Aug. 19 2009 12:00 AM

Sushi restaurant builds better rolls from the bottom up


Sadly, the photo you see with this article does about as much justice to the dish it represents as a Polaroid of a Montana sunset — you just can’t capture something that majestic in two dimensions and easily reproducible colors.

During a recent visit, Robert Song, owner of Maru Sushi Bar & Grill in Okemos, brought out roll after gorgeous roll of colorful (and delicious-looking) rice, fish and vegetable combinations, providing a history of each ingredient and an etymology for each dish. He described in acute detail the time, thought and care that went into everything about his restaurant, from the short-grain rice in his signature dishes to the massive, 40-square-foot art piece that adorns the wall behind the bar. You get the feeling he likes what he does.

“We pay attention to the very basics of what sushi is,” Song said. “People have so many misconceptions about sushi. Literally, it just means ‘vinegar rice,’ so we start with that and build it up from there. We are very dedicated to quality here. We don’t want to just be the best sushi restaurant in town. We want to be the best restaurant in town that also happens to serve sushi.”

Be not afraid, ye of finicky taste buds; there is something on this menu for you. See the word “grill” in the name? There’s more than just raw fish. “I come from a steakhouse background, so I wanted to make sure we had items like tenderloin and teriyaki chicken on the menu,” Song said. “We have a lot of vegetarian choices too. And it’s all organic, it’s all made from scratch, and it’s all the best you’ll find anywhere.”

A 2001 graduate of Michigan State University with a degree in dietetics eight years ago, Song accepted an offer to manage a restaurant in the Saginaw area. After eight years working for Genji Japanese Steakhouse, he had the itch to do his own thing.

“I had worked with some very talented chefs, but I was eager to start my own place,” he said. “Then I met Chef Moon, and everything fell into place. He is so phenomenally talented, and I’m really lucky we met.”

Chef Moon Yang was working at Nama Sushi Bar in Knoxville, Tenn., when Song happened upon his restaurant. (Song said Nama has consistently been voted the No. 1 restaurant in Knoxville for years.) He was blown away by some of Yang’s dishes, so he sought him out to find out how he did it. A friendship developed, and when Song started planning for Maru, which opened last April, asking Yang to come work for him was a no-brainer.

Song’s wife, Kelly, an interior and graphic designer, developed the ultra-modern décor and menu layout. The restaurant setup is intimate (it seats about 55), yet full of breathing room and natural light. It was conceived to be a welcoming environment, and Song tries to get to know as many customers as possible.

“We have a smaller, concentrated menu, but we customize dishes for individual people, too,” Song said. “The more we get to know you, the better your experience is going to be.”

The Soy Joy ($13) is one of the most popular rolls. Spicy tuna, albacore tuna, cucumber and tempura crunch are rolled in soy paper and served with drizzles of spicy mayo, eel sauce and the seductively named “fantasy sauce.” Feel free to swoosh your sushi through any or all of the sauces on the plate, or simply dunk it into soy sauce.

The Mahalo ($14) features shrimp tempura and spicy mayo topped with fresh yellowtail, avocado and — the kicker — pineapple salsa. The fish is cut fresh to each order, something Song claimed is atypical in other sushi restaurants, and you can taste the difference.

Even the coffee and desserts are taken to the next level. Song places small batch orders for his Brundian coffee beans, which are custom roasted by his purveyor 24 hours before shipping and then ground and hand-pressed for each cup. All of the desserts are made in-house, including the chocolate truffles and the crème brûlée.

Next up: filling out the bar menu. Song said Maru recently acquired a class C liquor license, and he plans to build a cocktail menu and offer half-off sake, beer and wines on select days. He already offers a half-off sushi happy hour every afternoon. “This is going to be the place to bring friends, have fun and enjoy some great food,” Song said.

Maru Sushi & Grill, 5100 Marsh Road, Okemos. 11:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. & 4:30 – 9:30 p.m. Monday – Saturday; 4 – 9 p.m. Sunday. (517) 349-7500. www.