So, on an unpredictably crowded Tuesday night, the crowd at Baltimore Sticky Rice is a healthy mix of downtown and uptown folks, most of them young, and all of them having a good time.
This is the third Sticky Rice, and it walks the shrewdly designed path laid down by the original in Richmond, Va., which was founded in 1999 by John Yamashita and Jason Henry, and a second Sticky Rice, located in Washington. The basic premise, a mash-up of sushi restaurant and neighborhood tavern, sounds simple and not even all that original. What Yamashita and Henry, along with the various overlapping ownership groups, have done is to calibrate it expertly. At the fundamental level, they've created the kind of space that appeals to people like them. This is essential. Ideas like this go terribly wrong the moment they begin to condescend to what research says diners want.
Good decisions are apparent everywhere, beginning with how smartly the new space has retained the most appealing aspects of Friends, the space's previous tenant. The welcoming wooden bar itself remains, complemented by a new sushi bar; the old black-and-white tile floor remains (much cleaner), and old nooks have been reclaimed for spillover dining.
Sticky Rice uses music effectively to set the evening's mood. Some diners will find it too loud, but I'm willing to bet that the volume level has been locked into place by the management team, and that the playlist has been planned out to the second. Vintage and contemporary videos play on the several large screens hung behind the bar and over the dining room.
More good decisions: Sticky Rice has hired well, stocking its staff with friendly veteran servers; and on that unexpectedly busy Tuesday night, Yamashita was working behind the sushi bar — he's a consultant to the Baltimore restaurant, not one of its owners. That impressed me, and so did the vigilant presence of owner/manager Ronnie Pastzor on the floor. He noticed the curious looks I was giving a tempura platter — gooey batter had settled on the broccoli florets. He had the plate taken away and a new one sent out.
As for the food, which is priced low across the board, it's almost exactly as good as it says it is. It's interesting to see, in retrospect, the claims that Sticky Rice makes for its food. It says on the Sticky Rice website, that "our specialty is our fresh sushi bar," and as it turns out, the specialty rolls here turn out to be far better than goofy names like Godzirra and Goochland would lead you to believe. I liked a Drawn and Buttered, a roll with crabmeat and crunchy shrimp served with drawn butter; and Billy Goat's Gruff, which wraps yellowtail around goat cheese. They're not for purists, obviously, but they're conceived with flair and executed well.
On the other hand, here's what's said about another Sticky Rice calling-card — "our huge bowls of noodles will satisfy big and small." That reticence is well placed. There are nine or so versions, some vegan, some with meat, chicken, or seafood, and each one can be composed with a choice of soba, udon, vermicelli noodles or sticky rice. We tried three variations, all impressively sized and not with a bit of flavor.
But appetizers here are tremendously good, things like the pot stickers, stuffed with spicy ground chicken, fried up hot, nice, and golden; a plate of tempura shrimp that impressed us with its freshness and crunch.
There are a few pub food options, but I don't think anyone's going to fall in love with the Tokyo Burger, which you would never know is glazed with teriyaki unless you read it first on the menu. "Tots" aren't the novelty they were when Sticky Rice introduced them to Richmond, but a bucketful of them for $7 is an effective attention getter.
Sticky Rice Baltimore stays open until the bars close, runs late-night happy hours, and will be starting up a karaoke night soon. It does what it does extremely well, and we're stuck on it.
Sticky Rice Baltimore
Where: 1634 Aliceanna Ave., Fells Point
Contact: 443-682-8243, http://www.bmoresticky.com
Hours: Open for dinner seven days a week, and for Saturday and Sunday brunch
Prices: Appetizers, $4-$9 Entrees, $8-$10
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven:✭✭; Poor:✭]