- UNEXCITING: Papa Sushi's shrimp teriyaki with fried rice.
There was a time only a few years back when this reviewer was firmly in the "sushi = bait" camp. Living in Arkansas, where it routinely gets hot enough to spoil fish before they even stop flopping, one can see why there was nothing in our backwoods upbringing to make us believe that putting a raw piece of fish in our mouth and swallowing it was even remotely a good idea. That said, a few years back, on the suggestion of a friend, we finally choked back our revulsion, went to one of the sushi joints we'd heard raves about for years, and were instantly hooked. Nowadays, there's pretty much nothing we crave more than a nice, firm piece of raw tuna on rice — buttery, rich, with almost no smell other than the sea — or a simple roll dipped in soy sauce, heavy on the wasabi.
Since then (much to our delight), a whole bunch of sushi houses have sprung up in Little Rock and North Little Rock. Even most of the Chinese buffets offer rolls now (though you might be taking your life into your own hands to try it). Add to those the new Papa Sushi in West Little Rock. In the former Vermillion/Koto location, Papa Sushi looks a lot more high-rent than its food-cart name would suggest, with black tablecloths and snazzy decor. Too, the wait staff is nice and attentive, making suggestions for those who are a bit cloudy on what to get. That said, a restaurant does not live by linen napkins and potted plants. What's on the fork is the thing.
From the nice-sized menu of choices, we tried the pork gyoza ($5.50) as an appetizer. For a lunch entree, we tried the chicken teriyaki with fried rice ($8, plus $3 for fried rice), while our companion selected the shrimp teriyaki with fried rice (again, $8, plus $3 for fried rice). From the very extensive sushi list, we also selected three rolls to share: the "Oh My Gosh" roll ($8.50), the volcano roll ($7.50) and the crunchy shrimp roll.
Everything arrived quickly, delivered by our very friendly server, who took the time to chat with us about the various sauces. Everything was plated really nicely too, especially the rolls, which were artfully arranged on a long platter.
The problem was taste. Oh sure, it was all edible, even good in the case of the very nice grilled vegetables that came with the hibachi offerings, and the pan-seared pork gyoza with a sweet dipping sauce. But when it came right down to it, neither the entrees, rolls or fried rice were all that memorable. Considering we spent $63 and change for the meal (before tip), it should have at least contained something to write home about.
The teriyaki shrimp and chicken, in both cases, were bland and the portions skimpy. Meanwhile, the fried rice — which can be a very flavorful and hearty dish when done right — didn't have much to offer over plain ol' rice; so much so that we ended up dousing it with soy sauce.
Another good example of what we're talking about was the volcano roll. Though it looked excellent on both the menu — which described it as a California roll deep-fried and covered with spicy sauce — and on the plate, on the palate it just sort of lay there. We don't know about you, but when we buy something billed as "spicy" and named after a geographic phenomena that features geysers of molten rock, we want it to be warm enough to make us reconsider our life choices. By my definition, the volcano roll sauce wasn't lukewarm spicy — more like a whisked-up ketchup and mayo.
While we can't complain too awful much about the bottom line of our bill — we've come to know all too well in recent years that ordering several complicated rolls at a sushi place can require a visit to the ATM, if not a second mortgage on the house — the lack of flavor in almost everything we tried is pretty much unforgivable. Variety may be the spice of life, but SPICE is the soul of food, and Papa Sushi would do well to turn to their cabinet a bit more often.
17200 Chenal Parkway, Suite 100
Given that we only tried a fraction of the items on their sushi menu, we're planning to head back in a few months to take a more expansive taste. The adventurous eater might want to take a cruise through their 35 nigiri and sashimi offerings, including clam, quail egg, octopus and eel.
11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily. Happy hour: 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Full bar planned (bottled beer only at press time), credit cards accepted.