Seaweed-wrapped gems

Dec 9, 1998 at 12:00 am

A sushi bar is part theater, where diners have front-row seats for the sensei's performance. It is also a magic act, performed with a tub of cold rice, an assortment of uncooked fish, a few vegetables.

Out of nothingness, little gems appear: A smoked eel rolled in rice and seaweed, or a slender enoki mushroom reclining on rice.

In Japan it is impolite to speak to the sensei, but at Nami in Ferndale chef and owner Simon Bennett cheerfully shares his enthusiasm. His hands are a blur as he explains menu items, or guides a newcomer in a beginner's assortment.

It is an entertaining and welcoming atmosphere. Each order is assembled on a board, with a mound of pickled ginger in one corner and a smaller mound of green wasabi in the other.

Begin with a slice of ginger to cleanse the palate. Then mix a bit of wasabi into a dish of soy sauce, but beware; wasabi will bring tears to your eyes. Dip the sushi and put it in your mouth whole, or you risk having it crumble into your lap.

The sushi comes in three categories: Nigiri, Rolls and Inside-Out. Nigiri are composed of a slice of raw fish draped languidly across a little pillow of vinegared rice, like an artist's model. At $1.25-$2.50 per, it's easy to run up a tab.

The rolls are more economical, starting at $2.25 for six pieces. Traditional rolls have an outer skin of papery black seaweed called nori. When they're sliced, inner treasures are revealed: A sliver of cucumber becomes a pale-green jewel.

Inside-Outs feature rice wrapped around the seaweed. This is the "contemporary" category, with names such as "Creamy California" and "Red Wing Roll."

My companion ordered octopus and sea urchin nigiri; I thought he was intentionally choosing things I wouldn't want to share, so I took over, checking off selections on a little form.

We tried the flounder, yellowtail and shitaki nigiri, the spicy tuna inside-out, and plum and cucumber roll.

To conclude, we had a square of egg custard, which comes on a cube of vinegared rice, tied together with a belt of seaweed.

The newly opened Nami has bright white walls and blue accents. Nami means "wave," which explains the mural on the wall.

The restaurant scored 100 percent in its health department inspection, which is important when you're eating raw fish.

On Saturday nights you can wait half an hour before your food appears, so have a bowl of miso-shiro soup and enjoy the show.

I ordered a Sobe Lizard Blizzard, a bottled drink which was fortified with zinc and echinacea and tasted like a piña colada. The green tea is served in American mugs, and was unfortunately lukewarm.

Bennett learned to make sushi at Little Tree in Royal Oak. For 11 months, he did nothing but make rice. Now his talents have free range; look for the quality of this gem to continue upward.