Dish: Small Plates, Japanese Style

Sushi plays a supporting role to hot bites at Davis Square spot
a maki dish at Sugidama
The Torch Toro maki roll: spicy salmon, avocado, torched fatty tuna. Photo: Alonso Nichols
February 13, 2017

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This is one in an occasional series about eating establishments near Tufts’ three campuses. Have a suggestion for a place for us to explore? Email now@tufts.edu.

Small plates seem to have taken over the foodscape, so it’s no surprise that izakaya joints—Japanese tapas meant to be eaten with drinks—have been sprouting up all over. Mixing up an assortment of skewered bites and calling it a meal has been a Japanese tradition for centuries.

Not that Sugidama, the new addition in Davis Square, can’t serve as a sushi destination if that’s what you crave. The menu covers both standard nigiri and gussied-up maki, but what struck me after a few visits was the variety of the extensive offerings. Meat eaters will be well-served and possibly tempted to extend a feeler out of their comfort zone.

I succumbed to such a distraction when I saw a plate of tempura sail past to another table, motivating me to catch our server and add that to our already profligate order. I was sure that the five friends with me, accustomed to my ordering methods, could handle anything I threw at them. I was half right.

Sugidama’s tempura and any of the soba bowls are solid recommendations. Photo: Alonso NicholsThe sushi-shy had their hands full with a succession of skewer items like chicken meatballs (“it’s like a gyro”) served with a pair of raw quail eggs for dipping, and the larger-than-bite-sized kalbi short rib (“they come with their own handles”) cooked to a rather chewy medium-rare. Deficient in fire and a bit on the sweet side, the house-made kimchi will appeal to palates that shrink from sharp flavors.

A dependable favorite that never seems to feed all the mouths that want some, hamachi kama (broiled yellowtail collar) was satisfyingly flaky. Carnivores eagerly seized on the gyoza, steamed pork dumplings modestly filled and fall-apart tender enough to trigger a melt-in-your-mouth response.

When the tempura finally landed, I was pretty much on my own, not surprising given the procession of selections we had already managed to consume. Perfectly crisp and miraculously light, the shrimp and vegetables made a glorious impression, unlike an earlier appetizer of squid tentacles that drew some grumbles at the table about the suspect condition of the oil.

Since Sugidama’s signage accords the word soba equal prominence to izakaya, we had to try the homemade noodles. As at most places, buckwheat is blended with wheat for a more delicate-flavored noodle than the unadulterated version. But here the noodles are resting in a divine bonito broth, slightly smoky, with a rich depth of flavors. Ours was topped with thin slices of duck and accompanied by addictive yuzu kosho, a green paste marrying the sharpness of fresh jalapeno with the perfumed citrus of yuzu fruit.

A retreat from the hum of the square. Photo: Alonso NicholsFellow pudding heads may need to try the chawanmushi, which translates to steamed ramekin. It’s an egg custard with chicken, shrimp, scallop and fish cake—comforting and simple, greater than the sum of its individual ingredients.

Our visit would have been incomplete without trying some house-special maki rolls from the sushi side of the menu. In scanning the listed ingredients I was flummoxed by the ubiquity of either mayo or surimi (imitation crabmeat), but successfully identified some standouts.

We ended up choosing the New Wave (spicy tuna, avocado and yellow roe under a tsunami of crunchy crumb topping) and Torch Toro (spicy salmon inside, torched fatty tuna outside, garnished with rainbow microgreens, orchid blossom and a toy bonsai). The Yuzu Roll, a length of yellowtail-enrobed shrimp tempura and spicy tuna arranged atop a tangy yuzu dressing, was our hands-down favorite.

I managed to make the case for going the distance with a taste of dessert, but it took a mashup of two items to secure the necessary votes: green tea cheesecake, dense and appealingly crumbly, along with a scoop of reticently flavored red bean ice cream.

High ceilings and an open dining area with plenty of wood contribute to the noise level at crowded hours, depending on where you sit. Happily, the house playlist (“spa arrangements of Coldplay”) makes for a pleasingly laid-back vibe. Its unassuming entrance set back from the street, Sugidama feels like a retreat from the hum of the square.

Sugidama Soba & Izakaya, 260 Elm St. #106, Somerville, Massachusetts. 617-764-5770. Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; Monday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5-11 p.m.; Sunday, noon-10 p.m.; www.sugidamasoba.com.

Fred Kalil can be reached at frederick.kalil@tufts.edu.

Read earlier reviews on the Dish series page.