Lunch review: Sushi shines at Joss Cafe

The client's in town. The client loves sushi. I want the client to love me. I take the client to Joss Cafe. I pick up the tab. Done deal.

You can replace "client" with out-of-town guest, superior officer, love interest, fellow foodie, or anyone else you want to impress, Joss promises to appeal because of two strong leading indicators: fine sushi, great space. Just don't go there expecting bargain-basement tabs. When you walk up half a flight of stairs off the sidewalk on 413 N. Charles and enter Joss, you're stepping up in more ways than one.

12:42 p.m. We enter a sparsely attended dining room and are offered our choice of unoccupied tables. In a couple of minutes, our server brings iced tea and a retro 8-ounce glass bottle of Coke.

The first thing that warms me to Joss is its space. The light through the windows facing Charles Street, the tony wood, dark fauna, light tile relief, the well lighted sushi bar and the softer light at our table, coupled with black-clad staff, lend the place an edgy chic without making too much of it. Joss' sushi bar also caught my eye. It's a long, serious-looking station I hope to return to someday soon to work till I'm stuffed or go broke.

12:52 p.m. We ordered inari and an asparagus and avocado roll for starters and tonkatsu and the grilled seafood medley salad as main courses.

One more strong leading indicator: Our server was poised, polite, prompt and respectfully (or naturally) demure. The two guys behind the sushi bar looked like they were born to handle sharp knives and exacting standards, while our server acted as the warm buffer to their cool professional presence.

The asparagus roll and inari landed forthwith and were the first sign that I should have clung like tuna on rice to the sushi menu. Avocado paired nicely with the asparagus and a hint of toasted sesame gave it depth. I wished we'd ordered two. But the inari — sushi rice packed in a pouch of fried tofu — assuaged my regrets. Credit for the order goes to my dining companion. The inari was sweet enough to pass for dessert.

1:08 p.m. Our server brings the entrees, both of which were OK. The tonkatsu, $9, a breaded pork with a brown dipping sauce, was nicely done, tender, but wowed neither of us. The seafood salad, $14, came with lots of balsamic vinegar that dominated every bite and pooled at the corners of the plate. The shrimp and scallops were cooked firm to just shy of tough, while the fish, flaky, smoky and tangy, stole the show.

It would be wholly unfair to declare from our small sample that Joss concentrates on sushi to the neglect of the rest of its menu, but our experience suggests the kitchen may get less attention than the bar. If that's the case, it's too bad, because if one of your party doesn't like sushi, Joss' kitchen tries to accommodate with teriyakis and tempuras and a handful of other safe bets, but going by our entrees, they won't come close to the sushi.

1:22 p.m. We finish, and I'm already calculating my return. This was my first visit to Joss, whose reputation among my sources always emphasized exceptionally good food — both cooked and raw — and that it's expensive. I disagree with the latter.

1:30 p.m. We pay our bill, and, OK, it was north of $35. It's true you can pour out some serious cash here, so it might not be the top candidate for a go-to lunch spot in a recession. But the quality of the sushi, the comfortably classy space and the pleasant service make Joss a value and a valuable addition to Baltimore City dining scene. It's got food, mood and tood. A cool place to be seen eating top-of-the-line sushi. How can you put a price on that?

Joss Cafe

Where: 413 N. Charles St.

Contact: 410-244-6988

Lunch hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday

Lunch entrees: $8-$19, sushi entrees $10 - $25

Food: ✭✭✭1/2

Service: ✭✭✭

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭1/2

[Key: ✭✭✭✭: Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]

Dining time: 48 minutes

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