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Dining out: Joss Café continues to do sushi right

Correspondent

Irasshai! That's the shout (it means welcome) that always greets you when you enter the venerable Joss Café on Main Street. And even if it sounds perfunctory on occasion (I mean how would you like yelling that for eight hours a day?), your authentic welcome is extended in more important ways: good service (you totally rock, Rachel!), consistently good sushi as well as other Japanese fare, and a selection of beverage choices guaranteed to keep you from going away hungry or thirsty.

Beverages at Joss certainly deserve their own paragraph. First, sake aficionados will glory in the dazzling array (two pages long) of sake offerings ranging from sweet to sparkling to dry (not many people even know that there are dry sakes). In addition to the sake menu, there are more than a dozen beers. Kirin Ichiban ($4.50/ 12 oz. and $8/22 oz.) is recommended as it pairs best with the greatest number of food items. A word of advice: Better to order two of the 12-oz. rather than one of the 22-oz. as it stays colder; and even though you pay a dollar more, you at least get two extra ounces. Teas, juices, sodas (including some Japanese sodas), and a few wines round out their impressive beverage complement.

Despite one's inclination to start putting check marks all over the pink list (nigiri and sashimi on one side and maki on the other), it's important to remember that other areas of the menu need to be explored as well. We started off with steaming bowls of Miso Soup ($2.50) and some Edamame ($4.50). The former has a tastier and more complex broth than is often found, elevating it from the ranks of that ubiquitous Japanese soup that comes with so many dishes but pleases so few people.

Joss serves their edamame hot and with just the right amount of sea salt. Their version also features fuller soybeans providing a bigger "pay-off" when one strips them from their pods.

With an out-of-towner in our midst, we wanted to show off the Maryland Crab Roll ($7.50) but it turned out to be our least favorite. Not very crabby and definitely outclassed by the Lobster Roll ($12) which mixed lobster meat with avocado and cucumber and paired it with a dipping sauce that was creamy and spicy and perfect with the dish.

Dynamite Roll ($6.50) has always been one of our favorites at Joss and we ordered it again this time with the same response----- approving. This roll features salmon, yellowtail, flounder, and crabmeat mixed with cucumber, scallions, and a creamy piquant sauce. Definitely recommended.

Throughout the years, the kitchen at Joss has maintained its skill with tempura preparations even with periodic changes in staff. This time, our foray into the tempura choices netted us some delicious fried foods in the form of shrimp, sweet potato, and broccoli. Seafood and Vegetable ($20) provided more than enough for our party of three, and we found the tamari sauce to be a particularly flavorful version. (The Ingen Miso at $6 is yet another example of adroit frying, offering flash-fried green beans topped with fried shallots and spicy miso sauce.)

The menu at Joss can be a bit overwhelming for first-timers, so our best advice is to treat ordering the way you'd treat it at a small plates restaurant. Don't try to cobble out a traditional first course/main course meal. Just order a few things and then order a few more. Definitely try to find a place for the Scallop Treasure ($10) that is consistently one of the most enjoyable items on their menu. Three tempura battered scallops arrive with bell pepper and onion fritters napped with more of the creamy spicy sauce that they do so well. Whatever you order, you'll find that the fish is fresh and that's the most important benchmark for a sushi restaurant.

To quote Frost, we had "promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep" on the occasion of this most recent visit, so we left without having time for dessert. We'd certainly advise that you do as we say rather than what we did: don't leave without trying their most popular dessert offering, Tempura Bananas ($8). The same skill with savory tempura dishes is in evidence here as well, and the dish is finished with praline, honey, vanilla ice cream, and raspberries. Quite a treat.

Vegetarians will find many attractive options at Joss, but gluten-free diners will need to depend on server savvy in terms of mapping out a meal. A caveat: gluten-free soy sauce is not available here.

Years ago, when we first asked about how Joss Café received its name, we were told that Joss means lucky. Considering that this is the anniversary of their 25th year pleasing regulars and newcomers alike at their upper Main Street location, it seems pretty safe to say that luck has nothing to do with it.

A final note

While dining recently at Les Folies with an out-of-town friend who is both Johnson-Wales trained and a culinary instructor, we spotted quenelles of pike on the menu and decided to order them. What a fortuitous choice, for those delightful examples of classic French cuisine were, we both agreed, the absolute best we'd ever tasted. Like velvety clouds of flavorful pike mousse whose lightness played counterpoint to the complex and delicately rich sauce. Put Les Folies on your holiday to-do list and hope the quenelles are available when you go.

Terra Walters is a freelance writer and editor based in Annapolis.

WHEN YOU GO:

WHAT: Joss Café & Sushi Bar

WHERE: 195 Main St. Annapolis

TELEPHONE: 410-263-4688

WEBSITE: www.josssushi.com

HOURS: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.to 2:30 p.m., Monday-Friday. Dinner, 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Monay-Thursday; 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., Friday; noon to 11 p.m., Saturday; 3 p.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday.

EXECUTIVE CHEF: Pang

FIRST COURSES: $2.50 - $14

MAIN COURSES: $10 - $34

CREDIT CARDS: MC, Visa, and AmEx

RESERVATIONS: Reservations are not accepted.

ACCESSIBILITY: Yes

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