By Mike Lowe

About five months ago chef/owner Nick Ni opened Sushi Ai in the heart of downtown St. Catharines. In an area seemingly inundated with sushi restaurants one might ask why. We set out to see if this latest chapter in the all-you-can-eat sushi book is worth a read. I am delighted to report that not only is Sushi Ai a welcome addition, it may well set the standard against which other local sushi restaurants are measured.

Here are some reasons why.

First, the restaurant is vibrant with the colours of the fresh fish Ni and his chefs prepare. Orange (salmon) and red (tuna) dominate the well lit restaurant which bears only a minor resemblance to Niagara’s Best Beer, the space’s former occupant.

Second, count on a wide variety of fresh, hand formed sushi and sashimi pieces showcasing some of the tastiest combinations available.

Third, the service we witnessed at Sushi Ai was extremely courteous, our server was well versed on the menu’s contents, and all of his recommendations were spot on.

Sushi Ai’s all-you-can-eat option offers lunch ranging from $6.99 (for children) to $9.99 (seniors) to $11.99 (adults). Dinner prices are $12.99, $18.99 and $22.99 respectively. Vegetarian specialties on the menu are indicated by a green tree (or bush) logo and spicy dishes carry a little chili pepper character.

The wine list offers a small selection of Niagara wines, of which, the whites are all of the Riesling variety. A nice Gewurztraminer would be a welcome addition here. A modest selection of beer and sake round out the selection of alcoholic beverages available.

This time out, I am dining with long-time friend and cooking compadre chef Darren Stoute who took top honours in the Iron Chef Niagara competition in 2010. We opt to sit at the sushi bar so we can observe the chefs in action. From the outset we are both impressed with the quality and focused presentations of Chef Ni and his assistant.

BBQ Eel Roll and Tempura Shrimp

What follows is an almost three hour long gorge-fest of some of the best morsels of sushi and sashimi either of us have experienced in the region. From surf clam and baby octopus skewers through myriad rolls of every description to the spicy scallop, BBQ eel rolls, and the piquant, creamy and delicious Fuji mountain roll, we find ourselves engulfed in an orgy of one-bite wonders.

Not to mention being fixated on the speed and accuracy with which Chef Ni and his staff fulfill the wants of diners in a near peak capacity restaurant. During the evening our concensus is that the favorites are the BBQ eel, scallop and Fuji mountain rolls.

Moist and flaky Turbot is the fish of choice for the grilled mango fish. A crisp, tempura-like shell yields to reveal the succulent, white flesh inside.

Fuji Mountain Rolls

Another keynote is that when questioned as to the unique fruitiness of the Teriyaki sauce, we are informed by our server that the chef makes his own from soy sauce the leftover fruits used in his various preparations.

We also try an unusual sushi “pizza” which consists of a very crisp deep-fried rice cake topped with BBQ eel (tuna and salmon also available), mayo, fish roe and seaweed salad.

Near the close of our feast we sample the Salmon Loves Lemon roll. The crisp cucumber in the roll, the tender, silky flesh of the salmon and a generous coating of freshly grated lemon zest is pure, fresh and aromatically intoxicating.

Sushi Ai is open Monday to Friday from 11:30- 10pm and Saturday and Sunday from 12 noon until 10pm.

RATING (out of 5): 4 stars

Sushi Ai

75 St. Paul St.,

St. Catharines, ON

905 397 7087

Food News:

Treadwell’s Vineyard Bistro at Southbrook Winery begins May 21s.  Open Thursday through Monday from 11am until 5pm, the menu will focus on creative and delicious pizzas (3 will be offered at all times) and will also showcase seasonal salads and desserts. The bistro will be casual and, of course, wine-centric.

Watch for an exciting new French Bistro style menu coming to Ravine Vineyard over the next few weeks.  Soups, salads, mussels, artisinal cheeses and classic French entrées will be featured.

Mike’s Wine Pick of the Week

Stonechurch

Merlot Reserve 2007 (VQA- Niagara-on-the-Lake)

$19.95 (plus deposit)

Loaded with aromas and flavours of blackberries, sweet wood and cocoa with an underlying earthiness and lingering cassis notes. Full and rich on the palate with good length. For a treat, try it with dark chocolate.

Stonechurch Vineyards
1242 Irvine Rd.,
Niagara On The Lake, ON

905-935-3535

Stonechurch Vineyards