Three friends are catching up on one another’s complicated lives over a rare, and twice-rescheduled, dinner out. In the middle of lively conversation, one laughing listener starts pushing glasses away from the center of the table. She’s making room for what she has spied in the hands of the server coming around the corner. She’s the sushi expert of the bunch, having lived and traveled in Asia. She’s familiar with grandiose aspects of the presentation. Now all three turn to watch the approaching server prepare to land his parade float of a platter.

The platter turns out to be a conversation-stopping two-foot-long bamboo boat, filled with carrot blooms on beds of curly kale. In valleys and on raised platforms are colorful groups of fish and veggie roll slices. Amid oohs and aahs, the diners lean in on the edible landscape and start looking for the items they’d ordered.

“That must be the eel roll–it’s so pretty! And where’s the sweet potato roll …?”

“Wow, it looks like so much food for just the three of us! Um, I don’t see my veggie roll …”

Group pause, and puzzlement. Something’s not right. Two servers are now rushing to the table, one gesticulating frantically. Reality slowly dawns, and with muttered apologies the servers whisk away the platter to its rightful table of six across the mostly empty dining room.

Soon another boat arrives, similar but smaller. The rolls and garnish again look pretty, but there’s no magic. At the quarterdeck, again there stands a tall vase of two red roses; one is wilted, a drying blossom bowed at its stem.

Everyone makes mistakes, and servers are going to get orders mixed up on occasion. If the rolls at Nagomi Sushi on E. Liberty had been really great that night, the prelude would be laughed away.

That’s not how it played out. The “Michigan” eel roll was attractive, with flame-browned silvery eel fillets wrapped around a yummy shrimp tempura and spicy tuna center, but the delicate eel did not have the super-fresh taste that we’d expected for its premium price. The California, yellowtail, and colorful mixed vegetable rolls (the last two contrasting greatly in color and size, ranging from nearly monotone beige and nickel-wide to kaleidoscope discs the size of fifty-cent pieces) were just adequate.

The unexpected failure in the bunch was the sweet potato roll. One of us had ordered it previously and had loved the contrast of soft sweet potato with a light crisping of tempura. This time, the potato was undercooked and the sushi rice oddly sour and not sticky enough to keep the roll together.

The rice in the other rolls was fine, but you don’t have to be an expert to know that consistently good sticky rice is the backbone of sushi rolls, along with very fresh fish and all other ingredients cooked to perfection. It’s concerning that after several months in business downtown, Nagomi could still falter in this regard. It’s also surprising, because patrons of Nagomi’s seven-year-old Plymouth Road location are fiercely loyal to their long-established storefront.

Nagomi Downtown does have some appealing offerings. The hearty udon noodle bowls and meat entrees like bulgogi beef and chicken teriyaki are generously portioned and fine-tasting (good to know as the weather turns colder and hearty fare is in demand). The pickled ginger that comes with every sushi order is notably full flavored and crisp, a refreshing alternative to some of the limp and tasteless varieties you see around. And the many varieties of appetizer skewers (which are based on traditional Japanese yakitori), including grilled vegetables, glazed fish, and sauced meat, are inexpensive, fun, and attractive finger food. Some are garnished playfully with air-popped snacks of the sort you see in Asian groceries; the bacon-wrapped combos are particularly enticing.

Arrival of a liquor license in June was cause for a celebratory grand reopening, adding more menu pages to list specialty sake and nice wine by the glass. And there are combination fish dishes and unusual Korean specialties that I would be more eager to explore if I felt more confident about the operational basics.

My sense is that Nagomi Downtown has yet to successfully scale up on its North Campus success. Execution has not caught up to ambition. The menu is too vast and the staff too challenged for a reliably good dining experience. (Did I mention that on the night of our ill-fated sushi boat excursion, a server asked if we wanted miso soup, we all said yes, and none ever arrived?)

There are plenty of options for ambitious Asian cuisine downtown, dominated by elegant Pacific Rim to the west, and Tomukun and Slurping Turtle further up E. Liberty. Sadako sets a high bar for sushi on the south side of campus, and Totoro on State is reliable. I thought Nagomi might draw a good following in the middle of town. Now I wonder if much of the problem is the half-hiddenness of the space most recently vacated by What Crepe? On my three visits to Nagomi Downtown, it was never more than a third full.

Getting the service shipshape and trimming the menu enough to execute everything well could be the first building blocks needed for crowds to swell.

Nagomi Sushi Downtown

241 E. Liberty


Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. noon-9 p.m.

Appetizers, skewers, and salads $1.50-$15; sushi and sashimi $3-$16; noodles and entrees $8-$17

Handicapped access is via back door, from a gated parking lot on Fifth Ave.

Call & letters, November 2016: Give Nagomi Downtown a Try

To the Observer:

I’m writing in response to the restaurant review of Nagomi Sushi Downtown in the October issue. We appreciate the time and energy that was put forward to acknowledge our business. In the last couple of months, our management has been steadily working on improving the performance of our restaurant all around. We are actively engaged in making our new location run as smoothly as possible, consolidating our large menu and improving communication between the kitchen and wait staffs.

At Nagomi we believe that every guest should receive prompt, professional, friendly, and courteous service. Because a number of our employees have never worked in the food service industry before, we are re-training and re-educating our entire staff. Our front-of-house staff specifically is being trained on the entire menu, how to identify each individual roll (we offer more than sixty), what goes with each item we serve, the new drink options (now that we have our liquor license), and how to address unsatisfied guests.

We hope that Observer readers will give us a try and see that our establishment deserves their business.


Ethan Ketner
Manager, Nagomi Sushi Downtown