Suzuki’s Sushi Bar: 419 Main Street, Rockland, ME 04841; (207) 596-7447; Website
Suzuki’s Sushi Bar sits directly on Main Street, the small front-half of the elegant dining room standing in sharp contrast to the wings-and-beer specials advertised on the sidewalk chalkboard at the bar across the street. Walking through the front door and into the intimate dining room feels a little conspiratorial, a little like you are being let in on a secret by an old friend. The decorations are spare in the quiet room; an antique eel spear takes up one whole wall in a room with just a few tables and a sushi bar with a few stools. Behind the counter, chef Keiko Suzuki Steinberger is a quiet whirlwind of knifework and bright smiles, offering a sincere greeting to each customer as they enter, and again when they leave the restaurant.
Jillian: A confession: I don’t care all that much about sushi. Mostly, I find it pleasant, like a summer rain, when it’s good. But it isn’t food I crave, or miss when it’s not around. I’m certain this indicates something philistine in my character, but I’m learning to live with my shortcomings.
I don’t think I’d ever had sushi that could be considered outstanding, before I first visited Suzuki’s. Of all the surprises Rockland has up her strange sleeve, a tiny Japanese spot where a female chef/owner is creating beautiful dishes all year round right on Main Street was one of the more unexpected. I love how quiet and spare the space is; I love how the windows of the small shop begin to steam up, and your face gets warm, as you sip cold sake and savor raw fish. It is a garden of earthly delights in a way I find foreign but familiar and unforgettable.
Keiko is a bit of an anomaly in the world of sushi chefs, a field which has traditionally been dominated entirely by men. The historical explanations for this are seemingly varied; some traditionalists insist that it’s because women’s hands are too warm to handle raw fish, that their fiery sensibilities cook the flesh of the fish even as it is being prepared. Others maintain that the very mechanics of handling seafood (that is, all that catching, hauling, scaling, gutting, and cutting) are all much too masculine pursuits for women to concern themselves with. Fortunately, traditional Japanese gender politics aren’t exactly a hot-button issue in a town like Rockland, even as Keiko seems determined to put an end to these old wives tales once and for all by staffing her sushi counter exclusively with female chefs.
Of much more interest is the seafood itself. The ingredients used at Suzuki’s are hyper-local, and are constantly rotating based on availability. The oysters are dug in Cushing. The mackerel is caught on lines cast from the Rockland breakwater. The advertisement that runs for Suzuki’s in the local free weekly details not just the restaurant’s location and hours, but spends equal space putting out a call to local fishermen, growers, and foragers to bring their respective products to Suzuki’s for incorporation into the nightly specials. The resulting dishes feature seafood that in many cases was pulled from the water sometimes just hours before service, artfully arranged with a precision that we have been hard-pressed to find elsewhere, served by a staff whose knowledge of the subject borders on the pathological.
Jillian: Each time we visit, we are amazed once more. At the consistency, the quality, the elegance and composition of each piece, each plate. It’s almost mathematical, but, like the good math of the music of the universe and nature and symphonies, and not the terrible geometry of Mr. Budzinski’s tenth grade classroom.
Most recently, we returned with out of town friends who insisted on a second visit after an earth-shattering experience last fall. Each time we go, we allow ourselves to fall into the hands of the chef guided by our server, to bring us what is special and best. This means the omakase menu for two, ordered not once, but often twice, with lots of starters before and plenty of supplements in between – “an extra piece of this, no two, well, I need one more of my favorite, etc.”
“Let me tell you a little bit about some of the specials that Keiko is preparing this evening,” our server explains. And that’s just how it feels at Suzuki. Not as though you are ordering tired staples from a standardized menu that a burnt-out chef has prepared thousands and thousands of times, but instead as though the beautifully designed plates arriving at your table are delivered straight from Keiko’s imagination.
On our most recent visit, we began with two appetizer specials, a monkfish liver pate served sliced with scallion, onion, cucumber, and soy sauce, served in a small dish. It’s an ingredient I have absolutely no experience with, but also no compunction whatsoever about ordering. My confidence in the chef at Suzuki’s has grown by now to the point where I know that if it is on special, it is going to be positively exquisite. The monkfish liver is no different; buttery, rich, with strong flavors of the sea offset by the bright saltiness of the soy.
Jillian: The monkfish liver was fattytoothsome, which is an adjective I made up just this second in trying to recall how it felt in my mouth. So many textures and tastes here are unexpected, without precedent in my world of cooking and eating.
The raw diver scallop carpaccio special was similarly divine, with thin slices of sweet diver scallop topped with mixed microgreens, slices of starfruit, and a few flecks of gold leaf, for good measure. The dish is staggeringly beautiful, and the delicate flavor of the scallop perfectly represents the sweet flavor of the ocean. It’s a dish that would be equally appropriate for the beginning or end of a meal.
Jillian: It was so demure, so wild, so thoughtful, as if the result of decades living on a deserted beach, when the castaway has finally discovered how to create sublime food from the grass and slime of the shore and shoals.
I don’t feel remotely qualified to construct any kind of critical analysis or review of sushi, sushi restaurants, or the relative skill of sushi chefs. I can’t provide any kind of intelligent commentary or articulate description of the techniques or flavors that I encounter every time we eat at Suzuki’s. Instead, maybe it makes more sense to give you an outline of our strategy and feelings as we move through a meal there.
After choosing a few of the appetizer specials, we tend to start with the chef’s-choice omakase for two ($58). In doing so, we acknowledge that we won’t always make the most informed or adventurous choices from the array of ingredients that Keiko will have at her disposal on any given day, and throw ourselves willingly and gleefully at her mercy. The server always asks if there is anything we dislike or are allergic to; the answer to this question is no, and it should be for you, too.
What appears a few minutes later makes our jaws drop every single time. The enormous white platter that serves as a base for the omakase is dotted with preparations that change each time, but follow along a few basic themes. There is always a maki roll of some sort, a few pieces of nigiri and sashimi, and a few hand rolls. The ingredients change. Some days, tiny sweet Maine shrimp are the star ingredient. Other days, diver scallops, eel, mackerel or clams are the focus. On this night, the focus seems to be on the sweet Maine crabmeat overflowing two gigantic hand-rolls, as well as tuna and a precious few two rolls overflowing with uni. Each bite of the sea urchin caused my eyes to involuntarily close, the nutty flavors of the uni filling me with both joy and a weird, inexplicable sadness that is difficult to properly articulate, but that I find completely and utterly addictive.
Jillian: I really, especially love the halibut that slips like silver over your tongue. And the sweet local shrimp which are creamy in the way they melt in your mouth, as well as the eel. The cooked eel, sitting zazen on a mound of rice and tied up simply with seaweed, is a party you think you don’t want to attend, but then you do, and you’re like, “whoa,” like Keanu in The Matrix. Every detail is exquisite. The thinly sliced ginger to cleanse the palate; the dab of wasabi which makes a sharp pain in the base of my skull; the warm washcloth before the meal that begins to cleanse and prepare you for truth and beauty. This is not hyperbolic. I mean every word.
By this point in the meal, we have usually completely given ourselves over to the experience. We order a few more plates, nigiri sold by the piece, featuring either our favorites from the omakase we have just eaten, or the roundup of dishes that we have been dreaming about since our last visit. Kieko, who has inevitably been watching our approach to each piece she sends to our table, suggests other items for us to try, often including complimentary extra bites on the plate after plate of food that keep appearing from behind the counter.
A hamachi and scallion roll. Another order of diver scallop sashimi. After two more orders of broiled eel, the smokey, oily flesh barely held in place by a thin strip of nori, the windows of the restaurant begin to fog up, the collective excited breath of everyone in the room obscuring our vision of the street outside.
Another pint of beer, and the room starts to spin, not from the alcohol, but from the buzz brought on by eating such delicate, impeccably-prepared food. It is only the surviving bits of self-control, some last-remaining shreds of propriety, that stops us from ordering more and forces us to ask for the check, which is always shockingly more manageable than we expect.
Jillian: When you visit Maine, if you come to Rockland, spend one meal at Suzuki’s. I know you want lobster and fried shrimp and clam rolls, but do this instead. And the thing is, you’ll be back, maybe even before you planned to return. This is a place that gets in your head – mindful, joyful dining.
Suzuki’s Sushi Bar offers a rare opportunity to completely surrender to a restaurant, your hand held by a chef that, exclusively through her food, begins to feel more like a trusted friend, guiding you through a culinary landscape that may seem unfamiliar at times, but that ultimately rewards all of your senses with a precise clarity of flavor that has been, quite simply, unmatched by almost any other restaurant we have tried. Our close proximity represents not just one of the perks of living in Rockland; it may be reason enough to put your house on the market, take your kids out of school, and uproot your entire life to move to this small town. This is so much more than fish. It’s master-level, life-changing cooking, that I feel incredibly fortunate to have such easy access to.