ATLANTIC CITY - Most of the restaurants on the third floor level of The Pier Shops at Caesars have one thing in common - a spectacular view of the ocean and the Boardwalk.
At Souzai, you can relax in comfy, overstuffed chairs placed around the plate-glass-window perimeter, allowing the best view of them all.
We people-watched as the post-happy-hour crowd filed into the seats at the raised bar area, some in fashionable jeans and many dressed to the hilt in their New Jersey shore minimalist finery. T-shirts seemed de rigueur for the men. Taking in the view, Souzai is the place to see and be seen. And then, there is the food.
The menu was more than just sushi and sashimi, although there were many of those selections available. My dining companion loves sushi, but not the thought of eating raw fish, so a column titled "cooked nigiri" caught our attention. Unusual choices like mackerel, eel and octopus seemed less exotic in the cooked form, and shrimp, crabstick, blue crab and lobster appeared as recognizable alternatives.
We chose the now-classic California roll and a crunchy shrimp roll, along with some selections from the Asian kitchen (small plates) section to form a meal. We told our server to bring them out in any order they were ready. The small plates arrived in tandem.
We decide to taste from mild to spicy, only to find our first choice of seared tuna tataki ($14), which is normally bland, to be the spiciest of all. Raw tuna had been rolled in a crust of red spices and sesame seeds, incidentally seared then served with a ponzu dipping sauce and a bed of finely julienned beets. While we like heat, this crust was hot enough to overpower the delicate taste of good tuna. The lemon-soy dipping sauce couldn't quite quell the heat. Crispy soft-shell crab ($14) arrived on a sushi board with cuts of seared asparagus and spicy mayonnaise sauce. The fried soft-shell was cut into several lengths, using its legs as a guide, and making it easy to pick them up with our wooden chopsticks. A sweet soy glaze made the flavor absolutely divine, and the spicy mayonnaise added to the layers of flavor. This was a good choice.
Lastly, calamari with spicy mayo ($11) was a mound of black, sesame seed-crusted and deep-fried squid rings with a different spicy mayonnaise pre squirted over the top, all garnished with green scallion slices. The small plates all came from the open-air kitchen at the front of the pavilion, where you could sit at the sushi bar and watch the kitchen crew bang out the food. Our sushi waited on the table while we finished up our hot dishes.
California roll ($9) was the inverted-type roll with the rice on the outside of the nori wrapper and the classic garnishes of crabstick, avocado, sesame seeds and cucumber. Crabstick is made from a shaped white-fish concoction, typically North Atlantic pollock, that's dyed red on the outside and made to look like the meat in a King crab leg. Again, a fine choice for the non-raw-fish aficionados.
Better still was the crunchy shrimp ($14) composed of cooked shrimp, avocado, cucumbers, masago mayo, tempura flakes and eel sauce. Masago mayonnaise is made with Japanese mayonnaise, made slightly sweet with apple-cider vinegar, and spicy with Sriracha hot red-chili sauce. Tempura flakes are crunchy bits made by deep frying leftover tempura batter. Eel sauce is made from soy, sweet rice wine and honey. The resulting combination of tastes and textures explains why sushi has become uber-popular in the United States. The typical garnishes of pickled ginger, Japanese green horseradish and choice of low-sodium or regular soy sauce accompanied each sushi roll.
All servers were dressed in black from head to toe, very European, and our server sported a detectable accent from the former Soviet bloc. Music was slightly loud, American rock and roll. The kitchen/bar area was bamboo covered and templelike. And, of course, the food was Japanese-inspired. Nothing else about the concept or atmosphere elicited any flavors of the Far East unless you consider anything to the right of Passaic the far east.
Souzai offers both a happy hour from 4 to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, then again as a late-night affair, seven days. Sushi rolls, mixed drinks, beer and sake are all available at reduced prices.
(C.C. Hoyt is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Hoyt c/o Food Editor James Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.)
One Atlantic Ocean
The Pier Shops at Caesars
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday to Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday
Liquor license: Yes
Credit cards: Most major
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Sushi and sashimi, $6 to $20; small plates, $4 to $15; big plates/combos, $15 to $38
Our bill for two: $66 plus tip