ST. PETERSBURG — Assessing the quality of a sushi restaurant is really pretty easy. Because more than in any other kind of restaurant, it comes down to just one question:
Is it fresh?
Other places can open up a can or pull something out of a freezer, and in many cases get away with it without any true slip in quality.
But with sushi, it is all pass/fail.
Certainly on the basis of fresh, clean-tasting fish, we can give Vue Sushi and Martini Bar, at the base of the currently nameless building previously known as the Bank of America building, a passing grade.
The best way to assess freshness is to get something simple, which means standard sashimi, which is sliced fish, or nigiri, which is a block of rice with fish on top. We tried three nigiri — eel, squid and roe — and all were well presented and met sushi standard for taste. Nothing was off, no metallic aftertaste. Standard sushi isn't something to be reinvented, so we're off to a good start.
With that done, we can look for other avenues of assessment.
Let's start with the view. For now, it's limited to the urban oasis of Central Avenue and Second Street. Well, unless you count the admittedly clever panoramic shots of downtown St. Petersburg that line the room at the ceiling line. The owners plan a lounge on the 19th floor of the building, possibly to open this month. Safe to assume the view that the name refers to will be more impressive up there.
Until then we'll make do with a classy street-level room, with high booths lining the windows, plenty of two-top tables through the restaurant and lounge-y sidewalk furnishings in the atrium area. The motif involves glass tile and red neon, which gives the place a nightclub feel, but sometimes isn't kind to the food. I had trouble more than once determining some of the ingredients of our rolls by sight because of the red reflections.
Sushi rolls are another good barometer, because they measure the creativity of the chefs in a way that nigiri can't.
The list of Vue's specialty rolls runs 24 long. To take personal preferences out of the equation, we ordered rolls that had locally inspired names, thinking that would give us the best shot at something original. So we got the Don, the View 19, the Buccaneer and the Rays' Special. And to indulge personal preferences, we threw in a Lobster Roll and a Surf and Turf Roll.
Coincidentally, cream cheese was a factor in our favorite and least favorite rolls. The Don ($8.50) was our favorite of the bunch. It features crispiness in fried shrimp, spiciness from jalapeno, sweetness from red pepper and just a little creaminess from cream cheese.
But that cream cheese was too prevalent in the Lobster Roll ($14) and the Buccaneer ($12), causing the other elements to get lost. The lobster one is a bit messy, with baked lobster meat on top of a California Roll. It isn't really what is evoked with the words "lobster roll," and the heavy dose of cream cheese muted everything else. Same goes for the Buccaneer, which has shrimp, salmon and imitation crab, but mostly cream cheese.
Obviously, the rolls are made to order. It is impossible to know if those rolls always get that much cream cheese, or if I got unlucky. It just became more obvious because the Don hit the mark with a much better ratio.
The View 19 ($11) roll was based on a standard spicy tuna roll, with a little eel and crunchy bits on top. The Rays' Special ($12) was sort of like a rainbow roll with all the kinds of fish — tuna, salmon and yellowtail — inside the roll, instead of on top. Both are solid efforts. The Surf and Turf ($14) had real jumbo lump crab inside the roll with filet mignon on the top. The menu says the steak is torched, but ours was solidly cooked through. Loved the crab, but the final product would have benefited from less heat on the meat.
The bar options center around sake-based mixed drinks. The Rising Sun ($8) was a good one, with the sake softened by ginger and simple syrup.
The prices are in line with other sushi places in the areas. That's almost surprising, considering the prime location and upscale environs. Order too many specialty rolls, though, and the bill jumps quickly. But just remember, raw fish isn't really something you want to get a deal on.
Jim Webster can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8746. He dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.