For a chef, creating a signature dish is like an actor being typecast. Once you’re known as a comedian or a villain, that’s just how it is. Once you’ve played George Costanza, that’s who you are.
For Ben Smith at Tsunami, it’s the sea bass. Whether he relishes or rues the day he created the dish, it’s of little matter. It will stay on the menu, at more than double the price of some of the other entrees, and we the diners will gratefully shell out the 35 clams it takes to satisfy our craving for the silky textured fish, perfectly seared and balanced on a bed of sticky black rice, a delectable island surrounded by a sea of soy beurre blanc.
It’s insanely good, one of the best dishes in town.
But it’s not the only good thing on the menu at Tsunami, which last month marked 15 years in business on Cooper,
Just a stone’s toss north of Young, the city’s culinary crossroads. I’d challenge you to find something that’s not good, in fact, and full houses most nights tell me that folks are still finding plenty to like, even after all these years and with such stellar competition in the immediate vicinity.
The small plates at Tsunami are not shareable tapas-style plates. There are appetizers and izakaya for that. The small plates are, instead, perfectly proportioned meals, and, I believe, part of Tsunami’s great appeal. Many of us love food and want to try a variety of items at a restaurant but don’t want to be stuffed.
Small plates come with a protein, such as tuna, pompano or a petite filet, a small serving of starch, perhaps a tiny scoop of rice or a few potato croquettes, and vegetables. The price is right, in the $17-$18 range.
We ate a lovely small plate (these change frequently) of seared tuna, served with that delicious black Thai rice that comes with the sea bass, a fragrant and creamy curry sauce, and a few Panko-crusted green beans on the side.
My dinners are always shared, as I try everything on the table and share my plate, too, but this meal would have been the ideal size for me on its own.
On another visit, the small plate with pompano and shiitake mushrooms, while delicious, was only barely eaten because my friend and I showed no restraint with the appetizer and izakaya menu. None.
Izakaya is the word for a Japanese tavern, or sake house, where alcohol is consumed and small, shareable plates of food are served.
The Asian nachos are the star of this menu at Tsunami — crisp fried wontons topped with barely seared tuna, fresh sliced jalapeño peppers, green onion, and a squiggle of sriracha and lime crema.
We indulged, then went for the bacon-wrapped dates (the same you’ll find at half the dinner parties in town, but nonetheless delicious), potato chips with sriracha and blue cheese, and then the hoisin-glazed Newman Farm pork meatballs with lemon grass.
The meatballs were superb, the perfect tightness (soft, but not falling apart), and bursting with flavor.
Smith isn’t timid with his spices, and I appreciate that. Whatever the flavor profile of a dish, I want to taste it. Cajun? Give me some cayenne. Italian? I want garlic. Greek? Better have some oregano. (And come on, people, don’t forget the salt and pepper.) While overseasoning is a no-no, too, there’s a significant range between bland and too much, and Smith hits on target for me.
Witness the avocado soup. It’s chilled, and chilled soups have to be assertively seasoned. And while delicious, an avocado is pretty bland, but this soup explodes with cumin, cayenne and garlic, and it tastes — I swear — like it was simmered in a broth of Doritos. It’s excellent, and the pot stickers, tender wontons wrapped around a spicy shrimp filling, are among the best I’ve eaten.
No wonder I couldn’t finish my pompano.
Luckily, I’d shared an order of ginger doughnuts at an earlier dinner. Three cake doughnuts with hints of ginger and other warm spice are served with coconut sorbet.
Next time you want to serve a dessert to impress, head for Gibson’s, buy a few of the New Orleans doughnuts, and make your own coconut ice cream. I loved the ginger doughnuts so much that I went to Gibson’s the next morning to see if they really taste similar, and they do.
That’s high praise.
Address: 928 S. Cooper.
Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
Reviewer’s Choice: Sea bass ($35), tuna small plate ($18), shrimp pot stickers ($8), Asian nachos ($10), ginger doughnuts ($8), Newman Farm meatballs ($7).
Alcohol: Full bar.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars