If the original Rock-n-Sake on Fulton Street is an exuberant party house, Bisutoro at 1581 Magazine St. is a VIP lounge – a sophisticated and intimate place to sample exotic raw fish and Japanese delicacies.
Both restaurants are owned by business partners Tanya Hailey and Duke Nelson, who waste no time replicating Bisutoro’s formula. They already plan to open locations in Old Metairie and Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi. The pair opened Rock-n-Sake in 1998 and eventually expanded the business to four locations. They have since sold all but the original location to move in a more upscale direction.
Bisuto, which means bistro in Japanese, opened in March in what was once a Cherry Coffee. The owners and its executive chef, Ryan Smith, all live in the neighborhood, and when the space became available in June 2020 — at the start of the pandemic — they took a leap of faith and signed the lease.
“I wanted to showcase unusual fish, but that’s not really what Rock-n-Sake is all about,” says Smith, who moved here in 2011 from Salt Lake City, where he learned how to make sushi with chefs. Japanese. He got a job at Rock-n-Sake when he came to town.
The vision for the new restaurant is to tempt widely-traveling sushi lovers with a variety of fish imported from around the world, many of which are not often featured on local sushi menus. “It seems like most sushi restaurants have the same menu,” Smith says. “Why only make salmon and tuna? »
Thanks to his West Coast connections, Smith can buy from a Japanese company and get some unusual fish, which is picked up from the airport every week. He declined to share the company name, but the fish are displayed like gems in lighted glass sushi cases that would fit perfectly in a jewelry store.
Offerings are subject to change, but on a recent menu he featured live geoduck, large Oregon clam and Massachusetts monkfish pâté, which he calls “the foie gras of sushi.”
Sparkling slices of fatty red tuna toro are sourced from Spain and Mexico. Travally Jack and horse mackerel come from Japan, and uni comes from Santa Barbara. All fish are listed in Japanese, with their English name and provenance.
Smith strives to educate customers on the traditional way to eat nigiri, with raw fish on a raft of sushi rice. “It’s insulting in Japan to pour soy sauce on nigiri. I just brush a little sauce on the nigiri before serving. It is meant to be eaten by hand, like the hand rolls. Chopsticks are for sashimi.
While Smith is a purist when it comes to presenting fish, he has fun with the maki section of the menu. The satsuma salmon, named after the local citrus fruit native to Japan, includes red crab, tempura-fried green onion, citrus and ponzu and is wrapped in soy paper. Maui Waui is a Hawaiian-style roll with spicy tuna, grilled pineapple, mashed habanero-cilantro, and macadamia nuts.
A menu section for “cold mixed dishes” offers flavored and dried fish, such as beet-dried arctic char with fried capers and dill, a play on Swedish gravlax. Baja hamachi is served with pico de gallo and has intense heat in the back thanks to a burst of jalapeno oil. Diners can also order the chef’s choice sashimi plate and let Smith surprise them.
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Vegetarians will find plenty of options, like the Bird Feeder maki, a bok choy roll, pickled sprouts, avocado, and a dusting of furikake.
There are also cooked options, such as battered fish crackers, miso udon, bulgogi-filled gyoza dumplings, steak, and a fish dish of the day. The bar program is still running and the wine wall shows a range of sakes, like Gekkeikan Suzaku, made from polished rice.
The sleek restaurant is sleek and modern, with a cobalt color scheme carried over into an eye-catching graphic octopus hanging above the bar. Bisutoro seats 40 people indoors and outdoors and reservations are suggested even for solo dining.
“This restaurant is for our customers who may have started with us at Rock-n-Sake, but now want a more sophisticated, quieter place to eat their sushi,” says Hailey. “That’s what I want too.”