When it is done wrong, sushi is one of the easiest things to make; you plop fish on rice. When it is done right, though, it is one of the most difficult. Japanese sushi chefs train for years because each element of the simplest sushi should be flawless: the properly polished rice; the quality of the seafood; the purity of flavors.
Mostly, it's done wrong. Locally, only Wasabi, the pioneering sushi restaurant, consistently delivers; its maki in particular is perfectly composed, seamless and possibly the best bite in town. But there are only so many times you can make the Wasabi run (not really), so we're always watching for signs of another reliable sushi house. And when Red Sushi opened on King Street, word was encouraging, though mixed.
Happily, the intimate, dark dining room is calm. There is one red wall stretching behind the long sushi bar, but the rest of the long, narrow dining room is painted in a soothing tone of gray, offset by chunky wood tables and the pop of red dinette chairs. Most notable is the quiet. The fact that Red is free of the din that bounces off the walls of most new Madison restaurant cum clubs is an attraction in itself; you can, if you want, actually hold a conversation.
What you will probably be discussing is the oddly bipolar menu. Though it bills itself as a sushi house, and there is a snaking list of signature rolls, Red also dabbles in some Italian cuisine and even makes a slight Latin detour. Though we couldn't bring ourselves to order a $29 lobster and crab pappardelle in a Japanese kitchen, we did try the tuna bruschetta, and it was good. The fittingly sushi grade tuna was draped in beautiful slabs over properly grilled bread, which was a bit dry but a big improvement on the greasy croutons that too often pass for bruschetta. I would yank out the napa cabbage that cushions the tuna, and dulls its flavor, but otherwise this is a fine starter.
The black cod tostados, on the other hand, are a mistake. Served in fluted wonton skin cups, the very tiny pieces of taste-free black cod get buried by way too many tomato chunks doused in a cloying honey-lime dressing. Better to start, or finish, with a few pieces of sushi, very reasonably priced here at an average of $2.50 a piece. While the unagi sushi was too grainy, an escolar sushi was good, the escolar sweet and velvety.
The real attraction at Red, of course, is the epic choice of rolls. There are 21 signature rolls alone, and some of these sound way too baroque or quirky. And some of the quirkiest don't work. We avoided the bagel - a deep-fried Philly roll with wasabi mayo and spicy mayo on top - because a deep-fried maki with that much mayo should stay in Alabama. But we did opt for the Peking roll, and that was a mistake. Billed as a crispy duck, scallion and lettuce roll, topped with avocado and hoisin sauce, the result was inedible. The brown blob of rubbery duck had a half gamey, half sweetly funky flavor that tasted all wrong.
Surprisingly, though, what undermines some of the overcomplicated rolls are recessive flavors that don't taste like much of anything. The crab lover roll - spider roll topped with spicy crab - sounds good on paper, but the spider roll itself is too thickly battered, and even the spicy crab doesn't retrieve enough crabby taste to offset the abiding tempura crunch.
But there are some real successes among the maki as well, and if you order carefully you can put together a good little sushi feast at Red. Start with the white snow - a very busy roll packed with prawn, crab, fish eggs, green onions and spicy mayo, all topped with seared jumbo sea scallop. This threatens to be way too complicated, but it works; the silky scallop plays perfectly off the bundle of prawn and crab. Also fine is the shogun, a shrimp tempura and crab roll crowned with ebi, so that the two shrimps offer a memorable duet. Even a super volcano roll is strong. The tempura white fish, cream cheese (thankfully used sparingly) and avocado maki come topped this time with a sloppy eruption of baked crab, shrimp and scallops spread across the top of the roll like a casserole, and while this makes for messy, very rich eating (and actually a poorly composed roll), it all tastes surprisingly good. It's also a fitting climax to a Red Sushi meal.
The risks here don't always pay off. And I wouldn't make this my top sushi stop in Madison. But it would rank close to second, and that means some of the kitchen's risks are well worth taking.