June 12 2013 12:00 AM

Freshness, artistry hallmarks of Maru's East Lansing location


Welcome to the circle

The Japanese like to say that you first eat with your eyes. Maru, the latest sushi spot in Greater Lansing, understands this implicitly.

Every plate seems like a still life portrait. Just one example: On a slender white plate, cylinders of crab sushi stand upright and at attention. The sticky rice is wrapped with traditional seaweed, looking like little whitewall tires. Delicate slices of crab sashimi serve as the hubs. Finally, a splash of crab salad sits atop each wheel, as if it had just rolled through a puddle.

Maru is Japanese for “circle” — a fitting name for a place that turns sushi into gorgeous, circular eye candy.

Interestingly, your experience at Maru begins not with visuals but a lusty shout from the preparers behind the sushi bar: “Irrasshaimase!” To the untrained Western ear, this full-throated exclaim sounds like a command, as in, “Beat it, you bum!”

Actually, this is a very polite way of saying “welcome,” and something you hear upon entering almost any shop or restaurant in Japan.

As if not to detract from the artwork set before you, Maru’s interior is spartan to the point of bleak. Bare white walls stare down at dark floors and tables. The eyes quickly retreat from this desert to the oasis of life thrumming behind the sushi bar.

There, everything and everyone seems in perpetual motion. Chopping, slicing, arranging, adjusting. On one visit, I watched one person, presumably the head sushi chef, dissemble an already plated dish, then carefully reassemble slices of tuna and avocado to his satisfaction — while the “student” quietly watched. Still life, from a master.

On separate visits, we feasted on tuna maguro, ribeye and shrimp hibachi, calamari, soft shell crab and land and sea tempura (shrimp, sweet potatoes and asparagus). There was also an amazing dish called crabby mushroom — a take on the old standard, crab rangoon — but far better because the cream cheese and crab interior were complemented, not overwhelmed, by the batter.

Some of the best items on the menu are the sauces. The eel sauce is smoky and slightly tangy, akin to a good southern barbecue sauce. When we ordered the ribeye and shrimp hibachi, it came with a light ginger sauce plus Maru’s take on aioli, which was exceptional.

The East Lansing location (Okemos has its own Maru) was only open a couple of weeks when we first visited, and it needs to work on some areas. One dinner companion had his appetizer served last. The flash-fried calamari was chewier than it should be, said another fellow diner. The miso soup, which was OK, lacked the pronounced smokiness I prefer in miso (fermented soybeans), allowing the fishy elements (too strong for my taste) to reign supreme.

Back to artistry. One dish we shared as a group was sashimi sprinkled with the roe of flying fish. The roe looked like tiny, rounded emeralds. They shimmered in the light. While I am not much on fish roe, the sight itself was amazing. And everyone else at the table proclaimed the taste was amazing as well. I was outvoted on that one.

If you have room for dessert, and let’s hope you do, ask for the green tea crème brûlée.

Slightly thinner than the traditional version, it is nonetheless a top-of-the-line dish. More eye candy!

Do yourself a favor. Unless you’re with a large party, find a seat at the counter to watch the show. Maybe the sushi chefs are instructed to act happy in their work, but if it was acting, it was very convincing. They laughed, joked, chatted with guests, all the while attentive to the work at hand.

Sushi was rolled tightly with small bamboo mats. Rockin’ hot wasabi was sculpted into tiny, Gilbraltar-shaped mounds. Dangerous looking knives deftly cut the sushi into precise, same-size wheels.  Well before the first plate landed in front of me, I was already eating.

Off-the-menu delights
by Gabrielle Johnson

On my first visit to Maru Sushi & Grill’s new East Lansing location, I had high expectations. Since the original Maru came on the scene in Okemos a few years ago, I have trumpeted my praise to anyone who would listen — its sashimi melts in your mouth. 

At the new Maru, I ordered salmon sashimi (small slices of unadorned raw fish) and three rolls for my boyfriend and I to share — the Tarantula roll, the Soy Joy and the Yellow Fever. One thing I don’t like about Maru is that it doesn’t offer salad and miso soup to diners, as opposed to the area’s other sushi restaurants. 

The Tarantula roll came out first, beautifully presented. The boyfriend doesn’t know much about sushi, but he knows that he likes crab. The crab in this roll, however, was mealy. The masago — the bright orange fish eggs that top many sushi rolls — was my favorite part of this roll. I love the way the little eggs pop when I bite into them. The contents of the Tarantula, though, were limp. 

Our next roll was the Soy Joy, my all-time favorite from past Maru experiences. I love the crunch of the soy paper that tops the roll, and the spicy mayo swirled on the plate gives just a hint of heat to the flaky, fresh fish. This roll was delicious, as usual.

I love the cilantro oil on Yellow Fever, which tastes like fresh-cut grass in the best possible way. Each piece of the roll was topped with a little slice of jalapeno, which obviously isn’t traditional Japanese but so delicious. I would have loved more of the cilantro oil, which was sparingly drizzled. 

And then … we waited. And waited. After 45 minutes, I was almost certain that our inattentive waitress had forgotten our sashimi. Finally, she brought the platter out and set it on the table without a word. I was flabbergasted. I believed (and subsequent research has supported) that sashimi was to be served as a first course. Occasionally, sashimi might be a main course, but it is never a chaser for sushi rolls. 

I wanted to wash the sour taste out of my mouth and flagged down the waitress to try to order the Hamachi Kama, an off-the-menu fried fish jaw that a restaurateur I know swears by. She returned a few minutes later — sorry, they’re out. Anything else I would like? I told her that I’ve never been served sashimi last, and I wasn’t thrilled. She upbraided me for not knowing that sashimi can be served at any time. No apology, but her dismissal of my concern was followed by a visit from the manager, who explained that the sushi chef was training sous chefs that night and had a platter to prepare, so our sashimi was always going to be on a delay. 

I like to think that I’m not an unreasonable person. I understand a busy night at a restaurant. But this was a Wednesday. The joint was not jumping. And if an element of our meal was going to be 45 minutes later than expected, I’d like the courtesy of a heads-up. 

Nevertheless, I followed this dinner with a Saturday lunch with my bestie, who sat down and immediately ordered the Land and Sea tempura and a glass of Riesling. Our appetizer was sliced zucchini, sweet potato, mushroom, broccoli and shrimp, all tempura-battered and served with a soy-based dipping sauce. We gobbled it up, but she stopped cold when she tasted her wine, which wasn’t Riesling at all. 

She told the waitress that the wine wasn’t Riesling, it was Chardonnay. The waitress insisted that she’d watched the bartender pour from a Riesling bottle, but she begrudgingly took  away the offending glass and brought a new one. He opened a new bottle this time, she assured us. This time the wine was correct, but the attitude was sour.

We got our Hamachi Kama this time and ripped into the chunks of juicy yellowtail meat first with our chopsticks, then with our fingers. If you’re a Midwesterner like I am and you love your haddock, cod and whitefish, this is the go-to sushi restaurant order for you. It’s affordable, at $13, and comes atop rice and salad. 

We followed up with my Maru modus operendi — Yellow Fever and Soy Joy. I just can’t quit the Soy Joy. I was happy to see that the Yellow Fever game had been stepped up and the slices from the roll were nestled around a ramekin of cilantro oil. 

As much as I love sushi, and as happy as I was when this new Maru opened in a location a little closer to my neck of the woods, I think I’ll continue to make the jaunt to Okemos to satisfy my (frequent) cravings.

Maru Sushi & Grill
1500 W. Lake Lansing Road, East Lansing
11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday;
11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday
(517) 337-1500, marurestaurant.com
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