Bluefin

It's not at the top of the sushi bar-ometer, but at this plain strip-mall room the fish is a phenom, surprisingly fine.

Posted: November 18, 2007

The Tuesday-nighters at Bluefin appear to be a force of foodie nature. Many restaurants crawl through this usually quiet weeknight restraining a yawn. But the regulars pour into this modest little Japanese BYOB in Plymouth Meeting with such steady and unrelenting force, the room threatens to erupt in spontaneous sushi combustion.

There are the raucous book-club ladies in the corner, downing edamame and colorful maki rolls as they discuss Eat Drink Pray. A pair of moms set up their full bar - big bottle of premium vodka, cranberry juice, shaker and martini glasses - while the teenage daughters debate whether to order the Davitch roll (salmon around crunchy spicy tuna) or the Rosnov (tuna over spicy veggies).

Not to be outdone, Eddie the wine guy has taken his regular seat at the corner of the sushi counter with his crew, flanked by a battery of white valises holding fine wine (not plutonium), a box of Spiegelau crystal brought from home, bottles of his preferred spring water, and a small case from which he withdraws his very own special chopsticks.

Yes, Bluefin is the first BYOCh I've encountered (they'll provide some if you don't travel with yours). But you'd never suspect such a scene was roiling behind Bluefin's unremarkable, film-darkened storefront, set into an aging strip mall off a bend in Germantown Pike.

The energy ratchets even higher each time the door opens throughout the night. Chef-owner Yong Kim shouts a beamingly enthusiastic greeting from the sushi bar, and another group - perhaps the Cooper party of eight? - files in for their regular table.

It's customers like this - not just Tuesday but every night - that have made Bluefin something of a suburban phenomenon, pumping its reputation to the point where it shares the same Zagat food rating as Morimoto, and has vaulted into the guide's collection of "America's Top Tables." It's an obvious case of Zagat-flation, where a core of devoted zealots have gotten carried away with love for their local haunt. That's not to say Bluefin isn't a worthy neighborhood destination for sushi. This plain little room has plenty of virtues, including a good selection of high-quality fish for a fair price, a few notable signature rolls, and a lively young staff that is friendly and efficient.

But let's put it in a fairer perspective. Bluefin is more solidly in the upper middle class of the local sushi scene than one of its elite destinations, such as Morimoto, Fuji or Sagami, whose rare ingredients or master craftsmanship set them apart.

Much of Bluefin's menu is in fact rather ordinary, from shumai and gyoza dumplings that aren't homemade, to humdrum teriyaki with one-dimensional sweet sauce, and frequently overwrought maki rolls that deliver a predictable riot of colors and crunch at the expense of simpler harmonies.

If Morimoto ever does come to mind (and Zagat's blurb invokes the connection), that's probably because many of Bluefin's best items were inspired almost directly, Kim says, by cookbook recipes from Nobu, where Morimoto once worked. The miso-marinated cod, the tempura-fried rock shrimp in spicy mayo, the toro tartare, as well as the new-style tuna tataki in soy-onion dressing, are a few examples.

Kim, who turns 30 this week, can't be blamed for following suggestions from his well-traveled patrons and going to the iconic source. Considering he is essentially self-taught - he'd only worked the sushi bar at Norristown's August Moon two days a week for a year before launching Bluefin with his family in 2000 - he does a very fine job.

I actually preferred his miso-marinated cod to Morimoto's because he avoided making the oily white flesh too sweet. The tuna tataki was also superb, the lightly seared steak splayed over matchsticks of mountain yam that added crunch and a characteristic milky ooze. The usuzukuri, a fan of gossamer fluke strips slicked with dark yuzu sauce and jalapeƱo paste, sparkled with delicacy, heat and tang.

The toro tuna tartare, though, was disappointing: The meat was minced into paste that lacked the luxurious chew of larger pieces. Ditto for the squishy toro scallion roll.

Contrasting textures and balanced flavors are crucial to the success of the best sushi rolls, and Bluefin can nail them with style and color. The Marlee roll, named for two customers, is a superb combination of tobiko-topped tuna around a core of spicy yellowtail and crunchy tempura flakes. The Ai Maki is a barbecued eel variation, but the warm, sweet eel over the cold yellowtail center adds a totally different dimension.

Yet other makis were too chaotic, like the mushy salmon and crab Halloween roll covered in black and orange tobiko, or the Noname II, which was an inelegant yellowtail-shrimp pile of tempura flakes and spicy mayo - overused flourishes here that quickly become redundant.

The craftsmanship of Bluefin's sushi also varies depending upon the chef. One night we received an uneven, falling-apart cucumber roll (how hard is that?) and sashimi that had been raggedly sliced.

A subsequent evening, though, the sashimi and sushi dinner brought a platter of poetry in fish - some cleverly contoured with diamond-shaped ridges that lent extra edges to each piece. Fans of ivory kanpachi tasted like butter. The silvery skin of aji horse mackerel was cut into a starburst of piquant flesh, a striking contrast to the pink sweetness of a neighboring sea trout. A raw tail of botan-ebi shrimp, served alongside its fried head, was a jewel of marine sweetness.

And then there was the tuna. It wasn't the restaurant's namesake bluefin, a luxury rarely behind this counter. It was a standard piece of bigeye - but it was beautiful and pristine.

And as that thick slice of deep purple flesh dissolved on my tongue, its cold smoothness melting like an exotic fruit, I was reminded by Bluefin how the seemingly ordinary can still deliver a thrill.

If you can get in on a Tuesday night.


Next week, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews the Silk City Diner in Northern Liberties. Contact him at claban@phillynews.com.

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