Courtside Grille added a sushi bar in October. A basketball game and other video diversions got the heave-ho in favor of a fairly modest sushi case fronted by a half dozen or so stools. The sushi menu broadens an already wide array of foods: burgers and other sandwiches, flatbreads and other more substantial entrees vie with nachos, wings and the fried nibblies common to the upscale sports bar idiom. • Trouble is, the plastic-wrapped fish in the case doesn't look too great; the "sushi chefs" are amateurish and don't engage with sushi bar patrons; plate presentations are messy and unattractive; and the signature rolls are often gloppy, sweet horror shows.
Courtside is in good company. I'm going to go ahead and call it: The most manhandled, corrupted and abased food that we've co-opted from elsewhere is the sushi roll. There are reasons for this. There's a big sushi boom in Japan (a substrain of which is "American sushi"), and countries like China have also developed a mania for raw fish. Sushi chefs, those who train for years in meticulous, Zen-like concentration, are less interested in plying their trade in the United States when there are so many good jobs closer to home.
Consider, too, American's love affair with fat, spiciness, sweetness and saltiness all in one bite. We have doctored the subtle ocean-breeze flavor of a swath of super-fresh fish on a finger of rice to accommodate our enthusiasm for these flavors. Think Tampa roll: fried grouper, scallion and mayonnaise.
And finally, anybody can get it in their head that a restaurant's business might be boosted by the addition of a sushi bar. A counter, some stools, a sharp knife and someone to wield it, and you're good to go. This doesn't mean that it's a good idea.
I'll start with the biggest bad idea at Courtside. The Candy Apple roll ($8.95) pairs salmon with green apple and a caramel sauce. Why, why, why? Add in a slip of Thai basil and cilantro and it's a train wreck of sweet flavors that serves only to make the fish taste fishy. Nearly as awful was a Hangin' 10 roll ($8.75) that rendered coconut shrimp inedibly gooey with cream cheese and orange marmalade. The sweet soy glazes and aiolis and eel sauces are like the BP oil spill swamping the fish.
We branched away from the rolls briefly to try something that sounded interesting. Firecracker oysters ($12.95) brought what looked like potato skins, broiled oysters under a heavy mantle of yellow, chili-tinged mayo and chopped bacon. A seriously sludgy yuck, we picked listlessly at them while having a workhorse miso soup ($3.75) and bowl of salted edamame ($3.95).
Not all was gloomy at the Courtside sushi bar. A pretty Lollipop roll ($11.50) brought skewers holding together pinwheels of cucumber corralling tuna, salmon and asparagus, the finished roll getting a judicious drizzle of amazu (a simple sauce of simmered rice vinegar, sugar and water).
Pleasant and visually appealing, that roll was not enough to convince me that Courtside's sushi efforts will compete effectively in an already crowded playing field. That caramel sauce alone is a serious technical foul.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.