Unless you live in Mount Washington, you may not know Chiyo Sushi exists. Last year it quietly opened where Hoang's used to be, and in some ways it seems like just another in an endless line of Japanese restaurants feeding Baltimore's seemingly insatiable craving for raw fish, miso soup and seaweed salad. The owner, Chin Po Wu, may be familiar to you; he's owned five other sushi restaurants in the area, including Sushi Hana in Towson.
Chiyo is a cozy spot, provided you get a table in the small downstairs dining room next to the sushi bar. Upstairs, not so cozy. If you're a fan of blond-wood, contemporary sushi places, forget Chiyo. If you think they are soulless and don't have enough neon, this modest establishment may very well appeal. Put it in the slightly down at the heels but very clean category, with plenty of personality.
Whatever you think of the atmosphere, or the food for that matter, you have to love the staff. Our waitress was charming, and who cared if she wasn't dressed in a traditional kimono? As the place got busier, other people -- including the manager -- stepped in to help out, so we felt well taken care of.
As for the food, it had its ups and downs. You will do very well here if what you want is standard sushi parlor fare, and that's not a knock of the restaurant. Pristine pieces of tuna, yellowtail and salmon have pride of place on the sashimi platter, artfully embellished with fresh greenery, octopus and pretty striated squares of omelet.
For those who are wary of raw fish, there is an astonishing variety of cooked or vegetarian maki rolls to choose from. How do crispy bits of tempura shrimp, combined with crabmeat, rolled in sticky rice and topped with buttery slices of avocado sound?
The richness of broiled freshwater eel is tempered by its delicately sweet sauce. It's a more interesting appetizer than the beef kushiyaki, small pieces of beef skewered and grilled with a mild Asian barbecue sauce.
Chiyo's tempura is swathed in a sheer gold crust that allows the flavors of the vegetables and huge shrimp to shine through, energized by the soy-and-sweet-wine dipping sauce.
The kitchen faltered with the nabe yaki udon, a noodle, seafood and chicken casserole with a poached egg perched on top. The broth was decidedly fishy-tasting.
But salmon teriyaki was a fine fresh fillet bathed in the traditional sweet teriyaki sauce. To my mind, no reconciliation is possible between the two flavors, but the friend who ordered it seemed to enjoy it. Surprisingly, it arrived flanked by roast potatoes and broccoli, with no rice in sight.
Dinners come with smooth miso soup and an iceberg salad with ginger dressing. Pay extra for the more flavorful seaweed salad.
Desserts are limited to mochi or vanilla ice cream fried in tempura batter, which is a waste of good ice cream and, for that matter, good tempura batter. Mochi is a variation on the theme of ice cream wrapped in something -- in this case a small ball of green tea or red bean ice cream in a somewhat gummy but oddly appealing covering. Neither of them will really satisfy the traditional American hunger for desserts, but not to worry. There's a Baskins-Robbins nearby.
So what do you want from your Japanese restaurants? If sushi bars are your neighborhood hangout, the place you go when you don't feel like cooking, if you're looking for a comfortable little restaurant where customer service is all important and the food is quite decent, Chiyo Sushi may be the spot.
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
Where: 1619 Sulgrave Ave., Mount Washington
Hours: Open Tuesday through Friday for lunch, Tuesday through Sunday for dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $3.95-$7.95; entrees: $9.95-$20.95
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *