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Suzuki's and the zen of freshness

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jonathan Levitt
Globe Correspondent / July 30, 2008

ROCKLAND, Maine - The omakase (chef's selection) at Suzuki's Sushi Bar is often made up entirely of local fish. This week chef Keiko Suzuki Steinberger is offering surf clams, sweet shrimp, scallops, gray sole and its engawa (the muscle that controls the fin on flat fish), monkfish, oysters, and line-caught mackerel.

The tiny Suzuki's, which opened two years ago, is unlike other sushi restaurants. The chefs are women. There is no fried or grilled food - in fact, there are no stoves, no ovens, and no deep fat fryers. The women cook on three electric induction burners topped with ordinary pots of boiling water, and they've rigged up an innovative homemade steaming system with wood and glass boxes. Behind the bar, Japanese knives flash from the tiny kitchen where Yuki Goseki makes the most delicate salads and hot food. Goseki, 32, grew up in Tokyo, and with her family went to the same sushi place twice a week. "My parents were crazy about sushi," she says. "Twice a week is a bit excessive even for Japanese people."

On the menu is steamed crab cake, made with local hand-picked crab, served on sushi rice, with native green beans or whatever other green vegetables are at the farmers' market; an avocado salad is dressed with miso, and garnished with seaweed and cucumbers; homemade shumai are stuffed with Maine shrimp; and hearty bowls of soba or udon noodle soups come in several variations.

Steinberger, 30, owns the restaurant with her husband, Joe, 63. The couple met when she came to Rockland from Sendai in northern Japan to work and learn English. They married in 2003 and now have a plump and adorable 1-year-old son named Takuma, who loves pickles, umeboshi plum, and nato, stringy fermented soy bean paste that smells like blue cheese. Before the couple opened the restaurant, the two traveled to the fishing port of Shiogama, north of Tokyo. "It's a famous place for sushi," says Joe Steinberger. "We found some small out-of-the-way places that were elegant without being fancy and served so many obscure local things."

Joe Steinberger, a criminal defense layer in Rockland, handles the business side of the restaurant and goes to a lot of trouble to keep the place cool and quiet. Suzuki's is zen peaceful even by sushi bar standards. It is hushed and breezy, decorated simply with an antique eel spear, wooden tools, and Keiko's calligraphy. "We could have had a fryer and a grill and built a hood," he says, "but we wanted to do something different. In Japan there's a whole tradition of mushi-mono-things that are steamed fresh and healthy. Cooking this way changes the whole feeling of the restaurant."

Keiko Steinberger works at the sushi bar with Maho Hisakawa, 28, who is from Tokyo but grew up in Wales, and Ritsuko Kato, 59, from Northern Hokkaido. The women go about their work with a cheerful grace, dotting plates with edible flowers and fresh herbs. Fish and shellfish change daily; lately Port Clyde Fresh Catch, a local community-supported fishery, provides a weekly share of whatever fish they catch - usually a variety of cod, haddock, pollock, mackerel, hake, dabs, and redfish. "We have fresh monk fish liver," says Steinberger. "I can't believe it."

The Steinbergers are still looking for unusual bits to bring into their kitchen. Last week they took Goseki on a seaweed gathering expedition with David Myslabodski, a local seaweed scientist, and the painter Eric Hopkins. Hopkins piloted his 22-foot Boston Whaler around the bay to collect kelp, alaria, and nori from tide pools and the rocky shore. Back at the restaurant Goseki pickled the kelp stems and put them on the menu. They are crisp and salty and taste like the ocean.

Little Takuma loves them.

Suzuki's Sushi Bar, 419 Main St., Rockland, Maine, 207-596-7447, www.suzukisushi.com.

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