With the growth of sushi bars all over Wellington, californian rolls are increasingly replacing sandwiches for lunch.
That may be so, but not all sushi is made using traditional Japanese-style methods and you're most likely to either take it away in a plastic container, or choose pieces from a revolving sushi train.
Enter Jeremy Wilson, owner of Shinobi Sushi Lounge. The former barman turned chef spent a year learning how to make sushi in Japan under a sushi master, before setting up his sushi bar in Vivian St three years ago.
Shinobi's point of difference is that Wilson is making traditional Japanese sushi using fresh local ingredients, and he is trying to replicate what you'd be able to order in a sushi bar in Tokyo or Osaka, although with a modern Kiwi twist.
Wilson decided to be part of Wellington On A Plate at the last minute, entering the Burger Wellington competition before he even knew what his burger would be. Little did he know that his burger would end up a finalist. The winner is being announced after a burger cook off today.
The day we visit to try his entry, the Shinobi Spicy Fish Burger ($16), Wilson is behind the bar cooking. Shinobi has booths and tables, but one of the nicest places to sit is at the bar, watching him and his team prepare and cook your food.
Service is a tad slow throughout, but that seems to be part of the relaxed vibe at this eatery, where funk music plays in the background. Red walls and dim lighting create ambience, again setting this place apart from your typical sushi bar.
I'm a bit daunted about eating a fish burger as I snacked an hour before so I'm not terribly hungry. But one of the nice surprises is that the Shinobi Spicy Fish Burger doesn't overwhelm my plate.
Like most Japanese food, the emphasis is on flavours - quality rather than quantity. The main feature is the spicy fish patty topped with a delicious kumara and red onion tempura patty. Salad greens and an avocado and tomato salsa give it further bite. Because it's served in a steamed bun, it tastes light and fresh, and I'm not left feeling weighed down afterwards.
Wilson wanted a contrast of flavours and manages to achieve this. Lotus root crisps and strips of marinated beetroot both decorate the plate and taste good.
The Japanese aren't renowned for their burgers but steamed buns are a staple , often served with pork or sweet fillings and called nikuman.
My friend chooses seared tuna which comes out on shredded daikon with cabbage ($19.50) She doesn't rave about her dish, saying that while the tuna is fresh and perfectly seared, the dish lacks flavour.
We also order a three-seaweed salad - wakame, tosaka and ogo-nori, with added mesclun. Unfortunately it's a bit heavy on the mesclun so tastes like a curious mix of a Japanese and Western salad.
Some of the other dishes being served look interesting, particularly the californian rolls which are sliced up and served along the plate to resemble a caterpillar - two mung beans on the front roll stick up like antennae.
A fortnight before, I went to Shinobi for lunch, sharing the Chuck Norris roll with a friend. It truly was melt in the mouth, combining spicy fish, surime, avocado, tempura battered and topped with katsuobushi (shaved dried tuna).
After three weeks of making steamed buns for his burger entry, Wilson told us: 'I don't want to see another steamed bun for a while."
Shinobi Sushi Lounge
43 Vivian St Wellington
Ph 381 4990
Try this: Chuck Norris roll ($16.50).
Hours: Lunch Tuesday to Friday, noon till 2pm; dinner nightly, from 6pm, closed Mondays.
Sounds: Ambient beats, a mix of reggae and funk.
Clientele: At lunchtime, a mix of students, office workers, and fulltime mums; by night, a melting pot of couples, small families and regulars.
- © Fairfax NZ News