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Ai, Ai, Ai

For lovers of sushi and Japanese food



When you walk into the peaceful and spare-but-elegant atmosphere at Sushi Ai, you won't wonder for long what the heck Ai means. The staff all sport simple black T-shirts with white print that says "Ai means love." A nice sentiment, and an awfully nice restaurant.

The truly nice aspect of Sushi Ai is that people on the south end of town, whose climes have been clogged lately with every variety of chain restaurant known to humankind, won't have to drive all the way to the north end of town anymore to get good sushi. There should be much rejoicing in Broadmoor Bluffs, the hills reverberating with the echoes of everyone's happy dance.

If you want to be traditional, begin your meal with edamame, boiled green soybeans. These are infinitely better tasting than they sound. We got two bowls full of the lightly steamed pods, and the empty pods piled up like magic as we shelled, popping the sweet, tender soybeans out. The gyoza (pot stickers) are good, crispy and meat-filled, served with a soy-based dipping sauce. You can also range far and wide with the appetizers, with everything from fresh oysters and Ikura Oroshi (salmon roe with white radish) to egg rolls, ebi (shrimp) tempura and breaded calamari rings. The calamari rings are much bigger rings than you are probably accustomed to, resembling onion rings in size, but the squid inside is properly tender and chewy, not tough at all.

The sushi at Sushi Ai is quite good. I am frankly not qualified to be the world's most discerning consumer of sushi, but I can tell you that the fish here is sweet and fresh, of the highest quality. There's a considerable list of nigiri sushi ( la carte), all with handy translations in parentheses to tell you what's what. Choices range from sweet shrimp, sea water eel and tuna to longneck clam, octopus and sea urchin. There's also a lovely selection of maki (roll) sushi, which is my favorite. The Spicy Tuna packs a lively wallop, gaining its heat from a chili infusion rather than wasabe. The California Roll is an elegant blend of sweet crab and creamy avocado. The Rainbow Roll is fabulous -- seven pieces of California roll, each draped with a different type of sushi.

If you aren't a raw fish aficionado, don't despair. There are plenty of traditional Japanese dishes on the menu to keep you satisfied. The Chicken Teriyaki is nice, the mahogany-colored sauce sweet without being cloying, the chicken tender and juicy. Sushi Ai also offers a variety of Kasu dishes, which I love. The Ton-Kasu (pork cutlet) wasn't available when we tried to order it, so we wound up sampling the Chicken-Kasu and Fish-Kasu. Either way, the meat, fish or fowl in question is breaded with crispy crumbs and quickly fried, so the result is crunchy on the outside, moist and tender on the inside. The Kasu also comes with a slightly sweet sauce drizzled over the finished product, adding a little zing.

If Kasu-style doesn't float your boat, the Beef Yakiniku, which I ordered having no idea what it was, turned out to be a wonderful stir-fried sort of dish, with tender strips of beef intertwined with onions, green peppers and thin strips of carrot, in a light and tangy sauce, topped with a sprinkling of sesame seeds. The Krispy Tempura is a pure treat. Tempura is the lightest of fried coatings over vegetables and shrimp, crisp to the point of shattering when you bite into it. The Krispy version is all that and more, the batter barely tinged with orange, hinting at the subtle, spicy heat of ground chiles in the batter.

Other meal options include the noodle soups, which are huge and divine. I had the Tori one evening, a huge bowl of chicken, vegetables and steamers of egg swimming in a light miso broth with long, fat, slippery noodles. Not only is this one of the quintessential comfort foods, but it's just plain fun to eat. Other noodle soups include seaweed and mushroom, beef and vegetable tempura, gyoza (fried dumplings) and mountain vegetable and green onion.

If you just can't make up your mind, several combination meals are available at both lunch and dinner, some pairing cooked dishes with sashimi or sushi. Hae Dup Bop is scattered sashimi salad over rice with a special spicy sauce. Or you can get a sushi meal, including soup and salad, combining your choice of nigiri ( la carte) with a variety of the maki (rolls). The deluxe bento boxes, offered at lunch time, range from Chicken Teriyaki or Beef Yakiniku with Tempura to Salmon Teriyaki or Saba (broiled mackerel) with sashimi. Whether it's lunch time or dinner time, there's a combination somewhere on this extensive menu that is bound to satisfy your craving. Throw in a Sapporo beer, a carafe of saki or a pot of steaming hot tea, and you're bound to have both a nice time and a nice meal.

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