THE GRASSHOPPERS arrive at your table on rafts of cubed rice, strapped down with a glistening band of seaweed. They're dark brown with a shellacked sheen, making them look like professional beachgoers; an effect only heightened by the small paper parasol planted beside them. Still, there's no mistaking them for what they are: big bugs. Crunchy with hints of grass and soy, and a slight nuttiness mingling with sticky sushi rice—but big bugs nonetheless.
In many places around the world, picking insect limbs from your teeth is not such an oddity. But in Portland, one of the few places to sit down and enjoy grasshoppers is Sushi Mazi on SE Division. Not coincidentally, Mazi is also the only place to experience a Pop Rocks roll--essentially a spicy tuna roll topped with the noisy, pop-in-your-mouth candy. Though the initial response to these dishes might be to brush them off as silly gimmicks, they speak to something deeper at work in owner Marc Suwansathien's food: a sense of play.
The Pop Rocks roll isn't brilliant. But it works just well enough to keep it from the realm of base gratuity. The sourness of the candy is reminiscent of crisp ginger, and adding a thin slice of the latter to one of the noisy rounds creates more complex ginger tones. The thin salty tang of soy sauce works well against the candy sweetness, but the tuna is lost in the riot of mouth-crackling texture and flavor collisions. Still, it's clear that Suwansathien has a sense of silliness and creativity, which is unfortunately unfocused on his large menu.
Buried within the numerous signature rolls, entrées, and appetizers are delightful dishes. The fiery sweet-glazed suicide wings are delicious. The rich, seaweed-heavy miso soup adequately satisfies, and on a recent visit, there were a few lovely sushi moments—melt-in-your-mouth salmon topped with a bright tiny lemon wedge and a similarly presented mackerel with just enough assertive fishiness to play against the citrus. Also, there are those grasshoppers, which will move from novelty to necessity in my dining universe.
But often, when Suwansathien tries to stretch, the results fall a bit flat. His "My Tempura Style" is beautifully presented: rice wraps a thin slice of chicken along with broccoli, cream cheese, and crab, all of it battered, deep fried, cut, and stacked in a bright pyramid on the plate. However, a bite reveals the chicken to be tough and dry, the broccoli flavor too aggressive, and the crab completely unnecessary. Essentially it's a dehydrated version of a chicken, broccoli, and rice cream soup. Not terrible—but not what you were hoping for, either.
The trend continues in the bland signature California Route 66 roll, far too packed with extras for any of the subtle ingredients to shine, and the regular California roll with its imitation crab.
In this world there are great sushi restaurants, cheap sushi-train dives, and those places in between. Mazi is in between. If only the sushi were brighter, the menu smaller and the sense of play focused.
Still, Mazi should not be ignored. I suspect that if Suwansathien were to cut about half his menu and hone the wild sense of play and creativity, he could become one of the city's sushi mavericks. I'd suggest he start with the grasshoppers, and build from there.