Downtown sushi restaurant is a real find
If you're not looking for Sushi Bar Geisha, you'll never find it, which makes its discovery, in the basement of a commercial building just south of the intersection of Charles and Saratoga all the more rewarding. Reaching Geisha's dining room involves descending through a lobby painted a dazzling orange, passing a cash machine on the landing, then an open area with a chrome buffet table and a soda case. The wood-paneled dining room, separated from a compact sushi bar by a low wall, is dark, mostly empty, and filled with an unusual mix of sensory distractions: the whimsical white airplane and matching sailing ship that glow as they hang from the ceiling; the space heater sitting on table in the dining room; the continuous, bubbling loop of K-pop and classic Brazilian bossa nova; the large screen television that plays muted. It's a bundle of disparity that somehow doesn't distract from the sweet service and very fresh fish. And if sushi is about surprising the senses, then perhaps this is the ideal setting for it.
Geisha's sushi menu offers what Baltimoreans have come to expect from the local sushi scene: a mix of the usual nigiri and sashimi suspects like tuna and yellowtail, salmon, eel, and octopus, along with creatively named special rolls, like the Baltimore Sun, a combination of tuna, salmon, flounder, avocado, crab meat, and masago rolled with cucumber, or the Bay Bridge, a roll made of crab, cucumber, avocado, masago, and steamed shrimp. The restaurant also surprised us with an intriguing Korean menu which includes galbi tang, described on the menu as a hearty soup of beef short ribs, clear noodles, egg drops, and scallion; haemul pajun, Korean-style seafood and scallion pancakes; and ojinguh bokeum, stir-fried squid and vegetables in a spicy sauce. There's Korean and Japanese beer, and a full selection of sake.
But we came for sushi and decided to stick with the plan by ordering the Love Platter "A" ($85), a selection of sushi and sashimi chosen at the chef's discretion (though our server graciously asked if there was anything we didn't like, we made it clear we were game for whatever came our way). After we ordered, however, I was still thinking about Korean food. Torn between the two menus, I pointed to a soup, soon doo boo, described as tofu stew with a choice of vegetable, kimchi, or pork, as something I might try along with my sushi. Our server looked puzzled and shook her head. "I shouldn't get this?" I asked, "It's not good? You don't like it?"
"I like it," she said with hesitation, adding kindly, "but I'm more Asian than you." (For the record, I'm not Asian at all.) It turns out that not only was she worried about my American palate, but she also thought the soup would be too much food with the sushi, which came with miso soup and salad. So I acquiesced.
The Love Platter did not disappoint. Good sushi is fresh and beautiful, too, and this platter (actually a wooden boat) was nearly too pretty to eat. Sashimi decorated one end, with thin slices of creamy white tuna abutting shimmery red ones, and salmon, rockfish with the skin still attached, and pearly flounder placed further along the deck. Eel, red snapper, tuna, and mackerel nigiri rested on fat fingers of rice. Our server pointed out that the squid had been steamed, as had the yellow tail, so that they weren't raw (which made the former too chewy and the latter, slightly, but not overwhelmingly, dry). She also explained that salmon looked better than tuna at the market that day, so the green tuna, a spicy tuna roll, was draped in salmon instead of tuna. This roll, like everything on the platter, was undeniably fresh, the fish coming through sweet, clean, and meltingly tender (although the mayonnaise in the spicy tuna mixture was somewhat heavy). Other rolls on the platter included a shrimp tempura and the Hawaiian sunset, a salmon/avocado combination topped with pineapple which tasted better than it sounded, though I probably wouldn't order it next time.
Three of us were satisfied after the platter, but I was still preoccupied by the Korean menu, so we asked to try a platter of bulgogi ($15), the classic thinly sliced Korean beef barbecue. Served with kimchi, shredded pickled radish, cold cubed potatoes, sautéed watercress, rice, and bean sprouts, the bulgogi was sweeter than I've had it. "Is it usually this sweet?" I asked our server. Yes, she told us, explaining that the restaurant makes it a little sweeter because "Americans like sweet." Later I wondered if this was why some of our Love Boat was chosen (and cooked)--because of a perception of "what Americans like." Regardless, I suggest being upfront to the staff about the kind of experience you want--be it authentic Japanese or Korean or "American-style." I have a feeling they'd accommodate.
As we were finishing, the sushi chef came by to make sure we were satisfied, explaining that he goes to the Jessup Fish Market early each morning to buy fish for the day. We asked his favorite. Eel, he said without hesitation. "It gives you stamina," he grinned, pumping his muscles like an iron man. And who couldn't use some of that?