My friend and I recently marveled at the limited amount of sushi served in and around downtown Austin. For a city that prides itself on a robust food scene, the paucity of options bewildered us. Yes, there’s one sleek spot with a nightclub vibe and specials that include a tuna pizza, and a statewide operation that serves dozens of kitchen-sink rolls that lean on cloying sweetness and globs of spicy mayonnaise. But where was something a little more traditional, a little more inviting, a little less obnoxious?
Maybe Fukumoto could fill that void.
Kazu Fukumoto knows the world of sushi, and he knows Austin. The chef started his career 16 years ago at Musashino and rose to the position of head sushi chef, as the restaurant established itself as one of the best sushi restaurants in Austin’s nascent food scene.
He opened his eponymous restaurant in early September in the mixed-use Corazon building off East Sixth Street. The Japanese izakaya concept, where drinking and dining often share equal billing and where sushi is served alongside a host of savory small plates, offered something relatively new to Austin and a reprieve from the plethora of comfort food and Italian restaurants proliferating around town. It sounded like the kind of restaurant you might find in Portland, New York City, or any number of food towns with more diverse dining scenes.
Fukumoto also felt like the right fit for East Austin’s bustling nightlife district. On a street mostly populated by bars and food trucks, a casual sit-down-and-stay-awhile restaurant made sense.
The restaurant’s strengths mostly rest in its sushi offerings. And, though the modern build-out — all polished concrete and handsome wood beneath an abundance of dangling single bulbs — doesn’t resemble a fine dining restaurant, many of the sushi prices do.
A menu of nightly specials featured vermilion hues of bluefin tuna ($5 per piece), bubble-gum-colored big eye fatty tuna ($6.95), and marbled Ora King salmon belly ($6.50). The fish was expertly cut and served in generous portions overlapping sadly unremarkable rice.
There are usually about a dozen nightly sushi specials, including subtle Tasmanian ocean trout ($5), a nice substitute for salmon, and snapper that lingered with the tannic buzz of green tea ($5.50).
More common choices, like clean yellowtail ($4), oily mackerel dotted with shiso paste ($3.75) and buttery fatty salmon ($4.50) hit slightly lower price points, but they still easily exceeded Musashino’s prices and hovered around those of Uchi. The best value is ordering a selection of 10 nigiri pieces of the chef’s choosing (generally from the regular sushi menu) for $22.
The half-dozen or so sushi rolls at Fukumoto forego silly names and the palate assault experienced at some other restaurants. Ingredients complement the fish instead of overwhelming it, as with the breathy crunch of scallions on a tuna-centered neigtoro roll ($8.50) and the bittersweet pop of plum and shiso on an ika ume squid roll ($7).
If Fukumoto stuck to sushi, the meals would have been more cohesive and successful. But the tempura (fried), yakitori (skewered and grilled) and other dishes from the non-sushi parts of the menu were more distracting than distinctive.
Despite the light batter and delicate fried shells, the tempura treatment muted the complexities, earthiness and textures of a trio of mushrooms on a nightly special ($9.50).
Fukumoto spent time between Musashino and his own restaurant studying grilling techniques in Japan, and that experience shows in the tender and smoky proteins that come off the grill (the rubbery octopus being a glaring exception), whether with a supple chicken heart ($2.75), juicy chicken thigh ($3.25), or velvety King salmon ($5.50). But, as the salty-sweet marinade reappeared on successive dishes, the homogeneity of the grilled items became monotonous.
The dishes outside the yakitori and tempura realms ranged from traditional delicacies like rich, silky discs of monkfish liver with scallions and grated daikon ($12) to overpriced cornflake-crusted fried shrimp (two for $10) that attacked the roof of my mouth with their gravelly finish. Among those hits and misses, I would have liked to find savory dishes with slightly more imagination and finesse.
Imbibing is a key component of the izakaya experience in Japan, and Fukumoto provides a thorough introduction to the various flavor profiles of sake, with about 20 available by glass or bottle. But the beer is mostly limited to intriguing but small selections of Japanese brews, and the small and uninspired wine list (Chloe Prosecco, Fiver Rivers Pinot Noir) does not encourage an evening spent lingering over drinks. Neither do the substandard pours or forgettable desserts.
Casual enough to hang on the east side, with just enough polish to pull frequenters of downtown, Fukumoto should be able to stand out in a town up to its beard in seasonal and local New American comfort cuisine. Whether that happens will depend on the restaurant’s ability to hone its strengths and mute its weaknesses.
514 Medina St. 512-770-6880, fukumotoaustin.com
Rating: 7 out of 10
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $3.75-$12. Nigiri sushi, $3.75-$5. Sushi rolls, $4-$8.95. Yakitori skewers, $2.75-$5. Tempura, $6.50-$13.
What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.
The Bottom Line: Fukumoto answers the call for sushi in a fun and relaxed environment near downtown, but the izakaya experience still has its flaws.
Notes: Three-hour validated parking available in the Corazon Building, located on San Marcos Street between Fifth and Sixth streets. Reservations are only available for parties of eight or more for the private room.