Dining on the Rocks 

Sushi Rock's food is best experienced in the raw.

The sushi rocks convincingly. - WALTER  NOVAK
You can't argue with success. But that doesn't mean some people won't try.

Take the owners at Sushi Rock, the clubby bilevel sushi bar and "meet" market in the lively Warehouse District. From the front of the house, at least, the place gives every indication of being a hit among its mostly twentysomething clientele. A recent Thursday evening -- a night when many local restaurants struggle to keep the doors open -- finds Sushi Rock thoroughly alive with pulsating music and a handsome crowd of young people hoping to see and be seen. And on the following Friday night, the white-collar boys in their broad suspenders and the attendant flock of sleek young things (garbed, incidentally, in far less than a cold winter night in Cleveland would seem to dictate) are stacked up three and four deep at the small main-floor bar and fill nearly every table and booth in the upstairs and main-floor dining rooms.

They are drinking (EXP Syrah and Sapporo, Dortmunder Gold and Momokawa Pearl), flirting, and consuming plate after beautiful plate of very good sushi, freshly assembled by four intensely focused sushi chefs toiling in the rear of the noisy room. Among the chefs' good works are 20 types of nigirizushi and sashimi, another 22 kinds of makizushi, and 16 extravagant "big rolls," each with three or four or more types of fillings. (Ingredients in the impressive Sushi Rock Big Roll, for instance, include shrimp tempura, crabstick, salmon, spicy tuna, and asparagus, rolled "inside out" and garnished with glistening beads of juicy salmon roe.) Orders are artfully arranged on giant cobalt-blue glass platters, dotted with hillocks of green wasabi and golden pickled ginger, and sent off, chopsticks included, to the waiting masses -- who, one suspects, plan to fuel an extended evening of clubbing with the savory morsels.

Yet somehow, all of this bustle and business apparently isn't enough for Sushi Rock's owners. For some reason, they want the place to be a successful conventional dining room, to boot.

Thus far, they've missed the mark. Their first shot, dating back to the spot's March 2000 opening, involved Gregg Korney, a talented chef with a solid track record in area restaurants. However, Korney's over-the-top fusion menu -- built around tidbits like halibut cheeks, kumquat broth, and wasabi risotto -- was not only oddly conceived, but poorly executed. Not surprisingly, it flopped.

By December, Korney was out, and Scot Jones, Johnny's alumnus and former chef-owner of Fairlawn's Grappa's, was in as both top kitchen magician and general manager. Another talented chef. Another menu. And so far, another culinary misfire.

If Korney's fusion menu was too far out, at least it was conceptually appropriate for partnering with sushi. Jones's heavy Mediterranean fare, on the other hand, with its oppressive, gravy-like sauces and overblown flavors, exists in an entirely different corner of the culinary universe and, when paired with sushi, is about as pleasant as, say, beer with an orange-juice chaser.

It's true, of course, that sushi and more conventional foods can be successfully combined. As an example, look no further than the nearby Ritz-Carlton, where Century's classy little sushi bar turns out first-course morsels that work perfectly with the dining room's light, sophisticated, contemporary-fusion menu. Imagine a few bites of delicate tuna or tender yellowtail sushi, for instance, followed by a pristine filet of lemon-steamed Chilean sea bass on a bed of citrus-brushed fennel and dill, all nestled in a bamboo steamer basket. Now, imagine that same dainty sushi again, paired with pearly sea bass. But this time, the walnut-crusted fish is drenched in a thick red-pepper coulis (which, I swear, a companion insisted was Parmesan cheese sauce) and served on a bed of cracked peppercorn-infused roasted red pepper and asparagus that is so greasy, it leaves an oil slick on the plate. It's not a pretty picture, is it? But that's the way it's done at Sushi Rock.

The gustatory overkill runs throughout the menu. Among the appetizers, the natural delicacy of sea scallops is subjected to a barrage of blunders: First, the three plump scallops -- slightly overcooked and slightly gritty -- are blanketed in too much finely ground coffee, which overwhelms rather than enhances their innate goodness. Then they're paired with a fiery "Thai" salsa of mesclun greens, diced tomato, scallion, and red pepper, and finished with a blast of wasabi cream, resulting in a meltdown of flavors and textures that ultimately proves too incendiary to endure.

Similarly, a very good wild-mushroom turnover -- a large triangle of flaky pastry, stuffed with moist, finely chopped fungi -- and the fragile baby greens that accompany it are practically bludgeoned to death by the application of a heavy portobello cream sauce and a bit of greasy pesto. And an otherwise tasty entrée of juicy grilled pork tenderloin is improved not a whit by the oily, leaden red-skinned potato hash -- again spiked with too much black pepper -- that lies beneath it.

The list of oddities goes on. A thick beef tenderloin is given a crunchy, preternaturally sweet crust of sugar; a slightly overdone salmon filet is topped with a slab of unappealing horseradish-flavored breading; and a nicely browned portion of boneless free-range chicken is saddled with an anomalous lobster-and-chicken cream sauce. Only incidentals, like tasty veggie-studded mashed potatoes and a pleasant à la carte salad of baby greens, tossed in a bright orange-and-ginger dressing, seem to escape the kitchen's excess. Our good-looking waiter confided that few of the restaurant's guests order anything but sushi, and our own informal survey supported his claim: We spotted a few salads, a bowl of bisque, and an order of steamed mussels on the tables around us, but not a single entrée off the main menu. Now we know why.

It's a good bet that not too many guests stick around for dessert either, although this is an area where the kitchen, headed by Chef du Cuisine Courtney Churchin, seems reasonably well-grounded. Two petite Blueberry Cheesecake Tarts, in thick but remarkably tender graham cracker crusts, topped with a garnish of whole berries, are delicious served on a pool of fresh-tasting blueberry coulis. A modest-sized ginger-flavored crème brûlée is classically light and soothing. And two large pecan-crusted brownies, sided with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce, are pleasantly homey if perhaps a trifle too dry. (Skip the Bananas Foster, which tends to melt during the course of its often slow journey from kitchen to table.)

In contrast to the non-sushi menu, the restaurant's wine listing is, for the most part, thoughtfully designed, although we were surprised to find that vintage years aren't provided. Connoisseurs willing to pay $150 for a bottle of Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, will certainly want to know if it is the 1997 vintage or the less remarkable 1998 that they are considering. On the plus side, however, the list includes a delightfully broad assortment of alternative whites, including several Sauvignon Blancs, Gewürztraminers, and Viogniers, as well as a dry Riesling, a Pinot Gris, and a Pinot Grigio that are well-suited to sushi and seafood, and make a welcome alternative to Chardonnay. And the prices are generally right.

So with a happy crowd of patrons intent upon booze, sushi, and the cutie-pie on the bar stool to the left, why does Sushi Rock insist on trying to be a dining room, too? Probably, economics plays a part: A couple isn't likely to lay down more than $40 or so on sushi, but can easily fritter away $80 on the menu's appetizers, entrées, and desserts. But unless the kitchen finally hits upon the proper balance of style, flavor, and ingredients to appeal to discriminating diners, expect Sushi Rock to continue to founder on the shore of Cleveland's fine-dining scene.


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