, but a medium-fatty cut of Turkish tuna (chu toro) had substantial bite. Live scallops jiggled when Ito smacked them, then went down like a savory jelly.
“It’s all in the cut,” Ito says, explaining that unless you know how to properly slice each kind of fish, the pieces can end up full of sinew. (This happens quite often in less-great sushi kitchens, not to mention all the places hopping on the trendy crudo/ceviche train.)
Each piece from behind the bar comes fully dressed with a painted-on sauce and wasabi on the rice, but your place setting also comes with personal portions of pickled ginger, wasabi and soy sauce, and Ito professes not to mind if you add more to his creations.
The wasabi is especially fun, since it’s not the fake stuff served with most maki rolls (a mix of horseradish, mustard and food coloring), but the real grated root. It’s smoother and grassier than its copycat, but still packs a punch. Lift the bright green mound to your nose and take a whiff — it feels like you could almost get high on the aroma.
The whole Royal Sushi & Izakaya sushi bar experience is intoxicating even without the help of booze, but if you’re into such things, the giant selection of rice wines do add enhancement. Servers help navigate the various sakes and shochus, even offering tastes before you decide on a glass or bottle. Like the rest of the meal, they’re not cheap, but a very worthy splurge.