I've been to Sushi Roku, a small chain with locations in Santa Monica, Pasadena, West Hollywood, and Las Vegas, more times than I can count. I suppose I always choose it in an attempt to fulfill a sushi craving when I'm in downtown Santa Monica and don't feel like fighting rush hour traffic to Brentwood or West LA or the Santa Monica Airport, where there are considerably better options (but it can take a terrible hour to make the four-mile drive).
I've always found it perplexing that a place as close to the ocean as Santa Monica doesn't have better fish. There are those who will argue that I should go to Sushi King (too much wasabi, no atmosphere, I say), and I used to be a big proponent of Noma until they gave me some dried-out hamachi, but for the most part, all the sushi options in the area seem more focused on being trendy than on serving top-notch fish. I'm surprised that there are still restaurants serving sushi rolls that contain mayonnaise, but I guess there are still people who enjoy that.
Sushi Roku is, in fact, another one of these not-so-good sushi options, and on top of that, it's overpriced. I like the decor, the low lighting, and perhaps the familiarity, even though the fish is sloppily cut and I never leave feeling satisfied. Once, three years ago, I had the tasting menu and was quite impressed, but that was in my considerably more naive days and pre-Foodie Universe. My tastes have changed considerably since then. How could they not have, now that I've eaten pad kee mao at Krua Thai, mole coloradito at Monte Alban, fresh tofu with sea salt at Musha, and sweet corn ravioli at Melisse?
Even though Santa Monica is a beach town, you'll probably feel under-dressed here unless you're wearing business attire or trendy LA clothes. Sushi Roku's service is often a bit snobby, which seems to be a requirement to work at a wannabe trendy restaurant. Some of their tables are awkwardly positioned in the middle of the room, and you're likely to get stuck at one of these as punishment for not having a reservation, even if it's a Monday and none of the better tables are occupied at any point during your meal. Also awkward is the bathroom situation--Sushi Roku is located in a large office building, and their bathroom is not actually in the restaurant--it's in the office building, and it has a bathroom attendant. Not only do I have having to pay money to have someone hand me a paper towel, I find the whole bathroom attendant thing to be incredibly backward.
Sushi Roku's specials are generally more interesting and more flavorful than simply ordering from the sushi menu, but I didn't order any on my last visit. Instead, I tried the crunchy tuna avocado roll, the albacore scallion roll, the spicy scallop roll, and a few pieces of nigiri. My eyes were definitely bigger than my stomach--even with a friend's help, I couldn't eat it all.
Our food took an unbelievably long time to arrive, particularly considering that the restaurant was only half-full and almost everything we ordered did not require any cooking. The crunchy tuna avocado roll arrived first, but it seemed like it had been sitting out for a while before it made it to our table. It was soggy, not crunchy, especially because someone had the brilliant idea to put something that was supposed to be crispy in a pool of orange mayonnaise. The sauce was good and the roll was flavorful overall, but it might as well have contained chicken since the delicate flavors of the avocado and the tuna were totally overwhelmed by the fried flavor and the sauce. A million years later, the rest of our food arrived. The albacore scallion roll tasted bitter--something had to have been wrong with it, though I wasn't sure what. I'm not sure why I didn't send it back--maybe I just figured that Sushi Roku couldn't do any better.
The toro jalapeno roll was also disappointing. Toro, the fatty belly of the tuna, is supposed to be the king of sushi, but here it just tasted watery, and I should have known better than to expect heat from the jalapeno--without its ribs and seeds, jalapeno doesn't rank very high on the Scoville scale.
The spicy scallop roll was probably my favorite, even though it was one of those blasphemous mayo-fish rolls and it was dotted with a Sriracha-like sauce--two things that can't help but overwhelm the delicate flavor of scallop. Instead, I focused on enjoying the flawlessly smooth texture of raw scallop.
After my latest experience, I think the spell has finally been broken. Whatever used to draw me to Sushi Roku despite my better judgment will draw me there no more. If I'm going to spend $40 or more on dinner, I might as well brave the traffic and go to my old standby Kiriko, where I can get more food that tastes better for the same price.
1401 Ocean Ave.
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Sushi Roku Website and Menu