Canton Square is known for a lot of things: fun nights out, high-energy bars, easy access to Miller Lite.
What's not on that list? Calming surroundings and top-notch Asian food.
Shiso Tavern, which opened in June in the space formerly occupied by Cosmopolitan and, most recently, by Te Amo, just might change that.
Owners Mel Carter and Brett Lockard understand what it takes to create a Canton-area hot spot: They're also the team behind Blue Hill Tavern and Tavern on the Square.
It's easy to imagine Shiso Tavern packed to the rafter — no doubt it will be most nights. But when we arrived just before 6 on a recent Thursday night, Shiso was sparsely populated.
The restaurant filled up, but the space retained a sense of calm, thanks to soothing gray walls, crisp white linens and little vases of bamboo on each table. The service matched the decor: Our waiter, dressed in understated black, was soft-spoken and reserved — but always there when we needed him.
We started with a duo of fruity, refreshing drinks. Sweet and herbaceous, the Praying Mantis ($8, $5 during happy hour) blended gin, fresh strawberries and basil lemonade to make an excellent summer cocktail.
The Ginger Blossom ($8, $5 during happy hour) wasn't as spicy as we would've liked, but its combination of citrus vodka, ginger liqueur, lime and cranberry juice was tasty.
The Shiso menu spans sushi and creative Asian fusion dishes. Executive chef Brendan Tharp, a Blue Hill Tavern veteran, cooks the fusion meals and Daniel Binghak is the executive sushi chef.
Binghak's resume includes five years rolling sushi at famed New York City restaurant Morimoto. On our waiter's recommendation, we tried Binghak's soft-shell crab roll ($12, $9 during happy hour). We weren't disappointed.
Visually, the roll was a stunner, with colorful ingredients wrapped in bright yellow soy paper. Sweet chunks of fried soft-shell crab and masago (the roe of the Icelandic capelin fish) were paired with thin slices of fresh cucumber and scallion. Dressed with a sweet eel sauce and tempura flakes, the flavors melded neatly.
Texturally, the roll was even better. The play between tender soft crab, raw vegetables and crunchy tempura was exciting.
The tuna trio entree ($21) put a spotlight on the much-loved fish. The entree looked spectacular, a narrow plate topped with three sculptural presentations of tuna.
We enjoyed all three, but the tuna tataki was our favorite. Seared tuna, still very rare in the center, sat atop a small mound of mild, house-made kimchi. The contrast between fatty tuna and acidic, crunchy kimchi was inspired.
The ahi poke, a take on Hawaii's raw fish salad, was savory and just a tad spicy, with micro cilantro sprinkled on top, cutting the intensity of the well-seasoned, chopped fish.
The plate's third preparation, sliced tuna sashimi with ripe avocado slices on top of crispy strands of fried wonton wrapper, was technically correct and texturally intriguing, but needed a splash of soy sauce for flavor. Served alone, we would have adored it, but next to its rock- star neighbors, it seemed a tad boring.
Nonfish dishes are often an afterthought at sushi restaurants, but not at Shiso Tavern. The shiso ramen noodle bowl ($17) certainly fit that bill. Arriving as a pile of mostly raw ingredients ready to dunk in steaming broth, the dish required some effort from the diner.
The noodle bowl was worth ordering for the broth alone. Infused with everything from pork bones to konbu (Japanese seaweed that adds intense umami flavor), the liquid was crisp but savory.
On top, bean sprouts, scallions, thin slices of red chili peppers and a sprinkling of shiso (a Japanese herb) were crunchy and bright. A soft egg added rich creaminess. And the slices of chewy pork belly were a welcome modern twist.
Before delivering the noodle bowl, our waiter brought us a tray with two small containers. Diners are welcome to add sriracha to the bowl for spice or hoisin for sweetness, he explained. We amped up the heat with a spoonful of sriracha, but not much additional seasoning was necessary.
Shiso Tavern's fusion approach carried over into dessert. We tried the green tea brownie ($6), an Asian take on the old-fashioned grasshopper brownie. Instead of bright green creme de menthe filling, the rich chocolate brownie was layered with green tea ice cream and served with another scoop of the same ice cream on the side.
The ice cream was mild and creamy, a refreshing counterpoint to the decadent brownie.
The team behind Shiso Tavern understands the Canton Square crowd. They know they need to cater to friends grabbing drinks and a few appetizers, as well as couples ordering multicourse meals. The menu's variety, and consistency in terms of quality, should appeal to both types of diners.
Let's just hope that when the crowds roll in — and they will — the Zen remains.
Back story: Backed by the veteran team behind Blue Hill Tavern and Tavern on the Square, Shiso Tavern opened on Canton Square in June. The menu includes expertly rolled sushi, intriguing Asian fusion dishes and creative cocktails.
Parking: Street parking
Signature dish: The soft-shell crab roll highlights executive sushi chef Daniel Binghak's skill with creative sushi preparations. Beautifully presented and filled with interesting textures and flavors from sweet to spicy, the roll puts a local spin on sushi.
Where: 2933 O'Donnell St., Baltimore
Contact: 410-276-8800, shisotavern.com
Open: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.
Credit Cards: All major credit cards
Food: ✭ ✭ ✭ 1/2
Service: ✭ ✭ ✭
Atmosphere: ✭ ✭ ✭
[Key: Excellent: ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭; Good: ✭ ✭ ✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭ ✭ Poor: ✭]Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun