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A sushi restaurant excites the senses

Sam Holden

Joss Cafe and Sushi Bar

Address:413 North Charles St.
Baltimore, MD 21201

More on Joss Cafe and Sushi Bar.

Open for lunch Monday-Saturday and dinner daily.

By Mary K. Zajac | Posted 9/23/2009

The cry of "Irasshaimase!" rings out each time someone walks through the door at Joss Café and Sushi Bar. It's a cry of welcome uttered by servers, manager, and even the chefs behind the bright sushi counter, and all you need is one visit to Joss to know that they damn well mean it.

Located in the former Kawasaki space on Charles Street, this is the second Joss. Seven glowing Zagat reviews (plus two Best of Baltimore designations from Baltimore Magazine) for the original Annapolis restaurant line one wall in a sort of genealogical proof of what's to come.

It's not false advertising. This is good sushi. Really good. And if the wasabi shumai ($4.95) are any indication, cooked food here is no afterthought or mere concession to those who don't eat raw. I don't think I've had a fresher or more subtle version of these steamed pork dumplings, whose wasabi heat seemed to be on time-release, starting as a warm tickle in the nostril and ending with a searing-green cleanness in the nasal cavity. It's a sensation that must be experienced for the full effect.

And Joss is full of such sensations. There's the buttery smoothness of escolar nigiri ($5), a fish with such creamy flesh, the sushi chef explained, that it's often referred to as very white tuna. Salt ice carpaccio salmon ($11.95), a special that our server expected to be added to the regular menu in the future, feels smoky and silky on the tongue, a Japanese version of gravlax. And ama ebi, sweet shrimp ($6), provide a tender foil to their crunchy marble-sized heads ($2), served separately but better ordered together.

Joss offers a number of inventive specials, and if Toro Toro Toro ($12.95) is available, order it. The succulent, fatty tuna is, as you would guess, served three ways, the best of which was lightly seared and served with sesame seeds, nutty, soft, and rich all in one bite. We preferred the tuna chopped and mixed with a dash of chili sauce--a mix of sweet heat and cool rawness--to the third toro, served with a small portion of daikon. Another special, the kobe beef trio ($19.95) didn't quite merit its price tag.

We also ordered omakase, a platter of sushi and nigiri of the chef's choosing, ordered in $20 increments. Without being pushy, our server suggested we spend $20 per person (there were four of us) on omakase, but $40 and a few a la carte rolls (yes, the spicy tuna is the real deal) satisfied. Of course, the chef's choices will vary every night, but ours contained familiar favorites like albacore, salmon, and yellowtail, as well as the above-mentioned escolar (which we liked so much we ordered an additional nigiri a la carte) and a fabulous jellyfish in chili sauce.

Staff at Joss is patient and eager to answer questions about any dishes, and the décor is as mod and engaging as the food. A smooth wooden wave curves over the sushi bar. A salmon-colored kimono, arms extended, hangs near the front window, while across the room, rounded bits of ivory marble hug on the opposite wall in a clean basket-weave pattern by tables that are just a little too high, but comfortable all the same. Sitting in this comfy cosmopolitan setting, sipping a Sapporo, watching a sporadic trickle of foot traffic down Charles Street might make you feel like you're in another city, but happily for sushi lovers, you're not.


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