If Japan’s quake-damaged nuclear reactors melt down and bring about a cataclysmic end to the world, and we’re all staring down the barrel of some Mad Max-style future, sushi chefs everywhere will go about their business, worrying themselves to the point of stroke about how this will affect the price of Ahi tuna. These seafood samurais are price-sensitive, driven by commodity, obsessively focused on detail and meticulous about freshness.
They have to be. A foodstuff such as sushi requires that chefs understand one thing about their chosen trade: If you have great quality fish, your job is to simply not fuck it up.
I spent some time in Japan in 2008 and had the pleasure of dodging pallets of tentacles and forklifts of 200-POUND (!) tuna at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo on my way to a fresh-to-death 6 a.m. breakfast of sushi and sake. As such, I’ve flown too close to the proverbial sun on wings made of uni and have come crashing back to earth in a heap, forever ruined on sushi. Admittedly, it was with a cynical eye that I entered Big Eyes in Queen Village.
The atmosphere at this casual, opened-in-April joint is decidedly less high brow than its predecessor, Ro-Zu. The stripped-down, airy space is made up of floor-to-ceiling windows, exposed brick walls and IKEA lanterns hanging from the ceiling. The minimalist decor adds a warehousey/lofty vibe to this BYOB sushi bar. The prices and names of the rolls also reflect a more accessible attempt at sushi—if you only have eight bucks in your pocket and don’t mind ordering something called “Yo Sexy!” you can manage to eat pretty well here.
About the Yo Sexy! ($6): It’s a husky play on a California roll with kani or crab stick salad that’s reminiscent of Whole Foods grab-and-go sushi, but propped up a bit by a lightly fried panko bread crumb and sesame coating, which adds a crispy counter texture to the soft faux crab salad.
The roll is drizzled with a sweet and creamy Yam-Yam sauce—a house mix of dashi, mirin, sake, soy sauce and mayo. The Big Eyes’ crew is clearly proud of their Yam-Yam. This “special” sauce is on damn near everything they crank out, even cliche but tasty seaweed salad ($3) is tossed in the stuff. Their Who’s Your Daddy ($7) is a large roll of spicy salmon and albacore, and is surprisingly bland given it’s served with a ton of garlicky ponzu sauce. The very large but ubiquitous tempura shrimp roll ($6) is drizzled with more Yam-Yam, and a not-so-ordinary mashed sweet potato roll ($4), odd but delicious. Like the space itself, it was simple and uncomplicated, a welcome respite after eating roll after roll of sauce-laden sushi.
Each guest at Big Eyes receives a complementary bowl of miso soup or an iceberg and shredded carrot salad tossed with a creamy gingery sauce that resembles—you guessed it—Yam-Yam. The last roll I had, the Double Dragon ($8), is a hearty and very tasty version of the sushi bar standard eel and avocado roll—tempura eel and still-warm teriyaki eel draped on top. But like the ’80s video game of the same name, it was way too much for me to finish. (Maybe, in the future, they’ll make a roll named Contra.) The sashimi/sushi menu stands on par with other markdown raw fish venues in the city—$2 to $4 per two piece order. An assortment of gyoza and shumai round out the menu, but the rolls are the real heart of the matter here.
Philly finds itself awash in high-end sushi choices—Morimoto, Zama and Raw—and Big Eyes offers some superb counter-programming. It could find its position in the market by continuing to offer these low-cost (not low-end) sushi that is in no way aimed at sushi traditionalists, but the playful and open-minded diner instead. While the big boys are worrying about the details and hand-wringing over pricing, Big Eyes is just trying to have a little fun. And succeeding.
700 Bainbridge St.
Hours: Sun.-Mon., 5-10:30pm; Tues.-Sat., 11am-2:30pm, 5-10:30pm
Price range: $2-$11.
Atmosphere: Airy, casual.
Food: Silly, but quite good sushi.
Service: Outgoing and friendly.
Philabeverage: Veggie Pairings