Rok on [restaurant review]

Rok Sushi stays on course after a dozen years

Rok Sushi managers Halle Johnson Lee Schardt in their restaurant’s dining deck, reenacting the famous scene from “Titanic,” when Jack holds Rose on the bow of the ship. Photo by JP Cordero

The dining decks in downtown Hermosa are generally nicely decorated, albeit without much personality because they’re designed to maximize seating. One stands out: the patio at Rok Sushi, which is shaped like a boat complete with a wheel out of a pirate movie. They lose a few seats as a result, but the design is eye-catching. Nothing else in town comes close in terms of whimsical style.

What makes this bit of set dressing even more unusual is that nothing else creative has happened at Rok Sushi for years. The décor is about the same as it was when the place opened in 2010, and that wasn’t much different from the way it looked when it was Club Sushi during the previous decade. The menu is a bit smaller since Covid hit but is otherwise unchanged from years ago, and is centered on recipes that happen to involve seafood rather than traditional Japanese sushi. Happily for the people at Rok Sushi, that’s exactly what locals like, and they’ve outlasted several other downtown competitors.

Diners have the choice of seating at the aforementioned fantasy boat outside, at the sushi bar, or at either low or high tables. In past years the sound level inside has been like a jackhammer, but they’ve lowered the volume and it’s a pleasant place to dine if you like 80’s pop music. We chose an indoor table and were assisted by a pleasant server named Lee who helped with recommendations, starting with a salmon skin salad, albacore and crispy onion carpaccio, and their odd version of fish tacos.

There’s no description on the menu to explain that last item, and it definitely wasn’t what we expected. Instead of the conventional tortilla the three “tacos” were made with crisped wonton skins with a filling of spicy seared fish, topped with sweet cabbage slaw and a slice of avocado. It’s a fun idea and it works very well.

The albacore carpaccio is another item that’s more interesting than the description would suggest. The word carpaccio is usually used to describe raw meat that is simply served with condiments to accompany the natural flavor, and it’s generally a minimalist item. Instead, the albacore was tossed in a sauce with thin raw onion slices, cilantro, and green onion and then topped with sesame seeds and crisp deep-fried onion shreds. You’ll want to eat this the second it arrives at your table, both because it’s delicious and because the fried onion loses its texture quickly. We liked the sauce so much that we ordered a side of rice to mop up the last of it.

The salmon skin salad at Rok Sushi. Photo by Richard Foss

The salmon skin salad completed the trio with a high-style presentation. This was a bed of greens and cucumber topped with tomato, daikon sprouts, salmon skin, shredded carrot, dried bonito flakes, and sesame seeds. The conical tower of food was lovely, and the simple but effective dressing of ponzu sauce and toasted sesame oil helped tie everything together.

If we had stopped right there, we would have given Rok Sushi top marks, but the sushi rolls that followed fell short of the mark set by the starters. The nigiri items we ordered, eel and masago, were tasty but a bit sloppily made, and the rice was not sticking together so they were unusually fragile. This problem was even more pronounced with the rolls. We had ordered three: the Hermosa Beach roll, Late Night Hermosa roll, and Manhattan roll. (Yes, we might have chosen those because they set a theme, we admit it.)

The Manhattan roll, made with shrimp tempura, cucumber, and avocado topped with slices of tuna, yellowtail, and seared salmon, was the simplest and best of the three. It had a tendency to fall apart but the flavor combination was solid. This problem was magnified in the Hermosa Beach roll, made with shrimp tempura, avocado, gobo root, and sprouts and topped with both spicy mayo and eel sauce. I liked the gobo root with the fish, but the middle of the roll had been drowned in sauce, which obscured the flavor and made it even more fragile. If the sauce had been a drizzle, this would have been a winner.

The nadir of the meal was the Late Night Hermosa roll of baked lobster and snow crab topped with baked scallop and garlic dynamite sauce. Once again, the sauce was applied too exuberantly, but that didn’t cover a fishy taste of oxidized seafood. I probably would have liked this if it had been made with a fresher product, but we were not fans of it as it was served.

The only dessert available on the day we visited was a fried banana, but we had filled up on appetizers and didn’t find this alluring. Our bill was about $50 per person with three flasks of sake, surprisingly modest for sushi a block from the beach. Rok Sushi has a distinctive style of modern sushi, and if you enjoy your fish with robust sauces it’s the place to be. I’d go back in a heartbeat for the starters and plan to explore the kitchen items on another trip, and would give the rolls another chance because we could have caught them on an off day. A place that has stayed in business this long and has so many fans must be doing a lot of things right.

 

Rok Sushi is at 1200 Hermosa Avenue at the corner of Pier. Open daily for dinner only. Hours vary, street parking or nearby structure. Beer, wine, and sake served. No reservations accepted. “(310) 798-4765. RokSushiKitchenHB.com. ER

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Written by: Richard Foss

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