Maru Sushi & Grill

(Grand Rapids, MI) — For some people, the term “sushi” brings to mind raw seafood, plucked fresh from the ocean, carved up still flipping with life, then delivered to the counter where ravenous carnivores devour the bits of pink-white meat. This simplistic view dominated our perceptions, too, wrought by inexperience and ignorance. So, we set out to Maru Sushi & Grill for dinner, seeking enlightenment and sustenance in equal measure...

He Fed:

The omnipresent California roll is about as close to sushi as I’ve ever come. I’m still fostering my taste for seafood, after 40 years of avoidance—ask me about the “fishstick behind the refrigerator” incident sometime—and I’m not too proud to say I’ve got a long way to go. Mussels, oysters, and clams have been giving me a rough time lately, though I’ve matured when it comes to shrimp, crawfish, and tentacled beasties. I also adore ceviche. I’m excited to find something new to munch on tonight.

Maru, a regional chain with other locations in Okemos and East Lansing, opened next to Brewery Vivant about a year ago. The small restaurant has made good use of their limited footprint, even adding a nice patio area. We arrive for an early dinner and it’s temperate enough to opt for an outside table. I dig into the menu, which is divided into sharing plates, soups, salads, noodles, hibachi grilled dishes, sashimi, nigiri, maki, te-maki, and various rolls. It’s quite the variety!

Like a lovelorn puppy, my eyeballs lock onto the one item I cannot resist: octopus. My heart beats faster. My tongue dries up. I find it hard to speak. It’s hard to imagine what the waiter must think when he first sees me, panting hard, eyes moist. Somehow, I utter the words, “What’s the difference between octopus sashimi and octopus ngiri?” He looks at me with utter pity. “I’m sorry, sir...we are out of the octopus.” Several patrons whip their heads toward me as the sound of my heart breaking disrupts their meals. I want to cry. Instead, we place a drink order and dismiss him while I regain my composure.

Somehow, Juliet soothes my rage and hurt, and I’m able to look at the menu again without wanting to punch it. There is still plenty to like. We decide to start with the Soft Shell Crab. Never having tried them, I expect a platter full of small, bite-sized crustaceans, not the gigantic spider-like crab cut in half and deep-fried. Trepidatiously, I snap off a leg like a french fry, dip it in the Maru sauce, and crunch away. Not bad! It’s a little dry and chitinous with a vaguely off-putting aftertaste, but it’s a new taste for me. The more I eat, the more I like it.

I’ve heard from friends that we have to try the Sexy Bacon signature roll, containing hickory smoked bacon, cucumber, asparagus, crab, tempura crunch, soy paper, fantasy sauce, creamy garlic sauce, eel sauce, and shredded nori. It’s a huge roll probably better suited for four people, but we do our best, savoring the spicy, smoky combination of pork and seafood. This is more like the sushi I’ve tried in past and it helps reset my palate for the last course.

Although it’s on the sharing plates section, I get the Ruby Cocktail Ceviche. It’s a chef salad, of sorts, topped with beautifully pink chunks of tuna, brunoise tomato, red onion, avocado, cilantro, serrano pepper, creme fraiche, masago (sustainable Icelandic roe), and scallions with rice and wonton chips. The tuna is clean and wonderful, with no trace of “fishiness”. Even the roe provides a nice salty pop without overwhelming the freshness of the entire dish. I chose wisely.

Despite the near-disastrous lack of octopus, Maru turns out to be a pleasant excursion. When my heartbreak has mended, I’ll call ahead next time and when my one true love is back in stock, I’ll pony up to the counter next time to watch as the tentacles are carved, quivering, onto my dinner plate.

She Fed:

I want to like sushi, I truly do. It’s so beautiful on the plate, downright artful. And the thought of such clean eating and all the nutritional benefits of seaweed and fish are extremely appealing. But I’ve got to confess, when people say “Hey let’s go grab sushi!” my first reaction is sheer panic. The truth is I’m a little squeamish eating raw fish; I think it’s the mouthfeel. In addition, I’m unfamiliar with the various terms and styles of rolls, so I feel out of my element when ordering. I typically opt for the spicy tuna roll knowing the sriracha aioli and vinegared rice will help get me through the raw fish. So when Jeremy suggests we hit Maru for dinner, I’m anxious but want to give it a try. How else will I ever learn?

Our waiter can either sense my trepidation or is simply used to dealing with sushi newbies. He asks if we’ve been to Maru before and inquires how experienced we are with sushi. (Maybe he sees fear in my eyes?) When Jeremy tells him we’ve had sushi a few times in the past but aren’t experts our server describes two fish species not listed on the menu that he thinks would be best for us to start with. He explains they’re both very mild and good for first-timers (which we’re not). Jeremy asks about the octopus sashimi and nigiri. We are both shocked to learn “Nobody ever orders the octopus, so we almost never have it in house.” Very disappointing as this was one of the main reasons Jeremy suggested we give Maru a try.

Next Jeremy asks about a raw shrimp dish. Our waiter shakes his head confessing “I’m creeped out by it” explaining the bodies are served raw but the heads are tempura fried. He says people find the shrimp heads unsettling. I respond that we loved the deep fried whole shrimp we had in Barcelona and might like this dish. The waiter shakes his head again saying “And it take more than 20 minutes to make, I wouldn’t order it if I were you.” Given that the restaurant and patio are at less than 50% capacity and we are clearly not in a rush, this seems like an odd recommendation.

We place drink orders and scratch our heads for a bit. The Deep Fried Soft Shell Crab served with Maru Dressing sounds intriguing so we order it to start. We’ve never had soft shell crab and I enjoy it immensely. It’s sweet and crispy, more from the frying than the soft shell. The dressing is a nice addition, slightly spicy and sweet, but I like the crab on its own. The onion rings accompanying the crab are big and juicy, sweet onion slices in a light batter. Very nice.

Ever since Jenna Arcidiacono raved about Maru’s Sexy Bacon Roll on Facebook, I’ve been hankering for it. I owe Chef Jenna a big thank you as it does not disappoint. A gorgeous roll with smoky bacon, cucumber, perfectly steamed asparagus, crunchy tempura crab, shredded nori and two luscious sauces for dipping graces our table. It’s almost too pretty eat, but once I dig in it’s nearly impossible to stop.

Jeremy opts for the Ruby Cocktail Tuna Ceviche, another lovely dish with raw tuna, tomato, red onion, avocado fans, masago (bright orange capelin roe), and scallions piled on rice with greens and wonton chips. I go tostado-style, piling all the goodies on a wonton ship. It’s nothing short of fabulous.

For me, the great food overshadows our odd service experience. Next time we’ll go with friends who know more about sushi than us!

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