As the masks finally begin to come off and the notion of capacity limits begins to fade like a bad fever dream, let’s take a moment to pour one out for the risk-taking survivors—the restaurants that opened in the face of a bewildering pandemic and somehow managed to successfully come out the other side.
I’m talking about restaurants such as Fin Sushi, which opened modestly on Madison’s far west side last October and has modestly been serving sushi and sashimi, until just recently, entirely through curbside and delivery.
In fact, almost everything about Fin Sushi feels modest. Its location, tucked next to a Mr. Brews on Junction Road, doesn’t offer much in the way of interior seating, but what is there works well. The largest seating area is set off nicely by a wall of birch branches, and the hanging flags of the world are a nice visual distraction if you choose to camp at the modest sushi bar.
The food? Well, that’s modest, too. But mixed in among the modesty are some surprisingly tasty and colorful sushi rolls.
Fin is the second sushi restaurant opened by Ping Jiang, who operates the larger Sushi Express on University Avenue in downtown Madison. Fin fills a needed niche: Outside of Takara 88 in Middleton and the lunch-counter-esque Akari Sushi, sushi options in far-west Madison become a little thin.
You’ll want to start with Fin Sushi’s lunch special, which is generous both in terms of how long it’s available (11 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day) and how much you can get for your investment: Two regular rolls cost $9 and three regular rolls will set you back just $13. The good news is there are plenty of good choices in that neck of the menu.
The shrimp tempura roll ($5.50), one of the bedrocks by which every sushi restaurant is measured, is sizable and crunchy—just the way it’s supposed to be. Other standbys, including veggie options such as an asparagus roll ($4) and a cucumber roll ($3.75) are parked alongside familiar options such as Alaska, ($4.75), California ($4.50) and Boston ($4.75) rolls. It’s nothing fancy or unusual (there’s that modesty again), but it hits the spot and fills you up nicely.
But it’s the signature rolls that will bring you here and keeping you coming back.
The BANG! in this particular part of the menu is the uber-popular Firecracker roll ($9.99). Depending on your Rorschach reaction, the roll either resembles a firecracker exploding—with wild, reddish-orange strands of crunchy crab meat jutting from the top of the roll, held in place by a spicy mayo glue—or a clown head with wavy spikes of crabmeat hair. Either way, the crab is a great taste and textural combo with the tempura shrimp camped on the inside of the roll. It tastes like a spicy seafood soiree in your mouth.
A Golden Age roll ($11.99) looks a little like a sushi version of a Twinkie, with a mango-infused yellow sheet holding the roll together. That’s not creamy filling on the inside, though: It’s a combo of spicy tuna and shrimp tempura that harmonizes wonderfully.
I’d argue the Golden Age might be Fin Sushi’s most underrated creation. Don’t miss it in favor of more mainstream options.
Even though the Monster Roll ($9.99) contained several of the key ingredients deployed so expertly in some of the other rolls, it proved toothless with an absolute brick of cream cheese stuffed into its center dominating the space and deadening the taste of the roll. As most Philly roll lovers will tell you, cream cheese can work in sushi rolls when it’s spreadable. When it’s served as a squared-off chunk, it is toxic to the mix.
Elsewhere on the menu, there are both solid choices and a few oddities.
The miso soup ($2.25) is outstanding with plenty of seaweed and tofu cut into teeny, ice-cube sized chunks. And while most places fold their crab rangoon ($3.95) into triangular pouches, Fin opts to go the rectangular route. This is unusual but fine, and it’s easy to wish they would invest in making their own dipping sauce—as many Asian restaurants do—rather than relying on bland packets of sweet and sour sauce.
Speaking of packets, you might be able to open your own restaurant with the number of soy sauce packets that accompany your order. Not so for the expected pickled ginger and wasabi paste, which came smashed into a singular condiment container.
Fin Sushi’s offerings lack the splashy panache of more upscale sushi restaurants in town. For instance, there’s a spider roll on the menu, but it doesn’t come with any flamboyant garnishments that make it look particularly arachnid. Still, there is a modest expertise at work here that produces solid, satisfying results.
And when you’re laying out coin for sushi, sometimes that’s exactly what you need.