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Raw Talent



Sushi first appeared in the historical record of Japan in the year 718. The ensuing centuries saw the cuisine's evolution into its current state, and a passion for raw fish slowly spread around the globe.

The Richmond region is home to more than a dozen sushi "bars," and I've sampled the unagi and sake at most of them. While I'm an admirer of sushi, it's my wife -- a disciple of the cuisine — who has driven our exploration of Richmond's offerings. I think the taboo on eating raw meat was the biggest challenge of her pregnancy, though she might disagree.

So I was eager for her feedback on the city's newest option, Carytown Sushi. Her response addressed location, décor and service, dwelling on our mutual pet peeve: the TV in a restaurant. But what about the food? "The fish? It was great," she said. "All sushi is great. It has to be. The bad stuff kills you."

She's right, of course, though she overstates the point. While there's bad pizza and OK pizza and spectacular pizza, the same gradations do not exist in the sushi world. The fear that prevents some conservative individuals from indulging in this delicacy is valid, and can only be overcome by an unwavering leap of faith. Sushi eaters enter an establishment with the highest expectations, and sushi bar owners recognize their end of the bargain. Their restaurants should be immaculate, their raw bars as orderly as surgical suites, their chefs as precise as neurologists.

And while special sushi rolls provide creative outlets via combinations of ingredients, plating and naming, most of the menus around town remain unvaried: spicy tuna, salmon with flying fish roe, smoked eel and (God forbid) the California roll.

At first glance, Carytown Sushi is completely in line with the sushi status quo for Richmond, which wouldn't make it a destination in and of itself. There's more memorable sushi around town, but maybe that's the crucial difference. I was surprised that it didn't offer more specialty rolls, and that the "sushi special platter" was unadorned on white oval china without much flair.

But the absence of "flair" and cheeky names for nori-wrapped creations may be a conscious decision on the part of the owners, extending the sleek efficiency of the place through the food. Everything I ate was fresh and good, plain and simple.

And when you visit — and surely if you live in Richmond and like sushi you will find yourself here before too long — stick with the sushi. Unlike some other local Japanese joints, there is no teppanyaki show; there's no room for chefs juggling shrimp over a hot griddle. There's also not much point in ordering anything hibachi or teriyaki here; you've had this stuff everywhere. The only purpose served by the non-sushi items is to provide a simple option for a member of your party who isn't up to seaweed and raw fish.

The choice of where to eat sushi, therefore, depends on numerous factors that are tangential to the food itself. Location is critical: Why drive across town for the same menu? And while the name Carytown Sushi may seem witless, it echoes its arrival as the first sushi option in a stretch of town heavy on other dining options including Italian, Indian and bushels of Thai.

Second to location, perhaps, is the draw of ambiance. Consider North Henrico County's Roda — a Buddhist oasis, complete with waterfall and rock garden — in contrast to the Fan's Akida, with its village kafe vibe. Carytown Sushi offers something different. The exterior is classy black and utterly nondescript, but the interior features a pleasing bamboo-and-granite minimalism. The space is tight. A narrow lane divides the single row of booths from the stocked liquor bar (the open sushi bar is in back). A large-screen TV dominates one wall. A techno-trance anime soundtrack pulses from the stereo. The combined energy is distinctly urban and distinctly un-Richmond. Add a little more neon and a livelier sidewalk crowd, and Carytown could claim a tiny taste of 21st-century Tokyo.

The spell is broken as soon as one emerges onto Cary, where the retail stores are bolted and dark at two minutes past 7 on a warm Saturday night. But Bev's is open and crowded a few doors down, and the Byrd is gleaming across the street. And perhaps this high-energy addition to the block will continue Carytown's conversion from an early-shuttered shopping district to a metropolitan cultural enclave. S

Carytown Sushi ($$)
2923 W. Cary St.

Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

Dinner: 5-10 p.m.
Saturday & Sunday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

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