I have now seen what has to be the gayest sushi roll in Kansas City: the Fire Island Roll, served at the two-year-old Mint Asian Café & Sushi.
No single component of the roll, including the name, stereotypes it as queer. There's tempura shrimp and avocado, capped with a jaunty slice of spicy tuna, and dotted with a hint of spicy mayonnaise and eel sauce. Those things are merely festive. But as a gay writer, I'm telling you that any reader with one working eye and a sense of humor will clock Mint's Fire Island Roll as something utterly flamboyant. It's all in the presentation. The gay, gay presentation.
Mint perches the pieces of this roll (a traditional futomaki creation in many sushi restaurants, though the ingredients can differ) in a martini glass that's already brimming with suggestively coiled ribbons of carrot and daikon. Oh, and the glass also contains a plastic cube that pulses red and green lights. It's like Charlie the Tuna hitting on you at Studio 54.
Many of chef-owner Johnny Li's sushi specialties are served in similarly outré fashion. Chinese-born Li and his wife, Shelly Zheng, can't say no to the theatrical. The tiny Mint dining room is practically a pop-art installation, with bold spearmint-green walls, shiny white-plastic tables, and colorful polyurethane place mats that look like something Edie Sedgwick might have worn to a Warhol happening.
That sensibility alone makes Mint different from any other sushi salon in the metro, and it's part of why I loved the place before I'd taken my first bite of crab Rangoon, one of the very few Chinese-American options on the menu. It is, of course, made with imitation crab; the menu doesn't state this, but the servers softly confess it, if you ask. And the lobster? When I asked Zheng, she wasn't quite sure, either.
"It comes from Restaurant Depot," she explained. Fair enough — fresh lobsters are rarely dragged up from the Missouri River. The seafood in the lobster roll is certainly tasty enough to be real: tempura-battered and fried before being folded with cream cheese and avocado, in a sheath of pale-pink soy paper. It's another sushi roll that gets the Donna Summer treatment at Mint, and it's delicious.
Among the only plain-Jane dishes here are the onion soup and the pan-fried gyoza dumplings; the latter come filled with delicately seasoned pork and arrive at the table practically naked. The fried spring rolls are small and also unadorned, but they offer a perfect balance of greasy, crunchy, soft and supple.
I didn't expect a small dining room like Mint's to have an extensive menu, but the place prepares an appealing selection of fresh sushi and sashimi (two-piece orders range from $3 to $6.50), 17 more costly specialty rolls (the usual suspects, though the Lee's Summit Roll is baked with chopped octopus), and seven or so grilled hibachi-style meals.
I crave sushi just about as frequently as I play my old Sylvester LPs, so I rarely make a complete meal of maki rolls. But Li has some genuine artistic skill in this field, and his spin on a Mr. James roll (deep-fried with tempura shrimp and smoked salmon) is snazzy and, better yet, delectable.
The least complicated choices at Mint are those hibachi dishes, modestly priced and including soup, sautéed vegetables and fried rice). The steak is unexpectedly tender and flavorful, and a filet mignon I sampled was outstanding. The grilled choices are also neatly in tune with Midwestern sensibilities; simply prepared meats and rice are as comforting as beefsteak and potatoes.
Getting back to the audacious, though: Li's Thai-influenced curries are bold and beautiful. The yellow curry is slightly sweet and much less fiery than the more potent red, which is hardly tongue-searing. It was punchy enough to lure me into eating everything in the bowl.
I may not have fallen for that initial, gaudy come-on, but Mint seduced me all the same. Whatever they're doing, Li and Zheng are doing it right — even counting their offbeat sense of style.
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