Blue Ribbon Sushi
119 Sullivan Street, New York NY 10012 (between Prince & Spring Streets; map); 212-343-0404; blueribbonrestaurants.com
Veggie Options: 3 appetizers, 12 maki rolls, 1 steamed dish
Cost: Appetizers $6.75-13.75, maki rolls $6-9.25, steamed dish $19.50
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There's no denying it: sushi is all about the fish. But vegetarians who love their sushi do have one distinct advantage—it's much cheaper. Considering that top-quality sushi bars are never a bargain, this is definitely an advantage worth exploiting. With that in mind, I decided to explore the vegetarian rolls at one of the more popular (and not-so-cheap) downtown sushi restaurants, Blue Ribbon Sushi.
Tucked away in the western reaches of SoHo, the demure storefront would go entirely unnoticed by the untrained eye. But step inside and you'll have a sneaking suspicion you're in for something delicious.
When our assortment of maki rolls arrived, the first thing I noticed was the ginger. It's actually ginger-colored. None of that vibrant pink stuff. The wasabi is also of notable quality—it tastes brighter, fresher, and more flavorful than any other wasabi I've encountered. This was definitely a good start.
From the appetizer section we ordered the Phoenix ($13.75), a roll of mixed vegetables that's wrapped in cucumber rather than nori, and topped with avocado (be sure to pass on the fish-broth-based sauce that comes with it). Carbophobes take note: this roll is also completely riceless. A crunchy combo of string bean, carrot, spinach, squash, and mushroom—it's like a really happy salad in roll form. While it's a great combination, it's also nearly $14 for rolled-up vegetables. So much for cheaper. You can get a similar rice and nori version that's a bit better at $9.25, but it's not the same all-veg experience.
Of the regular single-ingredient vegetable rolls, we ordered the squash ($6), shitake ($7.25), avocado ($7.25), and natto ($6.00). The squash won for being the most unexpectedly good. I couldn't resist picking a sliver or two of the deliciously savory squash out of the roll to enjoy on its own (blasphemy, I know!). Next best was the avocado—it wasn't significantly better than most other avocado rolls, but that didn't stop it from being tasty. The shitake was also exactly what you'd expect: pleasantly meaty and woodsy.
Then there's the natto, also known as fermented soybeans; rolled up with scallions, the beans themselves are coated in stringy, slimy, fermented goo, and no amount of wasabi and ginger could fully mask their decidedly bitter flavor. It's an acquired taste, recommended for the real adventure-seekers.
Ultimately, here's what I realized: when it comes to vegetarian sushi, the bad can only get so bad and the good can only get so good. So while you're never ordering the priciest sushi on the menu, you're also less likely to get something transcendent. At Blue Ribbon Sushi, they clearly know a thing or two about high-quality sushi. But is it worth going out of your way for the pricier stuff? For vegetarians, perhaps not so much.