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Friday Night Sushi on a budget: Maru + Dolce Vita

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I was hounding the hounds yesterday because (as I said in another thread) I woke up Fri. morning with a hankering for sushi. Or, more accurately, I was craving flavors and textures that I associate with eating rolls in particular: delicate, soft fish, spicy wasabi, salty dipping sauces, gobs of peppery ginger shavings. But, as I said, I just blew a bunch of dough on paying off a traffic citation, so, alas, I figured I would try someplace other than my usual Uchi or Musashino. Others on this board suggested both Maru and the Korea Garden Sushi train: two mid-range options that I actually had in the back of my mind. Well, boyfriend vetoed the sushi train, and we wound up at Maru.

I parked on the street because the lot was full. Took this to be a good omen. Upon entering, a woman who looked like the boss asked us if the sushi bar was OK; it was. We sat ourselves a couple of seats away from the wall at the far end of the bar. A punk rock waitress soon brought menus + a Xeroxed ordering sheet, and asked for our drink order. FYI, Maru is no longer BYOB. I pointed to the shelf above the sushi bar, which displayed bottles of the types of sake and beer available. I indicated the bottle that was 5th from the left on the shelf: I had no idea what it was called, but recognized the label as a cold filtered sake that I'd had before and found totally passable. Our friendly (if a bit frazzled looking) server was unfamiliar with the sake selections, and it took her a minute to figure out which one we wanted. In her words, "No one ever orders those. People always just drink house sake..." Once she understood which sake we wanted, however, she was nice enough to let us know that a smaller, 300ml version was also available for $18.95, so we went with that one.

Sake came out, and was decent. Ordered: Snow Roll ( essentially a spicy tuna roll with white tuna draped on the outside), one spicy salmon roll, one toro/uni nigiri, an order of tofu+avocado roll, a few cucumber rolls, and an order of Age Tofu. I should note that we were immediately handed wooden boards with piles of ginger and "wasabi." These were obviously prepared in advance and left to sit out in the open. The ginger was drying out, and the green stuff was starting to harden and discolor a bit on the outside. Harbinger of things to come. THE GOOD: the Snow Roll. Not just passable, but actually pretty delicious! The white fish on the outside melted in my mouth; good enough not to need any condiments. The OK: the cucumber and tofu/avocado rolls were what you'd expect from a place like Zen: edible with lots of soy sauce and wasabi. Age Tofu: This dish had some potential. The crispy breading on the tofu had a decent texture. The broth, though, was not flavorful. Age Tofu broth is *supposed* to have a strong, umami-tastic dashi flavor. This was bland. Plus no daikon or dried bonito/other fish flakes on top like I am used to having. Not sure if this is standard, but it should be! The BAD: Saw bf take a bite of the toro, and he couldnt bite through it... the flesh was so stringy and tough that he literally had to tear hard at the fish to bite off a chunk. Then, there was that salmon roll. It came out and the first thing I thought was that it looked like someone had chopped cat food up on top of the rolls. Minced pink fish that... just didnt look right. I took a bite. The whole thing was lukewarm. Fish tasted like it had been sitting out a long time. BF said he took a bite and got a hunk of either bone or scale. When someone serves you bad fish, you just know. Did not eat any more of that.

The UGLY- OK, this is not related to the food itself, but definitely impacted my dining experience: A very obnoxious couple squeezed into the small (i.e. 4ft) space between me and the wall. No big deal, the place was crowded, I tried to make plenty of room. Throughout the meal, they proceeded to snippily tell (not ask) me to move over more, tried to get 2 more friends they saw to squeeze in next to me as well, and they also shouted (for several minutes) to more people they knew ACROSS the room. Not Maru's fault, but seriously. Manners people.

Other comments: had to ask for the check twice. No big deal, it's not like I was in a rush, but worth mentioning.

In summary: Don't think I'll be heading back to Maru. Really enjoyed that Snow Roll and the Rosedale location, but not enough counterweight to the cons I mentioned.

Epilogue: Needed to get the taste of cat food roll out of my mouth, so, headed to Dolce Vita. I know, I know, the place gets panned a lot, but, as a native Austinite, I appreciate Dolce for what it is: A Hyde Park mainstay that still has the "old austin" feel that I miss so much. Ordered: single espresso macchiato for me, one Campari cocktail (also for me!), Double cappuccino for boyfriend, ceramic pot of tiramisu to share. I have this to say about Dolce Vitas espresso: It's not great. But as someone who was a barista at several different places for many years, I can also say that this can be somewhat counteracted with: skill at timing/tamping shots, fresh dairy, and proper steaming technique. My barista last night made up for the less than stellar beans. Foam was dense. Bubbles microscopic. Shot had a nice caramelly head. Tiramisu: Eh. You know. Lady fingers were oversoaked, not a whole lot of flavour, texture was a bit off due to oversoaking, but it was fine. Campari cocktail: Woah! I am going to admit that I never order campari, and only got the drink because a character in a book I'm reading mentioned it, and I wanted to feel like I was in Italy, hehe. But I found this cocktail to be surprisingly delicious. Campari, grapefruit juice, (squirt of lime?) splash of soda in a highball with just the right amount of ice, garnished with a fat orange slice. I would definitely go back and order this again. Dolce was not too crowded. One of my favorite old Clinic records was playing in the background. Well groomed, charming servers, both male and female. A statuesque cocktail waitress (full disclosure, she is actually an acquaintance of mine that I didnt know worked there) went around asking each table if they needed anything else. Overall, a nice conclusion to the evening.

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  1. you know, i eat sushi about once a week (usually as a lunch deal, to keep the cost low) and have been noticing a stringy toro trend at three different northwest restaurants-- midori, osaka mansun & sushi sake.
    maybe they all share a supplier with maru, and the quality is on the downswing?

    also, was the white tuna albacore, or escolar?
    so many local places use escolar and call it white tuna.
    my body totally hates escolar.

    oh and i gave up ordering age tofu here in austin until i can find some place that does it the way i like it and am accustomed to.
    my expectations: silky tofu (some places do extra firm, and then it's too chewy), good batter (sometimes the tempura is way too thick), tasty sauce (gotta have a good dashi!) and toppings (i love bonito, but will accept scallions).

    i tend to stay northwest for my sushi fixes, but if you are more central, i do recall visiting ichiban a lot when i first moved here.
    they did age tofu right right way, and the sushi was really decent quality for mid-price.
    and, they had frequent diner cards so that you could earn free meals, which was really nice.