Signature Blues

Like caviar and steak tartare, sushi appeared in the early Eighties as an elitist fad. The corporate business world shared it like stock tips; Valley girls served it as party favors. To young urban professionals sushi signified arrival at a certain lifestyle, where food, like life, was consumed at a raw, greedy pace.

Now, thanks to the law of supply and demand, and the fact that yuppies have gone the way of the turntable, sushi has dropped in price and risen in availability. Where once you had to drive miles for this delicacy, today you can have it delivered, like a pizza, to your door. And no longer restricted to restaurants, versions of tekka and kappa maki are popping up in cafeterias, supermarkets, and even baseball stadiums, alongside soft pretzels and beer.

For restaurateurs the downside of sushi's nationwide acceptance is obvious. Once a hot concept, sushi now needs promotion like any other familiar product ("Taste it again, for the first time"). Some owners have devoted themselves to the cuisine, developing dishes like the "bagel" roll (cream cheese and salmon wrapped in seaweed), which is apropos, since sushi has become as street-corner common as this breakfast of champions. Others advertise all-you-can-eat specials, which sound like a bargain until you realize the all-you-can-eat applies to the rice -- the fish lying atop it, thin and translucent as a ghost, costs you plenty.

But where sushi cuisine and concept are concerned, Kenny Million may have hit upon a nearly perfect combination. Owner of the Hollywood dinette Sushi Blues Cafe, Million (a stage name) three years ago had a vision: combine what has become "common man's cuisine" with the music that has always belonged to the people -- the blues.

Wednesday through Saturday, beginning at 8:30 p.m., the restaurant showcases live blues entertainment. The bands, plus the occasional jam with Million on sax, are the cafe's biggest draw. Tables fill early and don't turn over, as most of the restaurant's customers reserve the evening for this strangely unique combo.

And reservations are accepted, a new arrangement that certainly has some regulars surprised. Is this policy an answer to supply or a quest for demand? No one seemed interested in waiting for a table, no line spilled out the door one recent weeknight when I visited. This, however, could have been the fault of the early hour (8:00), especially since on weekend nights the restaurant rocks until two.

Sushi and the blues belong to the people, but shower-room decor? White tiles line the walls, and the oblong dining room does little to dispel the notion that you're eating in a giant bathing stall. And like the combination of sushi with the blues, nothing at first seems to go with anything else. A petrified blowfish with a trumpet pasted to its lips (if lips are what fish have), qualifies more as objet de fart than objet d'art. Jackson Pollock-inspired napkin holders adorn the tables with miscellaneous kitsch that even Jack the Dripper would have appreciated. On one side of the gallery, corkboards complete with thumb-tacked posters hang as if in a college corridor, while Seventies-style fishbowl lights illuminate operations like reachable moons.

The crowd is as eclectic as the interior design. Families nod to the neo-Harley generation -- upscale bikers in leather so clean it squeaks. Older couples dine civilly, chopsticks poised at the proper angle. Snooty singles, buoyed by happy hour after a rough day at the office, pose at the sushi bar for sake shots and potshots at the staff (I had heard rumors about uppity servers; in truth, I found the customers dished more attitude than the cafe's personnel, whom I found to be polite and helpful).

The jaunty, amused air of the place certainly makes up for its deficits, one of which is the very cuisine for which the cafe is named. Perhaps because of the difficulty in distinguishing between good and simply mediocre sushi (bad sushi is patently obvious), I found nothing remarkable to recommend this batch over that of any other neighborhood's spot. Still, what's offered is a pleasing indigenous selection including grouper, snapper, and conch ($1.25), shrimp ($1.50), and the unusual addition of wahoo ($1.50) -- the fastest and, some maintain, the most delicious fish in the ocean.

Rolls are offered in two styles: small cake-like slices and hand rolls, with not much difference (except in shape and price) between the two. The hand rolls -- tuna, California, salmon skin, Japanese bagel, vegetable, and barbecued eel and cucumber -- range from $1.50 to $2.75, and are on the average a dollar-and-a-half cheaper than the other variety. It all depends, of course, on your preference. The hand roll generally measures more seaweed to the square inch and poses a challenge to the self-conscious eater. Although it depends upon the company, I usually opt for the manageable, civilized slices. Interested parties might try an option unavailable in hand rolls: the "Yozo" roll ($4.75), an adventure of roe, asparagus, and mayonnaise.

And although sushi rates low on my list of first-date foods, Sushi Blues might be the appropriate venue for such an affair, not only because the loud music hinders the requisite and boring getting-to-know-you conversation, but also because the dinner menu contains a large selection of alternative (Japanese and Japanese-American), cooked meals. Extensive daily specials also add to your choices. These seem to be among the most popular, judging by the rapidity with which the waiters removed them from the specials display board the night I dined there. For example, I missed my opportunity to sample the broiled eggplant with miso sauce, as it was no longer offered by the time I was ready to order.

The Oriental dumplings ($3.75), however, in which I placed my faith for a fulfilling evening, were light as a tremolo and filled with seasoned vegetables that still held a hint of their individual flavors and textures. Accompanied by a subtle garlic-lime sauce, this three-piece dish best suited my tastes. The grilled sausage with Japanese mustard ($2.50) was also an able preparation, as smoky and well presented as the riffs produced by the band. Compared with the kamikaze salad ($4.75) -- a conch-and-cabbage mixture reminiscent of the Korean kim chee and as spicy as its name suggests -- the steamier selections were clearly superior.

In general, sticking to what's hot temperature-wise may be a good guideline to follow. The fish selections, particularly the broiled tuna with garlic-walnut sauce ($13.75), the standard tempura ($12.95), and teriyakis (for chicken, $11.50, steak and salmon $14.95) all satisfy the light eater with a penchant for pocket poverty -- the prices are bigger than the portions, and only cash is an acceptable form of payment. Served with a salad, a choice of white or brown rice, and a healthy helping of the blues, I considered the purchase of dinner more like a cover charge, and worth it.

SUSHI BLUES CAFE 1836 S. Young Circle, Hollywood, 929-9560. Open Monday -- Thursday from 6:00 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday from 6:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. Closed Sundays.


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