Restaurant review: Rishi Sushi pops with fresh flavors

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From the April 3, 2014 edition

Rishi Sushi Kitchen and Bar takes fun seriously. Even saying “Rishi Sushi” aloud while attempting a straight face practically makes you slur into a smile. Then there’s Rishi’s Downtown space, which formerly housed ill-fated Fleur. Rishi worked hard to convert that odd-angled, two-floored building with the eye-catching wall of windows facing Third Street into someplace so full of fizzy whimsy, that the best descriptor for it would be an all-caps “POP.”

But here’s the really serious part: This newcomer, related to excellent Moshi Sushi in Bexley, serves food that’s fresh and compelling. So past chic and sleek accents, through a “Triplets of Bellville”-type soundtrack and “Frogger” green and creamsicle orange paint, and beyond cartoony side plates bearing goofy vegetable sloganeering (“I don’t carrot all!”), Rishi’s cuisine is worth seeking out.

There’s lots of communal seating at blond wood (and resin-topped) tables with rough-hewn detailing, plus a bar and sushi bar, but there are also two-tops and triple-date-accommodating round tables. If you prefer a more sequestered ambiance and/or duskier lighting, head upstairs.

To drink, I’d stick with the workable selection of popular wines, sakes and bottled beers. There are also unusual house cocktails with herbal tea-riffing names like “Calm.” Only you might not feel so calm after getting billed $13.50 for that OK smoky margarita. A more interesting cocktail was Rishi’s fruity, foamy, perfumey and four-boozes-in-it “Passion” (also $13.50).

When your friendly and well-trained server — they wear black T-shirts, jeans (I’ve seen acid-washed) and fanny packs (apparently “normcore” has hit Columbus) — announces specials, target the raw seafood. Because my huge Copps Island oysters ($1.75 apiece, served with intriguing homemade sauces), intense bluefin tuna sushi ($5) and lively “tatake”-style mackerel sashimi ($4) were all impressively fresh and prettily presented. Ditto for the other “straight-up” sushi I tried — like the beautiful Sashimi Lunch ($14, with much-above-average, shiitake-flavored miso soup).

Navigating Rishi’s “sui generis” menu — which focuses on appetizers, ramen and pricey Asian-fusion burgers — takes some careful reading. An easy-pleaser is the coarse-yet-creamy, nutty, thick and satisfying Edamame Hummus ($8). Even better was the small-meal-in-itself Ginseng Braised Short Ribs starter ($14; think super-tender, aromatic and sweet-detonated-comfort-bomb beef stew with a drinkable “sauce”). As for the melted-mozzarella-capped Kimchi Pancake ($6), mine just tasted like a nice potato pancake.

From the half-dozen ramens — they all have platitude-like names — I tried the pork-garnished “Live for the Moment” ($15). Though the broth wasn’t gurgling hot, layered with complex flavors or stippled with fat (confession: I was recently spoiled by all that at NYC’s Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop), Rishi’s gigantic crock was a success. Its lean, miso-and-shiitake-brown liquid base held lotsa goodies like: a slew of nice noodles, an exemplary soft-boiled soy-saucy egg, bits of properly mirin-marinated “chashu” pork, bok choy, corn, bean sprouts, scallions and nori.

From Rishi’s other main grouping, I ordered the Bibimbop Burger ($14, with fries). Served sorta Polynesian-style on unadorned wood, and overloaded with toppings (pretty sunny-side up egg atop a messy-to-eat jumble of sprouts, pickled daikon, lettuce, carrot sticks and greens), the burger was seared, extremely tender and hinted of a teriyaki-like marinade. The un-greasy handcut fries — which could’ve been a bit crisper — likewise ate almost as good as they looked.

Three other noteworthy features about this meal: 1) a lovely bun from the Angry Baker (who makes desserts here, like a waiter-recommended green tea tiramisu); 2) gochujang vividly replaced ketchup; and 3) it showcased Rishi’s own brand of serious fun.

Photos by Tim Johnson