Restaurant review: Aoi

By Columbus Alive
From the November 24, 2011 edition

From the outside, a new local paragon of sushi-crafting called Aoi (it rhymes with wow-whee!) has an amusingly goofy, Googie-architecture-like pagoda look. Other first impressions arise from signs loudly advertising Aoi’s Blue Bar, a booze and dance-oriented lounge.

Inside, the mood is less flashy. Lighting is pleasant, especially from dropped bulbs in little fanciful wire cages that throw overlapping wavy shadows against walls. Perusing the rest of Aoi (it’s related to the excellent San-Su and its name is a Japanese word alluding to “blue”) can result in confusion: a quote by the towering logical philosopher Bertrand Russell is curiously featured; unappealing “shooters” combining honey-sweet Barenjager with sea urchin are prominently offered; iPads replete with beautiful food photos are bestowed upon every table, yet the printed blunt menu — which oddly includes Italian-ish pasta dishes — is rife with unfamiliar items that are barely, if at all, described.

OK, now forget all that and just remember this: The food at Aoi is pretty and delicious. Here, conspicuous imagination, impressively fresh fish in magnanimous portions and mad knife skills coalesce into edible sculptures.

Witness — and savor — the artfully carved Lollypops ($16). A savory adult twist on a sweet kiddie favorite, they’re paper-thin strips of juicy and crunchy cucumber wound snugly around tuna and salmon sashimi plus bits of crab stick. A tomato-y drizzle makes the delicate roulades even more lick-able.

The fusion-y Ceviche Salad ($14) was another feast for the eye and mouth. Generous amounts of silky, fatty, high-grade raw tuna lumps formed a loose pyramid with yellow peppers, good tomatoes and cucumber. Ginger, cilantro and pleasantly bitter citrus fueled the light and enticingly salty dressing.

Also lavished with an abundance of excellent fish — but on the much richer side — were the terrific Lobster Rolls ($15). The sweet and tender meat came in the form of two intact claws teamed with several sushi rolls enriching chopped lobster with avocado, mayo and crab stick. Flying fish roe, green onion and crispy, thin asparagus spears provided counterpoints.

Special occasion splurgers need look no further than the sensational Sushi for Two dinner ($53, but the price and number of diners are amendable). Arriving on an eye-catching wooden bridge you definitely want to cross, it’s a visually riveting smorgasbord of sashimi and sushi starring the killer Volcano roll. Aoi’s Volcano is like an array of jazzed up, avocado-draped California rolls crowned with warm, grilled fish, mayo and lava-red roe.

Seafood eschewers might target the lusty and luscious Crispy Pork ($9). Riffing on nigiri, they’re adroitly sliced pork belly pieces with phenomenally crackly, hard candy-like (charred skin) “shells” leading to deeply satisfying pig meat enhanced by a side of “spiced miso sauce.” These are absolutely fat-tastic.

Veggie-heads should enjoy nibbling on the glittering and ultra fresh Tofu ($9, a trio of silky slabs of soybean curd topped with spunky relishes) or the unusual — in a good way — vegetable tempura ($9). The latter was (marginally greasy) bands of veggies such as portobello, green beans and yellow peppers bundled together — like arrows in a quiver — by crisply fried tempura batter.

Now, what kind of rube would choose cheesecake for dessert in a sushi joint? My kind and yours, because the sushi-mimicking soft, light and fluffy Japanese-style cheesecake adorned with meticulously sliced ripe fruit Aoi serves is refreshing and thematically right on target.